So there is this thing that we, as educators, have allowed to happen. This thing that we have decided is okay. This idea that we should allow parents to opt their kids out of reading or listening to books with LGBTQ characters in our schools and classrooms. We have offered this as an option. We have tolerated it as acceptable. We have said we will read these books, but if you have a problem with them then you can opt your child out of hearing or reading them. And I think it is something we need to stop.
I believe that parents who ask for the opportunity to opt their children out of reading books with LGBTQ characters, do so because they believe that they are protecting their own children. Protecting them from something the parents do not believe they are ready for, protecting them from something they do not agree with, or protecting them from something that they believe will do them some kind of harm. However, there is no proof that reading or listening to books that have LGBTQ people or characters in them will cause any kind of harm.
In fact, I have seen with my own eyes the way that children respond to books that have any kind of people in them that they might not have encountered before. And it is, far more often than not, a beautiful thing to watch. Kids ask questions, they listen to answers, they seek additional information and they take in that which makes sense to them. And they are better off because of it. They have a greater understanding of the world because of it. They are better equipped to encounter more people in this world from a place of empathy and understanding because of it. It is a gift. And yet, we allow students to be opted out of these experiences. These experiences that can make the world a better place because of the fears of parents and educators, fears that are not based on proof.
But here is what we do have proof of. Many of our LGBTQ youth are at risk. They are at risk of depression and anxiety and bullying and harassment and suicide. They are at risk of being exposed to homophobia and transphobia and a heteronormative world that can feel overwhelmingly against them. And we cannot opt them out of these experiences. That choice does not exist. It doesn’t matter that they are not ready for these experiences. It does not matter that these experiences will do so much more than make them slightly uncomfortable. It does not matter that these things can kill them. We cannot opt them out. Right now, in this world that we are living in, these things are inevitable. They are a truth that our children are facing.
In fact, my daughter was only three the first time she had to deal with a kid on the playground telling her that she couldn’t have two moms. I watched from a distance with tears welling in my eyes, wishing with all that I had in me that I could somehow opt her out of this experience. But I couldn’t. And there would be more after that. Times when I wanted to just wrap her up and sweep her away from this sometimes-cruel world. But I didn’t. I couldn’t. We can’t hide from that. So I had to teach her to walk through it. I had to marvel at her resilience and her strength as she dealt with it. As she continues to deal with it. As she always will.
Because the truth is, I know that I cannot erase hatred and bigotry and homophobia and transphobia from this world instantaneously. I know that my own daughter and my own students and kids around the world are facing those evil forces every single day. There is no opting out of that.
But here is what we can do. We can counter that hate with positive representations of LGBTQ people and communities in our classrooms and in our schools. We can make sure that for every ounce of hate our students might be hearing, they are hearing even more love and acceptance and they are being shown that they are worthy by the fact that we are bringing their full identities and selves into our classrooms through books and curriculum. And we know, we have proof, that this makes a difference.
But it works so much better if no one is allowed to opt out.
Because it is not just our Queer youth who benefit from these books being in our classrooms. All of our students gain an opportunity to better understand the world, to see the humans that they share this world with represented on the pages of the books they are being read and the books they are being given. When they read books with LGBTQ characters, they are being given a chance to learn how to develop empathy and how to understand lives that might be different than their own. They are being given a chance to figure things out with characters in a book before, perhaps, they are given the opportunity to engage with LGBTQ people in the actual world. So when they do, then, encounter people who are a part of the LGBTQ community, they do so with kindness and compassion and understanding. And we should not take that chance away from any child.
Because that is how we make the world a better place. We allow all students to see themselves reflected in positive ways and we allow all students a chance to develop empathy and understanding about others by seeing others reflected in positive ways. But it only works if we all opt in. And that is what I am asking for us to do.
And believe me. I get that it is not that easy. That we cannot just say no. I get it. But I do want us to push back. To ask questions. To ask, “What does that really look like?” Should your child be asked to leave the room any time we read a book with an LGBTQ character? What if we are reading a chapter book out loud, over time, with an LGBTQ character? Do they leave the room every day for months? What happens when a child spontaneously asks a question about someone who is transgender? Do we stop and ask your child to leave the room? And what happens when your child is in a classroom with another child or a teacher who is transgender or gay or a lesbian or Queer? How do you opt out of that? Does your child leave the room every time that other child or that educator wants to speak about who they are? About their identity? What does this opting out really look like? What kind of harm will that cause?
Because it is easy to say yes. To make the parent happy. To make the problem go away. To feel like we are still doing the right thing. But I am asking us to think about what this opting out really means. Because if we do. If we really sit with what that looks like, I do not think it is as simple as it might seem. And it shouldn’t be. Because lives are at stake. And there is just no opting out of that.