Reflecting LGBT/Gender Queer Kids

I continue to hunt for good books for LGBT/gender queer kids and tweens. I am looking for books that celebrate their identities or at least make their identities a part of a story that is not about overcoming/surviving bullying/self-hatred/family rejection.

Today the Huffington Post published an article Dreaming of Dresses: Transgender Books for Children. The author B.J. Epstein is spot on when she writes about the need for more books for the five to twelve year-old set.

I am unfortunately aware of no texts about transgender characters for readers between five and twelve or so. However, there are a couple of picture books, which at least can be used with children up until the age of five or six, regardless of whether they are themselves trans or know any trans people.

My Princess Boy, which is by Cheryl Kilodavis and illustrated by Suzanne DeSimone, is about a boy who likes pink and enjoys wearing tiaras and other princess clothes. While there is no indication that this boy is transgender, in that he seems to identify as a boy, the book is positive in that the boy is accepted for who he is and how he likes to dress.

This is a strong message to pass on to children. It doesn’t matter if the princess boy is transgender or not, if he will grow up to identify as a transvestite, if he will be straight or gay or bisexual; for now, he is a little boy who likes pink sparkly dresses, and that’s completely fine with his relatives, classmates and teachers.

As Epstein notes, the princess boy is awesome as he is in this moment. It is not important if he grows up to be gay or transgendered or so on. This is message that needs to be hear more frequently . . . yes, here comes my “but.”

Books about Gay Characters for Kids

I think we need to add to the corpus of books for LGBT/Gender-Nonconforming kids with books that offer narratives for kids that identify as LGB too. Little girls read Cinderella and watch endless hours of princess stories and most parents don’t find them overly sexualized or problematic–of course many of us criticize those stories as anti-feminist, yet it is just about impossible to shield our kids from the complete domination that those stories have on the three to nine-year old entertainment market.

What if we began to write princess meets princess or prince meets prince overcomes hardship/evil witch/awful stepmother, and then finds romance and domestic bliss in a well-appointed castle, fairy tales? Would there be an outcry of this is “teaching kids to be gay”? What if these books were shelved between Peter Pan and Snow White in the library and any kid might read them?

That might result in tolerance and understanding before children even enrolled in kindergarten.

There are plenty of books about kids having gay parents and that is wonderful, but young readers are meant to identify with the children in those stories not the parents.

My tween needs books in which the hero/heroine is gay, but that isn’t the entire story. I’d like to note that the comic Runaways, Volume 8, “Dead End Kids” written by Joss Whedon fits the bill beautifully, but it is not suitable for younger readers.

One last note: anyone know a introduction to puberty and sexuality book for tweens that addresses LGBT issues? As my baby says in In Her Own Words:

We want to be taught who we are. In sex ed we want to be taught what to do with our lives. I don’t want to learn about something I’m not. If they’re not going to give me a proper education, what’s the point?


Playgrounds and Prejudice

The Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network (GLSEN) has just released a report based on their research about LGBT prejudice and bullying in elementary schools: Playgrounds and Prejudice: Elementary School Climate in the United States. It is a survey of more than 1,000 teachers and 1,000 students from 3rd-6th grade during 2010.

In the Preface GLSEN Executive Director, Eliza S. Byard outlines that:

This report from GLSEN illustrates the extent to which children’s elementary school experiences still draw artificial boundaries on their lives based on critical personal characteristics. Name‐calling and bullying in elementary schools reinforce gender stereotypes and negative attitudes towards people based on their gender expression, sexual orientation, disability, race, religion or family composition. Elementary school students and teachers report frequent use of disparaging remarks like “retard” and “that’s so gay,” and half of the teachers surveyed report bullying as a “serious problem” among their students. Students who do not conform to traditional gender norms are at higher risk for bullying, and are less likely than their peers to feel safe at school. Our research also shows the connection between elementary‐school experiences of bullying and a lower quality of life.

The most comment epithets were those oriented toward intellectual or neurological difference, i.e. “retard” and “spaz,” but almost half the teachers and students surveyed said they hear “gay” used in any number of negative ways as well. The survey finds that children who are gender non-conforming endure the most bullying and name-calling. (I read this and feel as though nothing has changed since I was in elementary school. The children haven’t even updated the vocabulary of hate from the 1970s.)

