FullSizeRender (19)

In Spite of Hate, or Perhaps Because of it, We Read On

In spite of hate, or perhaps because of it, we read on.

Last week, I had the absolute pleasure of sharing a post and a piece of my heart on the Nerdy Book Club blog.  The post was about the upcoming HRC day of action on Thursday, April 28th. On this day, HRC is asking people across the country to hold community readings of Jazz Jenning’s beautiful picture book I am Jazz in order to show support for transgender youth.

I was incredibly proud to be a part of this beautiful blog and I was proud to share a message on the importance, especially right now, of reading books with transgender characters. As I went to share the post again a few nights ago, I was met with several extremely hateful responses. Not responses from people who were respectfully disagreeing with the actions I was proposing. Not responses from people who were pointing out alternative view points. But responses filled with hate. Pure and venomous hatred.

And I sat with that hate, I imagined a child hearing those words. I sat with that hate and realized that I know so little of what a person who is transgender must experience during a lifetime. I sat with that hate and at first I wanted to hide from it. Ignore it. Block it.

But then I thought about someone who saw those hateful messages and then looked to see the responses and saw none. Now I know that when people choose not to engage with hate on the internet, it is a powerful choice in some ways. Choosing to be the bigger person, to not engage in nonsense, to know that you are not going to change the minds and hearts of people set on hatred. I understand all of those reasons and fully support them.

But for me, when I saw those messages of hate, I eventually realized that I had to respond. Because I wanted any child, or any other human, who saw the hate expressed, to also see the love and acceptance that exists in this world that I believe will one day win out. I did not want anyone to see that this hate was met with silence because there is far too much silence these days.

In so many ways, it is not the small, vocal hateful minority that exists in this world that scares me the most. What scares me more is the much larger, kind-hearted majority that often choose to sit silently by. This group of people is more frightening to me because they are the ones who allow the hate to continue.

When enough of the people who are a part of the kind-hearted majority make the choice to stand up and speak up, then those who preach hate will finally be silenced. However, when the kind-hearted majority chooses to remain silent, that is when those who speak hate are allowed to do the things that are most frightening to me.

And so I chose to not stay silent.

And what I will remember most about my brief encounter with hate on the internet is how many people around me also chose to not stay silent. People quickly saw the messages that I was receiving and they were there. They were there in a big way. They spoke up. They stood up. They defended me. But more importantly, they defended the children that this hate was really directed to.

And while I wish that I did not have to see, up close, the online ugliness that exists, I am also grateful for the reminders of the hate. Because they served as a reminder of why we must do what we are doing.

It is easy to hide ourselves from hate. It is ugly and it is unsettling and it is upsetting. But it is there. Hiding from it, pretending it doesn’t exist, only celebrating the progress while ignoring that which still needs to be done, that does us no good. Because that is how we slip back into a world where hateful legislation passes through congress and people continue to be attacked for being who they are.

So we have a choice. We remain silent or we speak up. We remain a part of the problem or we work, every single day, to try and make the world a better place by using our voices to combat hate. We speak up when we see or hear hatred. Not because we believe we are going to change the minds of those who are filled with hate who are doing the speaking, but because we want those who are being hurt by the hate to know that we are with them. That we will fight alongside them. That we do not agree nor do we accept hatred. That we will send messages of love and acceptance every time we see one filled with hate and ignorance.

For any child who has to hear a hateful comment in their lifetime, I hope that they will hear ten times as many comments filled with love and acceptance. But that will ONLY happen if we choose to not stay silent.

So next Thursday, April 28th, I will read I am Jazz to both of my fifth grade classes. I will read it, just like I had always planned to do, but I will read it with even more urgency than I had before. I will read it as a way to model for my students what it looks like to choose not to stay silent in the face of hatred. I will read it as a way to show my students the power of hearing stories from the lives of other people. I will read it as a way to help make sure that my students will not grow up one day to be the speakers of hate, but instead be the ones who will speak messages of love and acceptance.  I will read it to show my students that even when people use hate and intimidation to try to stop us from doing what is right, we still have the choice to let our hearts guide us instead of our fear. I will read it to demonstrate to my students that one of the ways we have to fight back against the hatred in this world is through our books.

So in spite of the hate. Or perhaps because of it. We will read on.

And I do hope that others will join me.

To find out more about HRC’s day of action, just visit their website HERE.

 

 

 

12512655_10100985735165652_4512859388469611221_n

Driving Across North Carolina, Luckily Knowing We Were Only Passing Through

Two weeks ago, my wife and I drove with our three-year-old daughter from our home near Chicago to Myrtle Beach, South Carolina.

For most of the drive, one of my my biggest worries was the said three-year-old daughter and the likeliness that at any moment it was possible for her to turn into something resembling a monster should the conditions warrant such a transformation.

