This week I was engaged in a conversation about books with gay characters. Was there a grade that it was too young to ask students to read these books? Was it okay to assign a book to a child, essentially forcing them to read a book, if it had a gay character? Let me be clear, I was not talking to someone who thought there was any kind of problem with giving these books to kids. She was simply relaying to me a conversation that she had.
But it stuck with me.
Here is the thing. The school that I work at…it is wonderful. The teachers are open minded and the parents are beyond accepting. They are loving. They are wonderful. The have thrown me both a wedding shower and a baby shower and they have all been filled with so much love. I have been coming out to my students for several years now and, to my knowledge, there has never been one complaint. My wife, Carla, is a frequent visitor to my school. My students have met her. My daughter, Millie, is a celebrated member of our classroom community. My school is wonderful. I am filled with gratitude every single day for the open arms that I have found in my school community.
And with all of that being true, we still worry about asking children to read books with gay characters. Few teachers read picture books to their students that have gay characters in them. Few teachers feel comfortable discussing any issue related to gay rights or family diversity because they don’t want to offend or they worry the kids won’t understand or they worry the kids are too young.
But what I cannot understand is this…What does that me for me and my family? Should I not introduce my family to children below a certain age because they might not understand a family with two moms? Should I not talk about my life with children below a certain age because those young children might then turn to their parents to help them understand a family that is different than their own? Should I not have pictures of my family on my desk because a child might ask his or her teacher why I am married to a girl? Should I continue to hide from children who might have questions because it might make the adults around them uncomfortable?
And if the answer to these questions is no (which I fully recognize for some people is not the case, but those are not the people that I am wondering about) then why should I hide books from children under a certain age because there might be a character in those books who is gay?
One of things that I delight in teaching my students is that books allow us to learn about people whose lives are unthinkably different than our own. This, in turn, allows us to develop empathy for a person who is different than us, which, in turn, will allow us to treat people with more kindness because we are coming from a place of better understanding. It is this idea that makes reading something that can not just make us better students, but better human beings.
But, if we hide the books from our children that have characters who are gay in them, then we are denying our children the opportunity to develop empathy and understanding of people who are gay. We can continue to pretend that gay people don’t exist, but it is not going to do our children any good when they eventually meet someone who is gay or are in a classroom with a child who has gay parents.
For Millie’s sake, I hope that her future classmates are in classrooms where books with gay characters are read and shared and discussed. And if questions come up, I hope that there are adults who realize it is their job to answer those questions. For Millie’s sake, I hope that she never, ever has to feel like a book is being deemed inappropriate for no other reason than because there is a family like hers in it.
There is no age that is too young to meet my family. There is no age that is too young to meet a character, in a book, who is gay or who has gay family members. Even the youngest of children can understand that families look different and that while he might be used to seeing families with one mom and one dad, there are some families that have two moms or two dads. There is nothing inappropriate about that. There is nothing inappropriate about who my family is. There is nothing inappropriate about who I am.
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What a powerful post, and I will admit, I don’t know if I have a single book that would represent your family in my classroom library. You have led me to question what else I am missing!
Thank you for your very kind words. To be honest, before I became a mom, I never really thought much about the books I had in my own classroom library (in terms of who was represented in them). It was only when I started to imagine Millie reading books and not seeing our family represented, that I really started to think about who was being represented in the books that I read to my students. Questioning the books we choose to put into our libraries is such a HUGE first step. I can’t tell you what it means to know others are thinking about it as well!
I also struggle with this, teaching in a conservative district. Food for thought.
Thank you so much for leaving your thoughts. It is so hard to push the boundaries when we are fearful of how our communities will react. As a gay teacher, it is even harder. When no one else around me is reading books to their kids with gay characters, I am constantly worried that I will be called out for “pushing an agenda.” It is scary AND I have to say that every single time I read a new book with my students that has a gay character, I wait for the phone to ring with a complaint. It hasn’t happened yet. I am lucky. I used to let my fear of people’s reactions stop me from reading the books, and from being out with my students. I had to make the choice to stop living that way. It is infinitely harder when you teach in a conservative district. But you are thinking about it and questioning it and that counts for so very much.
On a related note, my school district’s emergency card (all families return one per student every fall) still request “Father’s Name” and “Mother’s Name,” along with their contact information. I questioned that format, given that we have had several two mom or two dad families over the years, and was told, “Well, that’s not very common.” Wouldn’t it be more welcoming to just request information for “Parent 1” and “Parent 2” so that everyone feels welcome? I can’t think how that would be upsetting to anyone.
Thank you so very much for making that suggestion to your school. My daughter is only 18 months old and I can’t tell you how many times we have already had to cross out father and write in mother on a form. At our first pediatrician’s appointment, the receptionist said, “I don’t know what to do with your names since our computers only allow one name on the line of mother.” It is getting better, but there is still a long way to go. Thank you for helping to push those boundaries so that my daughter doesn’t have to feel like her family doesn’t fit in to the world around her.
I never thought about the contact information form being exclusive rather than inclusive. I think this is an important point that many of us could bring up to our school districts. Such a simple thing to change but one that would mean a lot to many.
Heartfelt post. I work in an independent school (private school) where members of our teaching and parent communities have same sex marriages. Children are viewed as children and households are just varied.
That’s so beautiful. It warms my heart to know that some places already really “get it.”
Powerful read. Thank you so much for sharing it. I noticed that when I worked at a K-8 school, they didn’t have any books with LGBT characters. When I pointed it out, they mentioned “discomfort.” Because, you know, literature is all about comfort.
I just finished reading “From the Dress Up Corner to the Senior Prom” by Jennifer Bryan, PhD, and she picks up many of the strands you mention in this piece. It is unfortunate how heteronormative biases continue to shape our assumptions about what is best for young children. Thanks for speaking out.
And what a lovely family you are! I am a preschool teacher, age 5, and my one little guy can’t figure out why I don’t have a boyfriend. Apparently “single and happy” is not an option in his young life. I always enjoy your posts – have a great summer!
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Hi Jess! Thank you for this. And for your wonderful blog, overall!
I am student teaching in a fantastic 5th grade classroom. I am a queer woman with a girlfriend. I feel like people might react one way to the idea of a queer family, but might view me sharing about my girlfriend as inappropriate?
Literally, in between typing this, a student complimented my earrings, which belong to my girlfriend. I didn’t tell her–just thanked her for the compliment… which is fine, but also feels like I’m keeping a tiny secret.
Yesterday I did tell a student that my girlfriend loved heavy metal music like she did. She said, “you have a girlfriend?” and then “cool. My doctor has a wife.”
Felt compelled to share… felt grateful for you post.