HRC Blog

Perspective: Lesbian Parents, Thriving Adolescents, and Welcoming Schools

This post is from Kim Westheimer, HRC's new director of the Welcoming Schools Project: During the last election, a 6-year-old child who I adore heard her mother and me talking about a Senate candidate, and she hesitantly asked, “He thinks that two women shouldn’t get married, right?”  When her mom said, “Yes,” the girl replied, quietly, “That makes me sad.”  Her plaintive response kind of broke my heart. I was reminded of this conversation when I read a recent research study from the US National Longitudinal Lesbian Family Study.  The article, published in Pediatrics, is mostly a good news story.  It shows that teenage children of lesbian mothers compared more favorably than a control group on a whole range of measures related to social connections/behavior, academics and emotional health.  For some parents I know, perhaps the biggest news here is that a happy teenager is not an oxymoron! The sadness in my 6-year-old friend’s voice came back to me when I read further into the article and saw that as a group, those teens whose mothers reported that their children had been stigmatized for having lesbian parents showed poorer emotional health than their peers.  If my friend’s child was sad when a politician demeaned her family, what’s it like for children who hear negative comments from peers? An early publication from the authors of the same study reported on interviews with these children when they were 10.  They described what they felt after hearing or being targeted by anti-LGBT talk:

At first when I was in 2nd grade some kids said some things to me on the bus.  Now they don’t. . ..I ignored them.  I felt bad.
The only time I remember was once last year a girl told me my moms were going to hell.  I probably turned away and told a teacher.  It’s hard to remember [how I felt] – probably said, definitely annoyed, not to the point of tears.
There’s one kid who [says mean things about my moms.]  He says bad things about all people.  I said, “Take that back!”  Sometimes other kids try and help me.  Afterward, I felt – I can’t explain – like I really wanted to punch him.

While we can’t control political candidates who might make children of LGBT people feel sad, we can do something about children’s school environments to lessen the possibility of them hearing comments that relegate their families to second class citizens.   And we can nurture children’s resilience.  (In almost all of the examples of negative comments that the ten year olds gave, the children spoke up or consciously decided to ignore the comments and move on.) The Welcoming Schools Guide:  A comprehensive approach to family diversity, gender stereotyping and name calling is a project of the Human Rights Campaign Foundation that helps elementary schools proactively develop respect all kinds of families, including those with LGBT parents.  The guide has been piloted in three school districts and is beginning to be used in new sites.  Initial evaluation data show that educators in schools that implement the guide become more confident and willing to be inclusive of LGBT families and to address negative comments, like the ones above.  I’ve been fortunate to be working directly with these pilot sites and see the impact of these changes.  One of the things we’ve found in piloting Welcoming Schools is that most educators want to create environments that welcome students with LGBT parents but often they don’t know how.  As one teacher said:

We have a number of [same-sex parents] in this school and I think it isn‘t talked about. I can recall another school where I had a little boy in kindergarten who talked about having two fathers. I could tell he was really uncomfortable. He started to say he had two dads, and then he stopped [after a peer‘s reaction] and he didn‘t know how to deal with it and honestly, I didn‘t know how to deal with it either.

Educators, administrators and families are using Welcoming Schools to make a difference in their schools and communities by participating in trainings, research, and by speaking up.  If this momentum continues, by the time my six-year-old friend is voting age, I’m going to guess that politicians will consider it less politically expedient to demean families with LGBT parents.  And that is one thing that neither she nor I will be sad about.

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