For most of the drive, one of my biggest worries was where we could stop for a bathroom break since my daughter’s idea of giving us advanced warning of her need for a bathroom involves approximately thirty-five seconds before it is too late.

For most of the drive, one of my biggest worries was what podcast we could listen to in order to stay entertained ourselves without exposing our daughter to anything too intense.

For most of the drive my worries included: How much battery was left on the iPad my daughter was clutching in the backseat. How easily accessible the car snacks were. What I would do if I needed a bathroom break, myself, after my daughter had just fallen asleep.

These are the worries that consume any family while driving halfway across the country with a toddler.

And then we began to near the border of North Carolina. North Carolina who had just passed the hateful anti-LGBT legislation known as HB2. The bill had been passed just days before we began our drive to South Carolina and for many of those days, it was a thought it my head. It was there amongst the thoughts of the beach, of the packing, of the car snacks, of the ocean, of the time with my precious family. It was there in a way that gave me pause and led my wife and I to discuss, “What are we going to do when we get to North Carolina?”

Because, as a lesbian-headed family, we knew that while the worst parts of this law made the lives of any person who is transgender and living in North Carolina much more difficult, it was also a law that sent the message loud and clear that people like us are not welcome in the state of North Carolina.We are not protected there.  It sent the message that the legislature of North Carolina would move heaven and earth to guarantee and to make it clear that there would be no legal protections that would stop their citizens from discriminating agains those of us who are LGBT. It sent the message that this was not a state where we could be who we are and know that we would still be granted equal rights and protections.

And that does something to a person.

Knowing that if we walked into a store as a family, we could be turned away for being gay and there was nothing we could do about it. That does something to a person.

Knowing that a person’s “religious freedom” to hate was more important than our civil freedom to be who we are and still feel safe and protected. That does something to a person.

Knowing that when we gave our money to any business in North Carolina, that we would be giving our money, in part, to support a government that passes laws filled with hatred that stopped people just like us from feeling safe. That does something to a person.

Knowing that our own child, our three-year-old child, could potentially witness her moms being told that they could not shop or eat or drink in any given place because of who they are. That. Does. Something. To. A. Person.

Now I am not saying that I truly believed that any of those things would have happened to us in the few hours we were going to be in the state. But that is not the point. That is not the point. The point is that those things COULD have happened. They would have been allowed to happen. They would have been one-hundred-percent legal. That is the point.

So it does not matter that things today are different. It does not matter that most people would rather have our business than turn away our money. It does not matter that it is not likely that we would have encountered someone who would have told us how much they hate us and who we are and then refuse us service. The point is that now it CAN happen. Now everyone knows that their hatred is allowed. Their discrimination is allowed. Their intolerance is allowed and protected while our right to be who we are. It is not.

I don’t want to have to explain that to my kid.

So a few miles outside of North Carolina, we stopped. Though it was ten o’clock at night, we got our toddler out of the car and had her go to the bathroom. Though it was dark outside, we made sure that we had a full tank of gas. Though it was late, we made sure that we had snacks and water and plenty of battery left on the iPad. And then we started driving and vowed not to stop until we were outside of North Carolina and its protections for hatred.

And when we crossed the state line into North Carolina. We felt it. We took a deep breath and we just hoped for it to be over soon. And we drove. Probably a bit more quickly than we should have. But we drove, knowing that, luckily, we were only passing through.

And as we drove. It started to hit me. We were lucky. This was just a state we had to cross while headed to our final vacation destination. What about all those people whose lives are here? What about the children who are transgender who are growing up here? What about the gay and lesbian families who have to explain these things to their own children because they don’t have the convenience of simply stocking up on snacks and drinks and gas and driving faster than they should so that they can avoid this state all together? What about the LGBT youth who have watched their own home state pass legislation that they know will make their own lives more difficult?

What about them?

How did we let this happen to them?

And once or twice, as we drove across that state, those thoughts were enough to bring tears to my eyes. Because I feel like we have let so many people down. And, yes, it is inspiring to see all those who have come out and spoken up against this new law. It is inspiring to see the businesses and rockstars and sports stars who are taking a stand. But none of that erases the fact that this happened in the first place. None of that takes away the pain that is in the hearts of so many in this state. None of that changes the fact that this law is still here and this hatred is still allowed. Allowed and protected.

