Yesterday I was driving home from my sister’s house with my daughter in the backseat blabbering away about some nonsensical thing and all of a sudden I noticed a rather large rainbow flag hung on the outside of one of our local synagogues. I did a double take. Was there really such a large symbol of gay pride and gay love and gay acceptance hanging on the outside of a religious institution? I slowed the car, turned around and did a second drive by. And sure enough, there it was. A rainbow flag.
I stopped for a moment and then at the insistence of the two year old in my backseat, I continued on towards home. But that image stuck with me throughout the rest of the day, far into the night and it is still strong in my mind today. That image said so much to me.
You see, in places where LGBT people have previously felt unwelcome and unsafe, there is often still the assumption on our part that silence or a lack of recognition means that we should still feel unwelcome and unsafe. Unfortunately, there are perhaps few places in this country that have been more unwelcoming and unsafe for LGBT people than religious institutions. We, as gay people, have been stared at in synagogues, kicked out of churches, told from pulpits of all faiths that we are going to hell, counseled into making “the choice” not to be gay so that we could live a life without sin, and largely made to feel as if we are less than and unworthy and immoral. And I know that there are exceptions. Of course there are exception. But the overwhelming and very public narrative coming from religious institutions in the past has been mostly unkind towards who we are.
So now, if things are really changing, that is an amazing thing. But we, we aren’t that trusting. We have been hurt and shamed and embarrassed and it takes a while to work our way back from that. Even with the incredible Supreme Court decision of this summer. So a public symbol like a rainbow flag goes a really long way in sending a different message, in proving that the narrative is changing. A rainbow flag, anywhere, tells me that we are safe here. We are welcome here. We are accepted here. Even if I am not always ready to believe that.
And that makes me think about our schools.
I think that a lot of LGBT people, in the past, have felt similarly about schools as they have about religious institutions. And though I hate to admit it, I think that many LGBT people today continue to feel that way about schools. They feel as if they are unsafe. They feel as if they are unwelcome there. They feel as if they cannot be who they really are within the walls of their school buildings.
And it is certainly not just LGBT people who feel this way. There are so many people who have been marginalized within our school systems. There are so many groups of people who have been made to feel unworthy and undervalued and misunderstood within our schools. There are so many people who look at a school building and think, “This is not a place for me. I am not welcome here. Who I am is not celebrated in this institution.”
And because there have been so many bad previous experiences for so many people, we, as teachers, must go out of our way to change the narrative. We must go out of our way to send new messages of love and acceptance to students, their families, and to the other teacher with whom we work. We have to find ways to say, “You are welcome here. You belong here. This is a place where you will be loved and celebrated.”
And I don’t think that rainbow flags are the answer. I don’t think that every classroom in America needs a rainbow flag hung outside the door. Because A) That would just get ridiculous and B) This goes way beyond just LGBT people.
So instead. I think we look to books.
I think books can be the rainbow flags of our classrooms.
Because I think that having books, the right kinds of books, can send new messages to kids and teachers and families who really need to hear them.
I imagine a child who is transgender walking into his new classroom on the first day of school and seeing the book Jacob’s New Dress prominently displayed on the bookshelf right alongside all of the other books. That child automatically receives the message, “You are welcome here. You belong here. This is a place where you will be loved and celebrated.”
And I imagine another child who has two moms walking into that same classroom and seeing the book In Our Mothers’ House. And another child who is adopted from China seeing the book Red Butterfly. And another child who is African American and whose life revolves around basketball seeing the book The Crossover. And another child from India seeing the book Chained. They see those books and they instantly know that this is a safe place. This is a place they are welcome. This is a place they will be loved and celebrated.
Our books have the power to send those messages to our students. To their families. To our fellow teachers.
And in this way, our bookshelves can become a place of hundreds of different flags celebrating hundreds of different kinds of people. Our bookshelves can become a beacon of hope for children who have never before felt safe or welcome or accepted in school. Our bookshelves can become a place where children see themselves and learn about others. Our bookshelves can become a place where every person who walks into our classroom can see that he or she is welcome here. Safe here. And will be celebrated here.