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.