A Reader Response for PED 3102 Schooling and Society to Surviving the Pain and Widening the Circle: Celebrating Lesbian and Gay Pride Week in an Elementary Classroom

A Reader Response for PED 3102 Schooling and Society to Surviving the Pain and Widening the Circle: Celebrating Lesbian and Gay Pride Week in an Elementary Classroom

There tends to be the idea that children in elementary school are too young to know their sexuality. It’s funny, though, that children are usually presumed heterosexual. I remember having crushes on boys in my classes and telling adults that I ‘liked’ a certain boy. I was never shut down because “how could I possibly know I was heterosexual at that age?” When one of my best friends in high school told his mother he was gay, she quite literally told him that he could not possibly know that at his age (18 at the time), and to wait until he was 25 before making this decision. Why is it that when little boys and little girls hold hands on our playgrounds, it’s cute, but if a little boy confesses he has a crush on another little boy, he is confused or too young to know? As teachers, we need to accept crushes and puppy love as something we will be dealing with in our classrooms – affection that can take many forms.

The main problem articulated in our readings this week is the systematic silencing of homosexuality in schools – primarily elementary schools because “teachers often feel they should protect children from knowledge of gay/lesbian issues” (Bouley, 2007, p. 143). What do teachers think they are protecting children from? The discourse surrounding this issue seems to be that they are protecting children from somehow contracting the “disease” of homosexuality by being exposed to it. And even if children were to become gay because they read about it – which is a lackluster argument to begin with – what is wrong with that? Why is being gay still linked to being somehow corrupt? (It’s like that stupid phrase: “That’s gay!” Why is it a bad thing to be gay?)

If we can accept the fact that sexuality is a very real and present part of young children’s everyday lives – and that it can take many forms – then we must acknowledge it in our classrooms. You cannot shut your classroom door and keep out the world in which your students live. When Yallop acknowledged alternative sexualities with his students, it had a profound impact on many of them. “One boy said that being in this class helped him understand that gay people were not off somewhere else, but were around other people and could even be a teacher in the school” (p. 114). It’s mind-boggling the kinds of brick-walls Yallop faced when trying to celebrate pride week in his classroom. There was no announcement on the public announcement system. Why? The principal was particularly concerned about a lesbian guest speaker coming in to the classroom. Why? Only two colleagues out of a staff of more than 40 wore a rainbow ribbon that week. Why? In light of Yallop’s experience, it would seem that alternative sexualities are still socially constructed as deviant. Those with alternative sexualities are deviantized and “othered” – their motives are questioned (“Is this for you, or for your students?”) and their lifestyles viewed with fear, or at least mild alarm. In this way, homosexuality is perceived as something “bad” that should be kept away from children.

As professor Stanley talked about framing racisms as exclusions, so could our paradigm of homophobia be shifted to acknowledge the kinds of exclusions present in our society in terms of gay and lesbian children. Bouley’s article (2007) makes direct links between multicultural education and anti-homophobic education, identifying lesbian and gay individuals as part of a subordinate group that can be acknowledged and represented in multicultural literature (p. 142). Bouley (2007) notes that, “when students of diverse backgrounds read literature that highlights the experiences of their own cultural group, they learn to feel pride in their own identity and heritage” (p. 141). Similarly, were an effort made to highlight the experiences of children with alternative sexualities, the negative connotations associated with being gay could be critically analyzed.

As we deconstructed the paradigm of racism as prejudice, so too should we deconstruct the concept of homophobia as prejudice. Bouley (2007) writes: “Homophobia is not expressed through consciously hurtful comments or acts . . . [it] is evident in the unwillingness to follow up, to ensure access to LGBT books, to seek knowledge in how to use them in class” (p. 146). Homophobia, in other words, is a silence – an exclusion. As SooHoo wrote in her article on girl-to-girl bullying in schools (2009): “Ultimately, one cannot address that which one chooses not to see” (p. 122). When teachers turn their backs on homophobic bullying, they ignore many children’s realities, and leave them alone to address the accompanying anger, frustration and isolation.

Yallop faced extraordinary difficulty making celebrating gay and lesbian pride week a reality – in acknowledging the exclusion of gay and lesbian realities in the classroom. As new teachers, trying hard not to rock the boat, this kind of activity may be over our heads – at least initially. However, Bouley (2007) gives us another idea: “the most age-appropriate way to include gay/lesbian families in elementary classrooms is through children’s literature” (p. 141). Speaking to the exclusion I just spoke of, Bouley writes that “numerous children of gay/lesbian parents spend each day in classrooms without access to a single book that tells their story” (p. 140). Emfinger’s article (2007) lists a variety of resources we can use as educators when introducing inclusive literature into the classroom, including: Heather Has Two Mommies by L. Newman, One Dad, Two Dads, Brown Dad, Blue Dad by J Valentine, and Daddy’s Roommmate by M. Willhoite. One book that I have always wanted to use in my classroom is And Tango Makes Three. This 2005 children’s book is a true story about Roy and Silo, two male penguins in a New York zoo, who form a relationship and are given an egg to raise. The fact that this book was the most challenged book of 2006 and 2009 according to the American Library Association makes me want to use it more!

Because gender and sexuality issues are a new awareness in the public consciousness, I think it will take time before we are comfortable with incorporating sexuality into our classrooms – and parents are comfortable with it as well. The fact that there is now a widely recognized Black History Month is proof that marginalized groups can become increasingly visible and celebrated. Perhaps one day, all elementary schools will be celebrating gay and lesbian pride week. But first, we have to stop the exclusions and recognize that they do impact our students … even if we think they are too young to face these issues.

Bibliography

Bouley, T.M. (2007) “The silenced family: Policies and perspectives on the inclusion of children’s literature depicting gay/lesbian families in public elementary schools” in Isabel Killoran and Kathleen Jimenez (Eds): Unleashing the Unpopular: Talking About Sexual Orientation and Gender Diversity in Education, p. 140-147. Olney, MD: Association for Childhood Education International.

Emfinger, K. (2007) “Resources for Embracing Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender (LGBT) Families in Our Classrooms” in Isabel Killoran and Kathleen Jimenez (Eds): Unleashing the Unpopular: Talking about Sexual Orientation and Gender Diversity in Education, pp. 148-156. Olney, MD: Association for Childhood Education International.

SooHoo, S. (2009) “Examining the Invisibility of Girl-to-Girl Bullying in Schools: A Call to Action” in International Electronic Journal for Leadership in Learning, 13, Retrieved December 15, 2010, from: http://www.ucalgary.ca/iejll/soohoo.

Yallop, J.J.G. (2007) “Surviving the Pain and Widening the Circle: Celebrating lesbian and gay pride week in an elementary classroom” in Isabel Killoran and Kathleen Jimenez (Eds): Unleashing the Unpopular: Talking About Sexual Orientation and Gender Diversity in Education, p. 140-147. Olney, MD: Association for Childhood Education International.