GLSEN concludes that:

Elementary teachers often intervene in incidents of bullying and harassment, and most report being comfortable doing so. Yet, most are not comfortable responding to questions about LGBT people and few elementary students are taught about LGBT families. This tendency is not surprising given that most teachers report receiving professional development on addressing bullying, but not about subjects like gender issues or LGBT families. It is clear that an approach that fosters respect and values diversity even before bullying occurs, in addition to addressing bullying as it happens, would be welcomed by elementary school teachers who are eager to learn more about creating safe and supportive environments. Ensuring that all students and families are respected and valued in elementary school would not only provide a more positive learning environment for younger students, but would also lay the groundwork for safe and affirming middle and high schools.

Definitely the elementary schools are where we need to begin education that will change the culture of  middle and high schools. I often wonder how much impact my daughter’s presence in her school will have on her classmates as they move into middle school. For the kids who are part of her school community having a queer-identified classmate will not be surprising as they move on toward high school.

About four months ago I wrote a post LGBT Bullying Ignored by School Policy in which I analyzed the policies of my local school district.  Our district’s Student/Parent Handbook and Code of Conduct identify “prohibited discrimination. For example:

No student shall be discriminated against or unlawfully denied the opportunity to participate in any program or activity on the basis of the student’s gender, race, color, national origin, or disability.

These guiding documents fail to go beyond those categories however. In my October 12, 2011 post I conclude:

According to the discrimination and the harassment policy of my local school district, sexual orientation and non-normative gender identity are not covered [as categories of "prohibited discrimination"].

Playgrounds and Prejudice finds that most schools fail to have comprehensive policies that protect children from harassment and discrimination based on sexual orientation and non-normative gender-identity. The new GLSEN survey shows that less than a quarter of the teachers said that their schools had a policy protecting gender identity, sexual orientation or performance of gender. GLSEN suggests, and I heartily concur, that a comprehensive policy to protect children with non-conforming gender expression or who identify as LGBT will lead to teachers being more proactive in the protection of their students. The GLSEN report concludes:

Although most teachers report that their school has an anti‐bullying/harassment policy, less than a quarter (23%) say that their school has a comprehensive policy that specifically includes protections for bullying based on sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression, among other characteristics (e.g., race/ethnicity).

Anti‐bullying/harassment policies may facilitate teachers taking action in their classrooms. Teachers in schools with these policies, particularly with comprehensive policies, are more likely to address incidents of bias and to take proactive steps to ensure that gender non‐ conforming students and students with LGBT families are safe and supported in school. (page 115)

What should we take away from this?

School districts must institute policies that are comprehensive in their protection of children based on gender identity, sexual orientation or performance of gender.

School districts and principals need to articulate to their teachers and school employees that these policies must be enforced and that school employees who identify incidences of harassment covered by these policies will be supported by school and district leadership.

School districts, principals, and teachers must commit to bringing these issues of justice into the school and classrooms. We need to teach justice and respect.

How do we do this?

We go to our the teachers, principals, and school board members and express our concerns. We ask for comprehensive policies to be incorporated into school codes of conduct and student handbooks.

We use the tools and programs already created for use in elementary schools. These are free programs that come with everything needed to institute a school wide, age-appropriated set of lessons that can form the platform to bring these issues into the schools, facilitate discussion, and cultivate a culture of respect among the students.

As GLSEN has just released their survey Playgrounds and Prejudice they have also released a toolkit to help educators incorporate lessons of respect and understanding into their classrooms. Ready, Set, Respect! answers the needs of elementary schools as outlined by the survey.  GLSEN Executive Director, Eliza S. Byard  states: Ready, Set, Respect! will equip teachers with tools and resources that not only improve school climate, but also instill a shared sense of responsibility among students that name-calling, bullying and harassment have no place in a school or community.”

The Human Rights Campaign has also created the Welcoming Schools program:

Welcoming Schools is an LGBT-inclusive approach to addressing family diversity, gender stereotyping and bullying and name-calling in K-5 learning environments. Welcoming Schools provides administrators, educators and parents/guardians with the resources necessary to create learning environments in which all learners are welcomed and respected.

The Welcoming Schools Guide offers tools, lessons and resources on embracing family diversity, avoiding gender stereotyping and ending bullying and name-calling.

For slightly older student populations, kids in middle and high schools, GLSEN has lots of resources to help organize Gay Straight Alliances (GSA). GLSEN also sponsors the Safe Space campaign.

The Safe Space Kit is a collection of resources for educators to create a positive learning environment for LGBT students. It contains a 42-page guide that provides concrete strategies for supporting LGBT students, including how to educate about anti-LGBT bias. It also comes with Safe Space stickers and posters to help students identify supportive educators.

