And in the Fifth Grade, We Teach Fellatio
Do we need to teach kids about LGBT people in our schools? Well, it's only normal that kids will have questions about such things, especially when Uncle Dan suddenly insists on being called Aunt Dana and is borrowing earrings from Mommy.
Press Release: New and important children's literature from Homophobia Publishing: Cassondra has Two So-Called Mommies, the tragic tale of a young girl who grows up to be a drug addict and prostitute, all because she lacked a stern male presence in her formative years. And don't forget to check your school library for Brandon and his "Daddies", the frightening tale of how "Daddy" One likes to take off young Brandon's clothes, while "Daddy" Two takes pictures to sell on the underground internet network.
These books don't really exist, but if they did, they wouldn't be completely fictional. No doubt, a lesbian couple has raised a daughter who grew up to live a troubled life, and unfortunately, the sexual abuse of children is a real problem for both gay and straight communities. What's appalling in these suggested titles isn't the presentation of reality, although the scenarios are tragic, but the implication that these situations are the norm and not the exception. By and large, the American populace has come to recognize that such fear-mongering stories are hyperbole and realize that LGBT couples can and do offer safe and loving homes to children. However, in the world of education, the arguments are still the same, with anti-gay advocates seeking to portray homosexuals as disease-ridden, promiscuous, drug-using pedophiles, intent on recruiting children for a lifetime of debauchery and sin. Just look at some recent headlines from conservative websites:
"Homosexuals Brainwashing Our Children in Elementary Schools" (MassResistance.org)
"Homosexual Propaganda Fed to School Children" (100777.com)
"The Homosexual Agenda in Our Public Schools" (JesusIsSavior.com)
"Obama Appoints Homosexual Propagandist to Education" (WesternJournalism.com)
This last article is particularly noteworthy, as it asserts that not only have gay extremists infiltrated the education system, they have done so with the blessing of the president and using federal funds. Written in response to the 2009 appointment of Kevin Jennings as Deputy Assistant Secretary of Education, the editorial claims that the appointment legitimizes deviancy:
"Granted, homosexual propaganda in our schools has become common place, but the appointment of Jennings ensures that for the first time ever, the Federal government will be funding and promoting homosexual propaganda on a large scale basis. This nomination makes clear that President Obama believes America’s public school children should be exposed to deviant sexual lifestyles having nothing to do with academics."
What the article fails to mention is that Jennings graduated magna cum laude from Harvard, has an MBA from NYU's Stern School of Business, and received a Masters from Columbia University, where he was named a Joseph Klingenstein Fellow. He has written numerous books on education, been named by several organizations as one of the leading educators in the United States, and was named co-chair of the Education Committee of the Governor's Commission on Gay and Lesbian Youth by Republican Massachusetts Governor William Weld. In addition, he founded the country's first gay-straight organization, which has grown into the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network.
It's that last fact that upset some conservatives, who fought Jennings' appointment by asserting that he actively approved of pedophilia. As a basis for this claim, they pointed to a story in Jennings' book One Teacher in 10, which purportedly showed how Jennings turned a blind eye to a sexual encounter between a 16-year-old and a much older man. However, investigative reporters uncovered that the youth in question was over 16 and of legal age for consent, and there was no sexual contact between him and any older men.
Surprised? Homophobes used slander and logical fallacies to promote their own agenda. The attacks on Jennings' character are clearly motivated by hatred, but still, anti-gay activists do raise some valid questions. If our elementary schools are teaching any political agenda, that's wrong. Likewise, if they are teaching "depravity", which could range from discussing gay sex to showing Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, they have misplaced their priorities. This begs many questions, the primary one being, What are our kids taught about LGBT individuals? Amazingly, the expert and educated school personnel who have planned diversity lessons developed curriculum that is age appropriate, which means that no one from ages five to 18 is being taught how to engage in gay sex, any more than they are being taught why the washing machine can be a woman's friend or how a man can use a banana peel on a lonely night.
The second question that must be addressed is whether we need to be teaching kids anything at all about gays, lesbians, bisexuals, and trans persons, especially in the early years of their development. Those who argue that we do not fail to recognize the changing world. Kids nowadays can see gay characters on their favorite shows and in movies, comic books and strips, music videos, and children's literature. More significantly, they see LGBT individuals living out and proud lives in their neighborhoods, and they go to school with students being raised in households with two same sex parents. A large number of students have aunts, uncles, or siblings who are LGBT or have friends with LGBT relatives. It's only normal that kids have questions - after all, it's hard to ignore when Uncle Dan suddenly insists on being called Aunt Dana and is borrowing earrings from Mommy. Ignoring children's concerns only leads to misinformation, such as the misguided notion that you won't get pregnant if you jump up and down after sex.