When we were two-thirds of the way through North Carolina, our toddler woke up and told us she had to go to the bathroom. So my wife pulled into a gas station and I took our daughter inside to go to the bathroom.  As we were walking towards the back of the gas station, my daughter noticed one of those ever-appealing claw machine games. She desperately wanted to stop. I calmly told her no. Well, it was more like I found a way to tell her, “There is no way in hell you are playing that claw machine game,” but without using so many words. She was devastated. But we carried on. We finished in the bathroom and on the way back to the car, she stopped just to watch an older girl playing the claw machine game. I let her watch for a moment. When the girl who was playing managed to actually grab a small, orange giraffe, both she and my daughter cheered in excitement.  The girl who was playing the game happily reached into the machine, pulled out the giraffe and right away gave it to my daughter.

And in that moment. My anger subsided. In that moment I remembered that though North Carolina feels so hateful to me, there are people there with hearts that are good. There are people there who are not filled with hate. There are people there who will give their small, orange giraffes to a sleepy toddler no matter who her parents are. And someday, who knows, maybe those are the people that will win.

As we got back in the car, I watched my daughter wave at her new friend until she couldn’t see her any more.  I listened as she told my wife the story.  And I couldn’t help but cry a little when I heard my daughter say, “That was so nice of her. There are nice people here.”

Because there is a lot about this world that my child doesn’t understand yet. And I am dreading the day when I have to explain some of those things to her. But my three year old does understand what kindness looks like and somehow she managed to find a bit of kindness in the one state that I had been dreading. And I guess that is no small thing.

So we kept on driving. And we made it through just fine. And we had one of the most wonderful vacations. On the way back home we did it all over again. Our tiny, one-car protest of a state that allowed a piece of hateful legislation to pass.

And I don’t know exactly what to do to make any of this feel better. But I hope that sharing what it was like. To exist in that kind of hatred for just a few hours of our lives. Maybe that is the best I can do for now.

 

 

 

IMG_8362

This Cannot Be The Solution

Explaining what it means to be gay is so easy that a two year old could do it. Literally. I’ve seen my own kid do it.

My wife and I and our two and a half year old, Millie, were at the park one evening. As kids so beautifully do, my daughter made friends with another little boy who was at the park with his dad and his brother. They ran all over that park. After a while, they had worn themselves out so the two of them sat down on a bench together. My wife and I stood nearby, far enough so that we didn’t appear to be the smothering, hovering types of parents that inside we were dying to be, but close enough that we could still hear what these two were discussing.

I can’t exactly say that the exchange between the two kids qualified as a discussion, but at some point Millie pointed to my wife and I and said, “That’s my family.” And the little boy then pointed to his own father and brother and said, “That’s my family. That’s my brother and my daddy. Where’s your daddy?” While my wife and I were ready to swoop in and make the potential discomfort go away, Millie didn’t skip a beat. She simply replied, “I don’t have a daddy. I have a Mommy and a Mama.” And that was it. The boy sort of nodded his head and then they ran off to dig in the dirt.

And in that moment. I was reminded. We adults. We have messed things up big time. We have taken something that could be explained quite simply, as my toddle has now proven, and we have turned it in to something that resembles a bit of a mess. We have taken something simple and we have made it political. We have made it controversial. We have made it uncomfortable.

And no where is this clearer to me than in the discussion that surrounds using books with LGBT characters in the classroom. Every so often another story makes it into the news that a school has had some controversy surrounding the use or mere presence of a book with LGBT characters in a classroom or in the school library. Usually this is somehow connected to younger children. And usually one of the loudest arguments is that parents do not believe that they should have to explain what it means to be gay to their young children. That this will be too confusing for their child. That this will mean they will have to talk about sex with their first grader. That this will open too many dangerous doors. That this will somehow harm their child and destroy their child’s innocence.

To those who are making this argument, I would like to offer my two year old daughter to help you out. Seriously. Have your child call my child and she will quickly explain what it means to have gay parents. If your child has been exposed to the book And Tango Makes Three or the book In Our Mothers’ House and is simply perplexed by the existence of a family with two moms or two dads, then just have your kid give my kid a call and she will help you out.

I don’t mean to sound snarky (though of course I really do) but I honestly am just enraged by this argument. As I have written before, if you do not want to be bothered to explain that there are different kinds of people in this world and different kinds of families in this world then what would you like me to do about my family? Should I honestly hide myself from you and your child so that your child doesn’t ask you any questions? Should I tell my daughter to lie about who her family is so that she doesn’t accidentally make you uncomfortable?

I have tried to write about this without getting overly emotional, without sounding angry. But I just can’t. I understand that people will read this and think that of course I feel this way. I am biased. I am gay. Of course I want their to be books about people like me in the classroom. I am only seeing one side of this argument. And yes, of course that is true. But I also think there is cause for discussion here.

We now live in a country where gay marriage is legal in every single state. We now live in a time when more and more gay and lesbian couples are having children. We now live in a country where more likely than not, every single child growing up today will one day come into contact with a gay or lesbian or transgender person. And when that time does come, when that moment arrives, I would hope that these children will not be surprised to discover that LGBT people do, in fact, exist.