I suggest purchasing a copy of Queer Kids: The Challenges and Promise for Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual Youth for the school counseling center of your local schools. It is a book written for school counselors, parents, and youth.

Lastly, many high school drama programs have already put on productions of The Laramie Project, a play written about the death of Matthew Shepard on October 12, 1998. These productions are a great way for students to create public forum that encourage discussions about LGBT issues, including discrimination and hate crime. This year was the 13th anniversary of his death and we mark it as an important reminder of the need for everyone, gay and straight, to make the safety all queer and gender non-conforming people a personal commitment–Be An Ally.


Coming Out at School: This is Not a Drill

Attention School Personnel: This is NOT A DRILL.

This is an Actual Test of Your Professional Ability

Friday, my daughter came out to the school counselor and the music teacher. She told us all about it over dinner. This is what we discovered:

We see now that when our daughter comes out to the teachers she does not base her own self-worth and identity on what they say (which would be unhealthy anyway), but instead our girl refuses to be denied by them and will push the teachers further in their understanding when they try to say she is too young to know. Then our sweet baby rates their reactions based on what she knows should be the appropriate response of an educator!

This school is NOT READY FOR MY DAUGHTER IN SO MANY REGARDS.

(Substitute) School Counselor

The school counselor who is currently just filling in for our awesome regular counselor who is out on leave got very low marks for how she handled the interaction according to our daughter. Apparently, the counselor was speechless. The temporary counselor earned herself an eye-roll and a “she’s a TRAINED SCHOOL COUNSELOR for heaven’s sake” comment when the incident was recounted over dinner on Friday evening.

This was when we realized: a-ha, our girl’s not coming out to them, she is testing them! She has enough support; that is not what she is looking for. She simply wants to continue the process of being her out, authentic self at school and she is testing these professionals against what she knows are the right ways to react and support LGBT youth.

School counselor grade: D. Comments: Perhaps the counselor should be allowed a do-over to improve her grade. It was a pop quiz after all. Moreover, she was just filling in and was surely not prepared to be asked to deal with such an unusual situation.*

Veteran Music Teacher

The music teacher got HIGH marks for: coming around after my daughter upped her evidence-based argument. The music teacher then addressed the issue of bullying proactively, made a strong verbal commitment to my daughter as an ally, and then outed herself as a devout Christian (of questionable appropriateness as a public school employee, but fine as a caring human being) and made a “I believe God knows what he’s doing, and he can see the future, and he doesn’t make mistakes – don’t you let anyone tell you otherwise” statement. It was this well-intentioned music teacher’s version of a pro-gay Christian vaccination against stupid homoprejudiced Bible-Belt Christians.

Music teacher grade: A. Comments: Music teacher goes to the head of the class!

The New Evidenced-Based Argument

My girl has developed a virtual bag of reasoned responses to all sorts of questions and statements that people present her with. Some are defenses against bigoted comments and some are educational explanations to be used when confronted with an ignorant person who makes unintentionally offensive statements.

She has been working on her answer to the dismissive “you are too young to know” statements that she gets from adults for some time, but has seemed unsatisfied with it, until now . . . .

So, the music teacher gave her some variation on the old “you have many years to figure out who you are/you are too young to know/you will get to puberty and figure out who you like then” chestnut.

Oh, the familiar disappointment.

Then . . . it comes to her and she says something like this to the teacher:

Imagine you are a fifth grade girl in the hallway at school. There is this cute boy that every girl likes; I mean, EVERY GIRL has a crush on him. He is super cute, nice, everything. He walks down the hall past you and you feel nothing. NOTHING.

Then this girl you like, who is super cute and really nice walks down the hall past you and you feel all tight and tingly. Maybe you think to yourself, ‘hmmm, this must be a delayed reaction from the boy?’ But, NO, you realize you never get that tight, tingly feeling with the boy, only with the cute girl.

Apparently this was proof enough to convince the music teacher that when my daughter says, “I’m a lesbian” she means, “I’m a lesbian.”

Observations

First, I am so proud they way she handled this. She was quick on her feet and has intuited that appeals to reason aren’t convincing enough; she must appeal to emotion and the body’s own unconscious physical reaction to attraction. She has deduced that she must prove that she has consistent physical responses that support her claim of same-sex attraction.

This leads me to my second observation, do adults have to prove their identities to all and sundry when they come out? I don’t think so. Maybe a few times to family members, but bosses or college professors would never question or refute a man who declares, “I’m gay.”

