Sixth Graders Offer College Students Some Perspective
February 24, 2011 by HRC staff
This post comes from Kim Westheimer, HRC’s Welcoming Schools Director, in celebration of Goodkin’s Modern Family Blogger Week. Check out all the blogs and submit your Modern Family Blogger Week entry today!
If you ask classroom teachers whether their own education prepared them to welcome the array of modern families in today’s world, most will tell you, “no.” It’s up to us as adults to be well educated so that children don’t need to be the standard bearers for their families. The story of two brave middle school students that follows is a case in point. The students, a girl with two fathers and a boy with two mothers, were guest speakers at a class I co-teach at Wheelock College in Boston.
The students were 6th graders who go to the same middle school. It was hard to miss the fact that these two young people are part of families that fit the Modern Family mold. The boy wore a T-shirt that said, “Got Moms?” The girl, who is African American, came with one of her fathers who is white. Both of them seemed amazingly comfortable being in front of a group of college students, but to help set the stage for them, we all watched the 10 minute film Both My Moms Names are Judy. The film, made over 10 years ago, features elementary school-aged children with LGBT parents sharing challenges they experienced in school: use of the word ‘faggot’, the invisibility of their families, and hearing hurtful myths about LGBT people. As we prepared to watch the film, I cautioned our guests that the film might not resonate with their own experiences. After all, it was made before they were born and they attend public schools in a community that is known for its liberal politics. Surely these students would have teachers who were well equipped to talk about LGBT people. Surely students in this liberal community would have learned that it is not okay to call someone “faggot.” Nope. The first thing the girl said after the film ended was, “I can so relate to the kids in this film.” The boy said he remembers a kid telling him that because his mothers were lesbians, he must be one too. Both of them said the questions and comments began to escalate by the time they reached 3rd grade. Questions and comments like:
- You have two dads, How can you exist?
- You have two moms, how did you get born?
- That [any random thing] is “so gay.”
- Where’s your mother?
They handled barrages of questions as directly as they could. Sometimes the answers involved straightforward responses about donors and biological parents. Sometimes the answers were dismissive, such as: “Duh, you know I have gay parents.” Listening to them, I got a sense of how exhausting this must be. They both attended a camp for kids with LGBT parents and although the camp included lots of fun activities, they said the highlight of camp was time set aside one day to talk with other kids about how they handled ignorant or hurtful remarks. Bullying and sexual orientation is a topic du jour right now and it’s great that light is finally being thrown on the realities that many LGBT youth face. But listening to these students talk was a reminder that we can’t make our schools safe unless we equip educators to talk about LGBT parents and people. It’s not just about responding when kids use slurs or harass other students. It’s about making sure that LGBT people are included in children's books, in discussions about different family structures, and as visible members of the community. We have to give students tools to respect the diversity of their schools, community, and world. And if we do this in elementary schools, it becomes easier to build respectful communities in middle and high schools. From my experience directing Welcoming Schools – the Human Rights Campaign Foundation’s initiative to help elementary schools embrace family diversity, avoid gender stereotyping and end bullying – I can tell you that most teachers want to learn how to be inclusive of all families and all students in their school.
A popular Welcoming Schools professional development activity gives school personnel the chance to practice responding to questions and comments such as, “How can he have two moms, which one’s the real one?” and “My grandma says its wrong for two men to get married.” Educators always engage in lively conversations about the best way to address these questions. School personnel also know that they can learn from their students. I’ve often shown the film Both My Moms Names are Judy in schools and the last line of the film always resonates with educators, many of whom nod their heads in agreement when a fifth grader closes the film explaining why she thinks these topics aren’t addressed in school: “There would be a lot of questions and I think maybe that’s one of the things that teachers are scared of - that there would be a lot of questions and they don’t know how to answer them.” It’s time to stop putting such a burden on children like the young panelists who so articulately described their experiences to the college class. We can recognize the wisdom of children without making them responsible for countering ignorance from peers or adults. And it’s really simple. As one of the kids said to the Wheelock class, he would explain his family to kids in early elementary school by saying that his moms decided that they wanted to have a baby so they had him. Got questions?
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