What an incredible opportunity for each child to first meet LGBT people through the pages of a picture book. Just like many of our children first meet someone with a disability or someone of a different race or someone from a different country within the safety of the pages of a picture book, so too can they now meet people who are LGBT in the same manner. However, they can only happen if we allow our children access to these books. These books that now exist. These books that are now being written. These books that are now being published. We must do our part to put them into the hands of children.

A few months ago, I was engaged in several discussions about the book George, which tells the story of George who was born a boy but has always felt that she is really a girl. More recently, I have been reading stories of a school in Michigan who decided not to allow the newest Captain Underpants to be sold at their in-school book fair because one of the main characters is revealed to be gay. In both of these discussions people arrive at what they believe is a compromise. What they believe is a solution. And it always involves parent permission.  Because it seems wrong to ban these books all together, schools are willing to allow these books, or others just like them, to exist but in some sort of special section. And students can only have access to these books if they have a parent’s permission.

It seems like that is no big deal. It seems like that is a solution that will make everyone happy. It seems that this is a solution. But I truly believe, with my whole heart, that this cannot be the solution.

I think about the message that this sends to any child who is gay, any child who is transgender, any child who has gay or lesbian or transgender parents. And that message is not okay. It is not okay to tell children, through the actions that we take, that who they are or who their family is will not be okay for any child to read about. It is not okay to tell children that who they are belongs in a separate section of the library. It is not okay to tell a child that their family cannot be read about in the same way that all other families are read about. It is not okay to send the message that who a child is not only makes them different but it also makes them unsuitable for a picture book.

I imagine my own child coming home one day and telling us that she could not check out a book from her school’s library that was about a family just like ours until we signed a permission slip for her. I imagine her holding out that permission slip and I imagine my own heart breaking.

I imagine a child who has felt different his entire life finally finding a book, like George, that tells the story of exactly who he is and then finding out that he cannot check that book out until his parents sign a form telling the school that it is okay for him to read it. Before he ever gets a chance to find out if his own parents would accept him or not, he is sent the message that some parents wouldn’t want their children knowing that people like him exist in this world.

I imagine an older child who is scared to death of her parents finding out that she might be gay. I imagine her relief in discovering online that there is a book, like The Miseducation of Cameron Post, that is written with a character just like her who has to navigate through the world feeling uncertain of whether or not her family will accept her once they find out who she really is. I imagine that child so excited to get advice and wisdom and solace from this book and then finding out that in order to check this book out from her school’s library she has to have her parents, the very ones she is terrified of, sign a piece of paper before she is allowed to read the book.

I imagine these children finding themselves so close to the very books that could save their lives or save their hearts and then finding out that they cannot read them.  That these books are different than all others. That these books require adult permission.

And I imagine all the other children. The children who simply want a chance to learn about others who are different from them. The children who have heard people saying negative things about people who are gay and wanting to simply learn more about what that even means. The children who have heard jokes about Caitlyn Jenner and simply want to better understand what someone like Caitlyn Jenner might be experiencing. All of these children who are simply looking to learn from the pages of a book, to build empathy for others, to discover what it is like to be someone so very different than themselves. All of these children who are searching for these books, but not finding them because they have been pulled and put on a separate shelf, or behind the checkout counter, or on a different bookcase behind the teacher’s desk. These children also deserve these books and deserve a chance to meet these characters and better understand their lives.

I am certainly not saying that every book written with an LGBT character is appropriate for every age of students. I would never book The Miseducation of Cameron Post on the shelves of my 5th grade classroom library. The book is not appropriate for fifth graders but not  BECAUSE of the existence of an LGBT character. And I suppose that is what I am asking. Do not count out a book simply because of the presence of an LGBT character. That character alone cannot make a book inappropriate. That character alone is not justification to seek parental approval.  That character alone is not reason to put the book in a separate section.

And I am not speaking to the teachers who do not love and accept LGBT people in general. I am not speaking to those who themselves believe that being gay is a sin. I am not speaking to those teachers and librarians and administrators who are still hoping that gay marriage will once again be illegal. I am talking to all the rest of us. Those who support and love LGBT people and students and parents. Those who wish for a world where all LGBT students and teachers feel safe being who they are in our schools. Those who tell me they are happy for me and for my family and for my daughter. Those who tell me I am brave for coming out.

You are the ones who have the chance to really make a change. Because I am only brave if I am doing what I do on my own. If I am standing up all by myself. If I am not surrounded by others who are also reading books with LGBT characters and also suggesting books with LGBT characters and putting those books into the hands of our students. Then yes, I suppose what I am doing is brave. Because doing anything on your own is a scary thing and a brave thing. But it doesn’t have to be that way. We can all decide to make these books available for our students. We can all help our students to read these books and understand these books and these lives. We can all start to make our schools and our world safer for LGBT students and parents and people.

