In D.C. schools, gay-tolerance lessons are becoming elementary

In the national push to prevent bullying, more elementary schools are introducing lessons about gay tolerance. Some lessons begin before the first day of kindergarten.

One fall day at Oyster-Adams Bilingual School in Northwest Washington, Scarlette Garnier and her pre-kindergarten classmates drew pictures of their families and talked about their similarities and differences.

They found that some children live with grandparents, some have a mommy and a daddy, and some, like 5-year-old Scarlette, have two mommies.

Teacher Melissa Grant said she doesn’t put any weight or value on one family structure over another. At this age, she said, children are very accepting. “They just kind of find it interesting,” she said.

The District, which legalized same-sex marriage in 2009, is joining San Francisco, Minneapolis and Cambridge, Mass., at the leading edge of an effort to make public schools more welcoming to gay students and families. A committee, organized in January 2011 with support from D.C. Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson, developed a plan to increase awareness of gay issues and foster a more supportive environment in school. Twenty new school-based liaisons to the gay community are helping train teachers this year, and a contingent from the school system marched in the gay pride parade in June.

School officials say it’s important to start early, before children’s perceptions of gay life are dominated by playground put-downs.

Two national gay rights organizations have proposed new elementary teaching guides. Under the banners of “Ready, Set, Respect!” and “Welcoming Schools,” they offer lesson plans and tips for introducing diverse families, challenging gender stereotypes and countering hurtful language. (One popular tip sheet: What do you say to “That’s so gay?”)

Homosexuality remains a taboo subject in many public schools, and decisions about how — or whether — to include it in middle or high school health lessons provoke controversy. After two years of debate, Montgomery County’s school board updated its sex-education curriculum in 2007 to include information about homosexuality. In Loudoun and Prince William counties, the curriculum remains officially silent on gay issues in health classes.

But the topic is becoming harder to avoid in school. Highly publicized teen suicides tied to anti-gay bullying have galvanized administrators to introduce tolerance and safety programs. These days, many openly gay and gay-friendly teenagers are bringing same-gender dates to the prom, putting on gay-themed school plays and creating gay-straight alliances.

In elementary schools, a growing number of openly gay — and legally married — parents are also pushing for change. They want their families to be reflected in classroom discussions and on back-to-school-night bulletin boards. Responses vary widely from school to school.

At Oyster-Adams, which serves 662 students from pre-kindergarten through eighth grade on two campuses, parents from some of the 20 or so gay families at the school met with teachers and the principal in January. The group helped persuade administrators to rethink the school’s approach to how classes handle Mother’s Day activities. This spring, the school will observe a “Family Day” that won’t exclude gay dads or other nontraditional families.

‘Hidden curriculum’

Some people who believe homosexuality is immoral oppose the notion of introducing young children to gay issues, even in the name of tolerance training.

Concerned parents can opt their children out of sex education lessons. Now some want to shield their children from diversity lessons or anti-bullying programs that mention homosexuality, said Candi Cushman, an education analyst for Focus on the Family, a Colorado Springs-based Christian group that promotes what it calls traditional family values.

One father in Lexington, Mass., lost a legal battle in 2007 in which he fought his school system for the right to receive parental notification any time a child might encounter instructional materials or discussions that reference gays. The battle was triggered in part by a children’s book that was sent home in a “diversity book bag” that depicted a family with gay parents.

In a “hypersexualized” society, parents “want to protect their children’s innocence for as long as possible,” Cushman said.

Gay-rights advocates say that early lessons aren’t about sex. Instead, they say, the lessons are about families and aim to counter messages children are already hearing on the school bus.

Anti-gay slurs “are part of the hidden curriculum in schools from Day One,” said Eliza Byard, executive director of the New York-based Gay, Lesbian, Straight Education Network. “To let that stand with no balance and no response is an abdication of the responsibility on the part of schools, starting in kindergarten.”

The network launched a No Name Calling Week campaign eight years ago. It was initially aimed at middle school students, but many of 30,000 educators who downloaded the materials were from elementary schools. “By the time students are in middle school, the problem is at a fever pitch,” Byard said.

Julie Garnier, one of Scarlette’s mothers, said she was surprised how soon her older son encountered bullying. Jourdan was 7 years old when he came home from summer camp two years ago and asked, “What is gay?”

Even though he is growing up with lesbian moms and surrounded by friends with gay parents, Jourdan had never put a word to what might be different about his family, until some teenage counselors began teasing him.

Garnier said her goal has been to find — or help create — a school environment that doesn’t tolerate similar teasing. “I created these kids. The least I can do is try to give them a better world and a safe space to learn in,” she said.

Education destinations

The quest often leads gay couples to private schools. Georgetown Day School is widely known for its gay-friendly instruction, but D.C. public schools are also becoming an education destination for some gay families.

Garnier and her partner, Charlene Evans, plotted a reverse migration — from the suburbs to the city — soon after they had their first child, moving from Upper Marlboro to a neighborhood near the former Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Northwest Washington. They decided to leave, Garnier said, because “we were basically looking around and not seeing any rainbow flags.”

The African American women, both federal employees, chose a Mexican American sperm donor for their two children, and they are raising them to be “biracial, bicultural and bilingual.”

They applied for a lottery to attend Oyster-Adams because of its reputation for diversity and its Spanish-immersion program.

Unlike in the District, the policy in many school systems is to avoid gay topics, particularly in younger grades.

Catherine A. Lugg, an education professor at Rutgers University, called the approach “an elementary school version of ‘Don’t ask, don’t tell.’ ” But school officials say they must balance widely disparate community beliefs.

Most school officials in the area, including in Fairfax, Prince William and Loudoun counties, advise teachers to tell students who have questions about homosexuality to take their questions home.

In a national survey released in January by GLSEN, elementary school teachers reported that although diversity training is commonplace, training about gay issues is not. And while nearly 90 percent of respondents said they teach about different kinds of families, only about 20 percent said they mention families with gay parents.

Kenn Bing, a gay father in Crofton, said his daughter’s school in Anne Arundel County declined to alter a Mother’s Day class activity to allow students to make cards to someone other than their mothers. “They didn’t want to be the ones to say there are other kinds of families out there,” he said.

Anne Arundel school officials said no policy prohibits class discussions about different kinds of families but that teachers’ comfort levels may vary. The school system recently invested in some children’s books about gay families that counselors or teachers can use to help lessons, said school counseling specialist Lucia Martin.

Patricia Silverthorn, a gay technology specialist at Armstrong Elementary School in Reston, said most people at the school know that she is raising her son, a fifth-grader there, with her wife.

When kids ask her about it, Silverthorn said, “I say, ‘Some families have two moms or two dads. There are all kinds of families.’ ”

Michael Alison Chandler writes about schools and families in the Washington region.
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