I understand that adults guide and educate children and adults see this questioning of children as part of their obligation to help a child through life. However, we should consider reframing our “you are too young” denial to something more affirming. If one must search for evidence in order to believe a child’s assertion, consider asking questions that affirm and further the discussion, “what is that like for you?” or “how did you figure this out?”

Just imagine if the story I recounted above about my very confident, articulate, and strong-willed daughter coming out to the counselor and music teacher featured a scared child in need of support and encouragement instead. What would that girl’s experience have been? How would she have felt afterwards?

*(addendum from 30 January 2012) When our beloved school counselor returned to work, my daughter promptly sought her out for an appointment. After they met, my daughter came right home and told me about the interaction. My girl was very happy to tell me that the counselor made sure that she was supported at home and that she knew that the counselor’s office was a safe and supportive place within the school. A+ for our counselor and in the months since I originally wrote this post I am so happy to report that my daughter’s teachers have been great and that her friends have really supported her. So far, so good!


The Ugly Heart of Bullying

This post has made my morning: Unpacking Bullying posted at Trans/plant/portation.

The bullies themselves are not the core of the problem. It is families and society that teaches hate, intolerance and hurting others (sometimes just so they won’t hurt you) is the larger problem.

When a child decides to say something mean, they’re not necessarily (or often, for that matter) selecting a castigating remark based on what they think is the best “fit” for that target; they go straight for the thing they think is most hurtful. Often, that is a gay slur. They didn’t invent epithets, we adults taught it to them. We also showed them how to use these words with the sharpest points and manner of presentation possible. When we focus on bullies, we seem to forget that we ourselves are implicated in their behavior.

Education needs to happen at home, in our culture at large, and in schools – but it isn’t a message of “don’t bully” that the kids need it is a message about being strong and confident without kicking everyone else down so you can step on top of them.

The Food Chain

Yesterday my daughter and I were talking about bullying and the fact that it comes from families of origin, but the hate and fear is magnified by each kid’s own insecurities.

“So, the bully is so afraid of being at the bottom of the food chain that he pushes his way to the top so he can eat everyone else before they eat him?” That sums up part of the issue.

When I went to my daughter’s school to speak with her principal, I didn’t want to hear about the zero tolerance policy for bullying. By the time we are addressing incidents of harassment it is already too late. I wanted us to work together to teach the kids about diversity, acceptance, and the real ramifications of hate speech.

If a kid legitimately doesn’t know that “fag” isn’t a synonym for “stupid” he doesn’t understand that he is participating in LGBT bullying. Calling someone “stupid” isn’t okay either, but kids learn these terms from somewhere and they don’t always understand them. (I cringe when I recall my ignorant use of certain words – and I am appreciative that the adults who set me right did not humiliate me when they did)

The Big Picture

Safe and nurturing environments for our kids do not arise from simple assemblies about not bullying, but from inclusive education about the contributions of LGBT people throughout history, that gay families and straight families are more alike than dissimilar, that gender is not binary, and so on.

Let me leave you with the author’s last statement, but seriously go read the entire post:

We also affect how we think about bullies by focusing only on two extreme responses: the kids who commit suicide, and the kids who then hurt or kill other kids, as in the Columbine school massacre. But there are a whole host of other responses that get no media attention, and thus only a thin slice of the conversation. These are the kids who walk around with self-hatred, who insist they’re not gay for years longer than they may have otherwise, who become bitter or dysfunctional, who join ex-gay or gay reformer organizations, and so on, and that is another big price to pay for avoiding a subject or looking at only a few aspects of it.

We need to be more honest about LGBT/youth/LGBT youth suicide, because we care about human life and living it with happiness. This means we need to get honest with ourselves about how well we support our youngest generations’ emotional needs, and what we’re willing to do to make material improvements in their lives.

I am trying to nurture a strong, proud lesbian before the haters get to her. She already sees her identity as not hers alone, but part of a formidable community around the world and throughout time.

When I listen to her recount what happens in school I hear her interpreting the slurs of other children as attacks on all women or all queers – not just her. She seems to regard the world as having teams, some that support all that is best about LGBT-ness, and another made up of a disorganized set of people who are “narrow-minded and ignorant.” The ignorant, she believes might be educated, and the truly narrow-minded must not run amok without some push-back, but they are beyond wasting time on, especially when she could be swinging on the swings with her friends.


Black Ribbon Day – When Our School Ignores LGBT Students

This morning like every Wednesday morning, I perused the contents of my daughter’s “Tuesday Folder.” Its a manila envelope sent home on Tuesday afternoon full of fliers, completed school work, and promotional materials for activities like basketball clinics and youth softball leagues.