I like to think that despite the continued news stories. Despite the continued controversy. Despite the continued outrage. That one day, we can learn something from my two year old. One day we can see that answering a child’s questions about someone who is gay is not as hard as we have made it seem. And, in fact, it just might be the very thing that we need in order to create a world where books about all sorts of people can exist together on the bookshelves in our schools and in our classrooms.

What Being Gay Has Taught Me About White Privilege

So here are some things that straight people might not know:

Even though gay marriage is now legal across the country, I am still afraid to hold my wife’s hand in many public places.

When I was planning my wedding, instead of simply being able to enjoy the chaos of planning a wedding, I got nervous every time I met with a new vendor for the moment they would assume I was marrying a man and I would have to correct them.

I am terrified of the first time that my daughter sees a “God Hates Fags” sign and I will have to explain to her what that means.

When my family and I are staying in certain places, I always check in to hotels by myself because I look “less gay” than my wife does and we never know if we are really going to be welcome or not.

Every single year that I have to come out to a new group of students, I get dry mouth and worry that this is the time that someone is going to call and complain about it.

Whenever I write something about being gay, I am worried that one of the comments that is going to be left is going to be filled with hate.

I have waited for election results knowing that the winning candidate would determine whether or not my family got to be considered a family in the eyes of the law.

When people are rude to my family, I always wonder if it is because the person is just a jerk or because the person is a jerk who has a problem with gay people.

I worry, all the time, that people are going to one day tell my daughter that her moms are going to hell.

This is my reality.

And one of the things that is hardest for me is when I try to discuss my reality with people who are straight and they automatically begin to reassure me that the world isn’t really that bad.  When I tell people how hard it was to come out as a gay educator, they often ask me if I really thought anyone was going to have a problem with it.  When I tell people about my fears of holding hands with my wife in public, they often tell me how many friends of theirs show support for gay people on Facebook.  When I tell people about my fears of what my daughter is going to have to encounter in her life time, they often tell me what a good time in history it is to be gay and how much better things are today than they used to be.

And I know these people have the best of intentions. But what they don’t see is that by trying to reassure me about how good the world really is, they are denying me the experiences that I have had that have shaped the perceptions that I hold of the world.  By trying to tell me that it really isn’t that bad, they are trying to erase my feelings and my story and make it all just a bit more comfortable for me and perhaps even for themselves.

Except it isn’t comfortable. Hate never is. And it shouldn’t be. The discomfort is what should propel us to move forward and to keep fighting.

When I tell people what it is like to be gay, to be a gay educator, to by a gay mother, what I need most from them is for them to listen.  I am comforted when people respond by saying, “I had no idea.” I feel supported when people tell me, “I can’t even imagine that.” I find such solace when people say to me, “That sucks.” Because that shows me that they are not trying to deny me my truth. It shows me that they are learning from my story and it is going to motivate them to try to do better. It shows me that they are not going to try to argue with me that homophobia still exists. They are going to listen to my story and learn about the things that are still broken in this world so that they can try to help to fix them.

And all of this. All of this in my own life has started to shed a bit of light for me on the idea of white privilege.  Ever since Ferguson, I have been working to understand all of the things that I didn’t even know that I didn’t understand.  My idea of where we are in terms of race in this country was so wrong. Not wrong because I didn’t care. Not wrong because I didn’t want to do better. Not wrong because I am an awful person. Wrong because I have the privilege of not having to think about race in my daily life.

Just like a straight person doesn’t think twice before holding the hand of the person they love, I, as a white person, don’t think twice before walking into a store about how I will be perceived because of the color of my skin.

The not having to think about it. The not realizing how much others HAVE to think about it.  That is privilege.

And the only way that I have been able to start to understand my own privilege is by listening, really listening, to the stories of others who DON’T have that same privilege.  By hearing those stories, I am better able to understand the things that are broken in this world.

And when I hear these stories, I have to be careful that my first instinct isn’t to comfort, isn’t to reassure that things aren’t really that bad, isn’t to make it clear that I am not a racist and so I couldn’t be a part of the problem. Because all of those instincts that I have. They are wrong. They simply erase the experiences of the person telling the story.  Yes, I like to fix things. Yes, I like to make people feel better.  But by doing that I am sometimes just making the problem worse. Because denying that the problem exists is not a way to make things better.

So I am recommitting myself to listening. To seeking out the stories of those who have to think about race every day.  To listening and honoring the experiences that others are willing to share with me.

And then.