This leads us to the next question. When should we start educating kids about LGBT issues? According Jean Piaget's Theory of Cognitive Development, the Concrete Operational Stage, covering ages seven to 11, is when children begin use logic in problem-solving and begin the "elimination of egocentrism", meaning that they begin to think in terms outside their own perspectives and can take on the perspectives of others. There is a strong body of research that diversity education during this age group has life-long ramifications. In fact, as children get older, it becomes increasing difficult to get them to be empathetic towards those who are different, as prejudices tend to take hold and develop permanence. Thus, efforts to educate younger students about the existence of the LGBT community aren't "recruiting" or "propaganda" efforts, but reflect age-appropriate diversity lessons. In fact, these lessons prepare students for life in the world that exists beyond schools, as was concluded by Mark Strasser in "Parents, Religious Convictions, and Public School Curricula" in the June 2011 Brigham Young University Education and Law Journal:
"If students are going to be able to thrive in this world, they are going to have to be able to work with people both like and unlike themselves. Pretending that whole segments of society do not exist will help no one, even if those segments of society are not popular locally."
Of course, such lessons -- especially when they concern gays and lesbians -- will be met by Mrs. GodFearer's objections that she doesn't want her son learning about those "godless" sinners, often combined with threats to withdraw little Jonny and home-school him. Certainly, we can't control what parents do and no one wants to encroach on the religious beliefs of students, but I refer you back two paragraphs. Even if little Jonny is home-schooled, there's no way that he won't interact with LGBT people in the larger community or be introduced to gays and lesbians via the media. (On a side note, it's doubtful that parents will raise the same objections to lessons about divorce or other "sinful" behaviors, because there are some sins that have become socially acceptable.)
Objections are understandable; what parent would want his or her child to be taught things that disagree with family beliefs? However, a study by Horn, Szalacha, and Drill in a 2008 issue of the Journal of Social Sciences concluded that religious perspectives don't need to be violated. When adolescents were asked their opinions about homosexuality and the rights of homosexuals, particularly in terms of bullying, researchers found that religion did shape views about homosexuality in general, but didn't lead students to believe bullying to be acceptable. In other words, even a kid can recognize that you don't have to like us to believe we have fundamental rights as humans. Specifically, the authors noted, "These results underscore, once again, that schools can work to protect gay and lesbian young people from harm without impinging on individual student’s, teacher’s, or familie’s rights to hold particular religious or social beliefs."
That leaves one final question. What should we be teaching our kids? I think that we can all agree that a lesson entitled "A Tongue Can be a Woman's Best Sex Tool" or "Anal Sex: How to Hit that Magic Spot" aren't appropriate for any age student. Those are lessons that are best learned on the job, so to speak. In Great Britain, the "No Outsiders" program appears to be having success with its LGBT-friendly curriculum (as related by DePalma and Atkinson in the British Education Research Journal for December 2009). This project utilizes "a collection of children’s books featuring lesbian, gay and non-gender-conforming characters, as well as developing cross-curricular inclusion projects, using art, drama, poetry and music, citizenship work, school policy development and work with school councils."
Earlier, I mentioned that successful LGBT education programs have been designed by those with expertise in diversity and education, so I won't second guess their informed work and lay out a curriculum that I think is appropriate. Then again, neither should others who lack the experience. For educators who don't know how to get started, plenty of resources exist. One of the best is the 1996 documentary It's Elementary: Talking About Gay Issues in School and its 2007 sequel It's Still Elementary, which follows up with the kids and teachers from the original film, both available from The Respect for All Project at GroundSpark:
LGBT individuals who would like to get involved should check out The Homecoming Project at LiveOutLoud, which allows LGBT people to "gay it forward" by revisiting their high schools to talk about their experiences. It goes without saying (but I'll say it anyway), if you're a meth-head, have unresolved mommy and daddy issues that bring out the mega-drama-queen and running mascara, or think that all men are oppressive, pathetic beasts of sexual depravity, maybe you better skip this one.
The truth is that "I'm here, I'm queer" is more true now than it has ever been before. It doesn't matter what the country or the majority viewpoint, LGBT life is something kids will learn about, either through the media or stories from friends. Wouldn't it be nice, and a little ironic, if they could get some straight talk about gay issues?