Red Ribbon Week

Today I came upon a bright red flier describing the school’s activities for Red Ribbon Week. If you are not familiar with Red Ribbon Week, it is dedicated to substance abuse awareness, particularly in the public schools:

Today, the Red Ribbon Week brings millions of people together to raise awareness regarding the need for alcohol, tobacco and other drug and violence prevention, early intervention, and treatment services. It is the largest, most visible prevention awareness campaign observed annually in the United States.

Red Ribbon Week established in 1988 by Ronald and Nancy Reagan recognizes the torture and death of Enrique Camarena in 1985 and to set aside time for drug use prevention education and drug abuse awareness. Many of us grew up with Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No” campaign of the late 1980s. Red Ribbon Week was part of the administration’s overall commitment to the War on Drugs.

Please know:

Red Ribbon for Substance Abuse Awareness

  • I believe Red Ribbon Week is important. Recognizing the sacrifices of the law enforcement and Department of Justice, and Drug Enforcement Administration agents is an obligation and honor. Many brave people have risked, and lost, their lives making our communities safer for us and for our children. 
  • I acknowledge Red Ribbon Week and support it.
  • I do not want my daughter to abuse drugs and I am happy that the school is helping me educate her about the dangers of drugs.
  • I put our Red Ribbon Week flier on the front of the refrigerator so next week we can take part in all the activities, including wearing red clothes in recognition of everything Red Ribbon Week observes and stands for.
  • I am fine that the children at my daughter’s school will miss class time  for assemblies about drugs and will complete lessons about it while in class.

BUT . . .

Ally Week - GLSEN

The irony of this was striking. During Ally Week, the week after National Coming Out Day and the anniversary of the death of Matthew Shepard, our school didn’t mention one word about the sacrifices of LGBT individuals or try to raise awareness of LGBT issues. THIS is the week that the Red Ribbon Week flier came home.

Just so you know:

Matthew Shepard, December 1, 1976 – October 12, 1998

October is LGBT History Month.

October 11th is National Coming Out Day.

October 12th is the anniversary of Matthew Shepard’s death.

October 17th – 21st is Ally Week.

My daughter’s school recognizes none of this, but my daughter does. Tomorrow, October 20th is Spirit Day and my daughter has her head-to-toe purple outfit picked out to wear tomorrow in celebration and recognition.

Millions of Americans wear purple on Spirit Day as a sign of support for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) youth and to speak out against bullying. (. . .)  Observed annually on October 20, individuals, schools, organizations, corporations, media professionals and celebrities wear purple, which symbolizes spirit on the rainbow flag.

Probably her outfit will go unappreciated by her classmates and teachers, since there have been no discussions, bulletin boards, posters, or assemblies acknowledging LGBT history, awareness, bullying, activism, accomplishments, lives lost to make communities safer for LGBT people, or deaths just at the hands of violent bigots.

Ignoring LGBT Students

Black Ribbon Day*

So, I would like to recognize today as Black Ribbon Day at our local school. A Day when we blatantly ignore the contributions and sacrifices of LGBT people.

Couldn’t we just have an Anti-Bullying Day?** Is that so much to ask?

 

 

 

 

*Notes on Awareness Ribbon colors:

All the possible colors already stand for other issues. Black ribbons commemorate September 11th, the Virgina Tech shooting, and represent melanoma awareness. Red ribbons stand for substance abuse awareness and even more commonly for AIDS awareness. In reality the power of the symbolism is already diluted since every color of ribbon stands for many things. My choice of the black ribbon is in no way intended to belittle the loss suffered from the attacks of September 11th or from melanoma.

**Notes on Violence Against LGBT Students:

In case you’d like statistics and facts about what life is like for LGBT kids, especially in school, please peruse the following sites. The the GLSEN site and tell you far better than I can.

2009 National School Climate Survey from GLSEN (Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network)

Dealing with Gay Students, Bullying in Different Ways from CNN – Listen to what Minneapolis Public Schools do – intervention and education can work.

Violence Against Gays and Lesbians from The National Centers for Victims of Crime – Gives a sense of the kind of violence endured by LGBT people in general.

One last note in defense of October:

October is also Domestic Violence Awareness Month, Autism Awareness Month, Dwarfism Awareness Month, National Pork Month, and National Cyber Security Awareness Month and they’ve gotten no coverage in school either. I hope somewhere someone is writing angry blogs about how these other issues have been ignored by the public schools! (Well, maybe pork doesn’t need a special day in the schools – we celebrate pork awareness every month in our house.)


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