I want to bring those stories to my students. I want them to begin to understand the things that no one ever helped me to understand because we were too busy spreading the message that skin color doesn’t matter.

I want to seek out lesson plans that are written by others who know more than I do so that I can bring more than just my own experiences of privilege into the classroom.

I want to teach my students to listen to the stories of others and use those stories to see what is wrong in our world that needs to be fixed.

I want to help my students to see that race DOES matter and I want to help them to see all of the ways that they are sent messages on race that affect their perceptions of the people they encounter in this world.

I want to read more and listen more and search for more.

And along the way, I know that I will mess up. That I will say the wrong thing. That someone will tell me that what I have said has hurt them. And I want to make sure that I do not see that as an attack, but as a way for me to do better in the future.

Because these conversations. They won’t be comfortable. They shouldn’t be comfortable. The discomfort is what will remind us of all the work that still has to be done.  But in the discomfort there is growth. And that growth is the only thing that is ever going to make any of this any better.

Today

Today.

There are so many people fighting for justice.

On the streets of Baltimore and inside the walls of the United States Supreme Court building. Today was a monumental day for the demand of justice. People screaming just to be heard. People displaying their suffering and anguish before justices and before millions of juries of their peers. People begging to be treated equally, fairly, decently. People demanding simply to be allowed to survive.

And it all makes me wonder. Why isn’t this a subject we teach in school? Starting with our very youngest students, why don’t we teach them more. Why don’t we teach them not just to recognize when their own rights are being denied, but how to recognize when the rights of others are being denied as well? Why don’t we teach them how not to turn the other way when they see the suffering of other human beings? Why don’t we teach them how to use their voices and their privilege to demand justice for others and for themselves?

I like to think that the students sitting in front of us today will be better able to hear demands for justice. I like to think that America is going to wake up a little bit and start to work towards real change. I like to think that the world is becoming a better place. And I am also not naive. I see the people who are standing outside of the Supreme Court building praying for my soul and praying for my child not to be harmed by her two mothers. I see the people watching the protests in Baltimore who can see nothing more than out of control teenagers. I see the hate that courses through the veins of this country. I get that it is there and so very prevalent.

It’s just that I also HAVE to leave room for hope. I couldn’t really stand to live in this world if I didn’t. So I find hope in the children sitting right next to me in my classroom. And I find hope in my fellow educators who know that we could be doing so. much. more. And I believe that when we start to work more lessons of justice into our classrooms, then we will start to have the kinds of conversations that will truly change hearts and minds and one day even start to change this country.

For now. I am thinking so much of those demanding justice in Baltimore. And I am thinking so much of those brave souls who stood in front of the justices today and told their stories. And I am thinking of the lawyers who have given up so many hours of their own lives in order to fight for the betterment of other people’s lives and for the betterment of this country. I am thinking so much of those fighting for justice in every corner of this country and of this world. Because.

This day.

Today.

There are so many people fighting for justice.

Bruce Jenner Isn’t a Teacher, But We Are

Like so many others, I sat riveted on Friday night as I watched Diane Swayer guide Bruce Jenner through the telling of Bruce’s story.  Like so many others, I began watching as a somewhat skeptical spectator. And, I hope, like many others, by the end of the interview I had found that Bruce Jenner had won a very special place in my heart. A place reserved for those who display vast amounts of bravery, those who make themselves vulnerable, those who share their truth with the world and those who, by being themselves, truly make the world a better place.

The thing is, Bruce Jenner’s interview alone will not change the world.  It won’t even come close. Bruce is simply one human who is trying to live an authentic life, who is trying to live honestly and who is trying to be the one who is in control of Bruce’s own story.  By telling Bruce’s own story, Bruce is able to reclaim a truth and continue living an authentic life.

However, there is certainly an opportunity for more. There is a chance for much more to come from this interview. But that is not Bruce’s responsibility, that is up to the rest of us.

Because on Monday morning, our students will be talking about the Bruce Jenner interview. Not all of them certainly, but some of them. And at some point we, their teachers, will overhear one of these conversations. And then we have a choice to make.  Either we ignore the conversation and allow the students to continue to speak of Bruce in whatever manner they happen to have heard on the bus or outside of our classroom or we make the decision to intervene. Either we shush the conversations in hopes that it will all just go away or we make the decision to do our job and educate our students.  Either we ask the students not to talk about Bruce Jenner because it is not appropriate for school or we make the choice to send the message that a person’s life and a person’s truth will ALWAYS be appropriate for school because we are in the business of valuing the stories of others and looking for what we can learn from each story in order to make us better people and the world a better place.

