So, one of my regular Saturday morning habits is to check out the Miss Bindergarten Facebook page, and insert my opinion into whatever conversations are happening over there. This week, one of the posts was about recognizing The International Day Against Homophobia (IDAHO*) in class. (Full disclosure: we did not acknowledge it in my class, because a) we did not have school on May 17, and b) I didn’t know about it until the actual day, and c) it is very very clear to me that this is the sort of occasion that should be discussed with my admins in advance.) While I absolutely agree that there is not a straightforward answer to the question of whether and how to best acknowledge this even in kindergarten, the intensity of the negative responses startled and alarmed me. Most of the responding teachers felt it was completely inappropriate to even acknowledge the day in their classrooms, that this was something only parents should discuss with their children. Many of the answers seemed based on teachers’ own beliefs or discomfort with the topic, not on thoughtful, reflective consideration of what our role as educators is in regards to civil rights and social justice. There were many comments about how the classroom is not a place for activism. Really?
*I really really hope that it is no accident that the acronym for this day is also the name of one of the most conservative western states. A big fat BRAVO to whoever came up with that. I love it.
We MUST talk to our children about civil rights, in all their forms. We must plant the seeds of awareness, tolerance, acceptance, and justice. This is our ethical responsibility. Teaching children that it is okay (not only “okay”, but WONDERFUL) for ANYONE to love ANYONE is not about imposing our own personal activism into our classrooms, it is about making our classrooms safe for children of all backgrounds. Our first and most primary responsibility is to ensure that our students feel safe within the walls of our classrooms. They have to feel that the way they (and their families) are is OKAY (and not only “okay” but WONDERFUL). And even if you are very very sure that none of your students have gay parents, are you very very sure they don’t have a gay uncle, a lesbian aunt, a neighbourhood playmate with 2 moms, an older brother who has a boyfriend? ARE YOU VERY SURE ABOUT THAT? Are you very very sure that none of them already have a sense of whether they will fall in love with someone of their own gender? Because, statistically speaking, you have at least one child in your class who is gay.
Children notice the things we do NOT talk about as much as the things we do talk about. This is why I talk about skin colour as openly and off-handedly as I talk about hair colour and eye colour in my class. If I never acknowledged that SKIN comes in as many (if not more) colours than hair or eyes, I would be sending a message that somehow, skin is different. Skin matters more. A five year old’s observation that “My skin is brown, and Andy’s is sort of yellowy-beige” has no more weight than the observation that “My eyes are blue, and Joey’s are grey.” If we refuse to talk about anything other than “traditional” heterosexual relationships, that silence has weight. We are sending a message about what is “normal,” what is “acceptable,” what is “okay.” And in doing so, we may be telling a student that his parent, her sibling, his cousin, her babysitter, is not normal, not acceptable, not okay. Worst of all, we may be telling a student that WHO HE OR SHE IS is not okay.
If talking about equal rights for all, regardless of who you love, is “inappropriate activism,” then so is your silence.
One of the arguments raised was that it is not possible to talk about sexual orientation without talking about sex, and that, if we are talking about same-sex relationships, we are automatically talking about sexual orientation. Really? When we read “Cinderella” and we talk about Cinderella falling in love with Prince Charming, are we talking about sex? I certainly hope not. When I read the book about Junie B Jones being (almost) a flower girl at her aunt’s wedding, am I talking about what Junie B’s aunt DOES on her wedding night? Definitely not. This is not about sex. This is about love, and family, and dignity.
When my class learns about Dr. Martin Luther King, we talk about how, at that time, children with different coloured skin were not allowed to go to the same schools, eat in the same restaurants, or swim in the same pools, and that Dr. King fought to change those rules because they were unkind and unfair. If I was talking to them about gay rights now, I would talk about how, anyone, boy or girl, is allowed to fall in love with anyone, boy or girl, and that, in our country, any adult is allowed to marry any other adult who wants to marry them**. I would also talk about how there were people who fought hard to change the rules so that they could marry the person they loved, and that those people, like Dr. King, are heroes because they fought hard to make our country a more fair and loving place. See? I managed to say all of that WITHOUT A SINGLE MENTION OF SEX!!!
Most teachers (at least, I certainly hope that most teachers) make an effort in their classrooms to remove gender stereotypes. We jump all over phrases like “pink is a girl colour” and “only boys can be firemen.” We encourage children of both genders to play with all kinds of toys, to try all kinds of projects. We repeatedly, loudly, tell our students that gender does not determine what colour, toys, games, a child can love.
Why on earth would we (even passively) allow them to believe that gender determines what PERSON they can love?
**I want to acknowledge that the simple reality of living in a country where the question of same-sex marriage was put to legal rest nearly 10 years ago does help simplify this conversation for me. I recognize that this question is exponentially more difficult for my colleagues in places where gay rights are still controversial, but I would argue that, in those places, it is even more important to ensure that our students know it is perfectly okay (not only “okay,” but WONDERFUL) to love anyone they want.