I worry that too many teachers will choose to ignore and shush and quiet. I worry that too many teachers have been doing all of those things for too long and are too scared now to make a change. I worry that too many teachers will worry about the parents they might upset instead of focusing on the children’s lives they could be changing right inside of their own classrooms. I worry that too many teachers won’t know exactly what to say so they will choose to say nothing at all.

I worry about these things because I have done them all myself. I have been uncomfortable engaging in conversations about those we are transgender. I have been unsure of exactly what to say. I have been nervous about how parents and students will react. I have not known if this was a conversation that I was qualified to have and so I have chosen not to have it. I have felt as if all of the issues surrounding people who are transgender have been kept quiet and so I was not sure that it was okay for me to bring them up.

But that is the amazing gift that Bruce Jenner has given us. That is the gift that Jazz Jennings and Laverne Cox and Janet Mock and so many others have given us. They have made themselves vulnerable, they have opened themselves up for attack, they have made themselves un-silent so that we can share their stories. Because things are always, always, always easier to understand and harder to make fun of when faces of real people are attached to them. Issues are always easier to digest when we can look at them through the lens of someone’s life. And if the stories of these brave humans can somehow help one scared child or one lonely parent or one terrified teacher, then it our responsibility to share these stories with our students.

We have come a very long way in this world. As I watched Bruce’s story on Friday night, I was struck by how far the world has come in just the years since I have come out. Never would I have imagined that a story like this would be watched by so many people. Never would I have imagined that people would have come out in support of Bruce in the way that they did.

But then.

Then Friday night’s show stopped telling Bruce’s story in order to tell the story of other transgender people around the world. And there was one brief clip that showed the terrible violence against transgender individuals that has been caught on tape. And it was so brutal and so gruesome and so real. And if that is what is being caught on tape, I cannot even begin to imagine what is happening when no one is watching.

And then.

Then, I read the results of the most recent GLSEN school climate survey, which aims to get a better understanding of what our schools are like for LGBT students in America. And the results are still so grim. The truth is still so sad.

And then.

Then you hear the stories of Leelah Alcorn and Blake Brockington who took their own lives when the pain they were suffering as transgender teens became too great to manage. And then you realize that so many of our transgender children are living with a silent suffering that we do not see or do not understand or do not try to deal with because we are too afraid of saying the wrong thing or of getting into trouble.

But that is our job. Our job is to help kids deal with the things they cannot deal with on their own. Our job is to help kids understand what other people are dealing with so that they can approach others with a greater sense of empathy and understanding. Our job has to be about more than just math or reading or writing because if we aren’t helping our students to be better people and make the world a better place or just to feel better about the people that they are, then what does any of that stuff really matter anyway?

So knowing that there will conversations tomorrow, I am going to make sure that I am ready. In addition to lesson planning tonight, I will be reading. I will be reading so that I can better help my students to understand the world around them. Here is where I plan to start:

http://www.hrc.org/resources/entry/transgender-children-and-youth-understanding-the-basics

https://www.gsanetwork.org/resources/creating-inclusive-gsas/transgender-issues

http://www.adl.org/education-outreach/curriculum-resources/c/discussing-transgender-and-gender-non-conforming-identity-and-issues.html

http://www.glaad.org/transgender

And because I often feel best prepared when I have books to aid in a difficult conversation, I will make sure to pull out the two books that I have that I think will best help me to talk to my own students: I Am Jazz and 10,000 Dresses.

I know that my conversations tomorrow, or the conversations that will come up when the students let me know that they are ready, won’t be perfect. I know that I will sometimes get things wrong. And when I do, I hope that there will be people who will be willing to correct me. I hope that I am lucky enough to learn from those who live this life as their truth every single day. I hope that more and more transgender individuals will continue to share their stories so that the rest of us can work to be better.

If you know of any incredible resources, please make sure to let me know. And if you are having conversations with your students in your own classrooms, I would love to know what you are saying and what they are saying.

I think that Bruce Jenner’s interview has the potential to open up a world of conversations. I just hope that we, as teachers, are brave enough to seize this moment to have the conversations that need to be had.

GAY

Why Kids Think the Word “Gay” is a Swear Word

We have come a really long way in this world. I often hear teachers pride themselves on stopping students in their classroom from saying, “That’s so gay!” as an insult. It was not all that many years ago when this was a commonly used phrase, when teachers themselves could often be heard using this phrase, and it would be hard to find any teachers who would even think to stand up and stop kids from using it.

And that is something to celebrate.

But I am writing this post to let those who read this know that I do not believe that it is enough.

I do not believe that it is enough anymore to tell kids not to use the word gay as an insult because what has started to happen is that kids have started to believe that it is not okay to use the word gay. Ever. Kids have started to believe that saying the word gay, in any context, is a reason for them to get into trouble at school. And the problem with that is, if you think of the other kinds of words that kids will get in to trouble for saying at school, they are all words associated with negative things. Bad words. Swear words. These are words that will get you into trouble. And now, many kids also believe that words like “gay” and “lesbian” and “transgender” are words that will get them into trouble.  We have unintentionally created a situation where kids think that the word gay is a swear word.  Kids have started to believe that gay is a word that does not belong in a classroom, that does not belong in schools, and that must mean that there is something wrong with the word and therefore something wrong with people who are gay as well.  We have, perhaps unintentionally or perhaps very intentionally, erased people who are LGBT from our classrooms, especially in the lower grades.

There is a moment from my own classroom that sticks out so vividly and that illustrate this current problem so perfectly. Several years ago, before I had come out to my students, I was reading to my students Patricia Polacco’s book In Our Mothers’ House. The book tells the beautiful story of a lesbian couple and their three adopted children. The family is pictured on the cover of the book and as we were looking at the book, before beginning to read it, I asked the kids to tell me what they noticed about the family on the cover. Now, in my classroom, as in most elementary school classrooms, when you ask a group of kids to share what they notice, hands shoot up before you can even finish asking the question.

But not on this day.

On this day, at this moment, hands were slow to go up. I can only guess that the kids noticed that there were two moms in this family right away, but they were unsure of how to put that observation into words. And then one boy raised his hand and I called on him.  His name was Andrew and he began to talk and he said, “Well, I notice that there are two women in the family. I think that they are. They are…” He seemed stuck and he looked around the room and then he looked right back at me and up into my face and he said, “I don’t know if I am allowed to say this at school.” And I looked at him, somewhat in disbelief, and asked him, “Are you wondering if you are allowed to say that you think these parents might be gay or lesbian?” And he nodded.  And I knew.  In that one moment, I finally realized that all the years of me telling my students not to say, “That’s so gay!” had left them feeling unsure if they were allowed to say the word “gay” in school at all.

Because here is the problem. While Andrew had heard many teachers tell students, many times, not to say the word gay as an insult, he had NEVER heard the word gay used in school in any other way. He had only ever heard his teachers tell him NOT to say gay.

He had never heard a teacher read a book that had a gay character in it and then use the word gay in a discussion about the book or about the character.  He had never heard a teacher talk about victims of the holocaust and also include the many gay and lesbian victims that Hitler murdered.  He had never heard a teacher talk about civil rights struggles and talk about the gay and lesbian leaders of the fight for gay civil rights.  He had never heard a teacher talk about the supreme court cases dealing with gay marriage. While studying government and talking about the rights of the states versus the federal government, he had never heard his teachers bring up the current debate over gay marriage to illustrate the point of what happens when different states have different laws on things like marriage. He had never heard these things because his teachers, INCLUDING MYSELF, were afraid to say the word gay in school.

And if we, as teachers, are not saying the word gay in a positive way in school, then we can’t expect our students to do the same.  If we, as teachers, are not using the word gay in the way it is okay to be used, then our students won’t ever know that the word “gay” itself is not bad or wrong or a cause for trouble.  If we, as teachers, are not talking about people who are gay in the same way that we are talking about who are divorced or hispanic or have blonde hair, then we are not helping our students to see that being gay is just one part of who a person is.  And we owe our students more than that.

Even now that I am out with all of my students, I don’t often use the word gay or lesbian to describe myself. I talk about my wife, Carla (though even saying, “my wife” is something that I have only recently felt okay saying in class).  I talk about how our daughter, Millie, has two moms.  But I still feel a little bit like I could get into trouble myself if I were to use the word gay or lesbian with my students. I recognize that this is irrational. I recognize that I am doing EXACTLY what I am saying that we shouldn’t be doing. I recognize that I should be the one to set the example of using the word gay or lesbian in a way that shows that is a positive part of who I am. But the fact is, I don’t. Because I, too, am afraid and uncertain. I, too, don’t want to be the only one. That is how strong these messages are. That is how pervasive the don’t say gay mentality is.  And that is why we must try harder to change it.

And one of the best ways that I can think of to change this current way of being and current way of thinking is to work to integrate LGBT issues into our school curricula.  I know that is easier said than done and that is why I believe we need to talk about it. We need to learn from each other and we need to lean on each other. We need to see how it is already being done and dream of how it could be done even better.  We need to come together to make it so that our students understand the difference between using gay as an insult and using gay to recognize who someone is.

So this week, on Thursday, February 19th at 8pm CST, #LGBTeach will be discussing how to effectively integrate LGBT issues and people into our school curricula at all levels. Please join us, please share this post and please help us to make our schools a more inclusive place for everyone.

There is Nothing Inappropriate About Who I Am

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.

For days.

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.

This is who we are.

This is who we are.