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!


LGBT Bullying Ignored by School Policy

In the wake of yet another teen suicide linked to bullying, bullying that singled out a student for being gay or allegedly being gay, too many school districts continue to ignore that their district policies fail to protect students from LGBT-related prejudice and harassment. Obviously language in a school district handbook isn’t the most important intervention to keep LGBT kids safe.

We need schools prepared to deal with diversity and school personnel who will take real action to protect students. However school policy sets the tone for how schools address difference, discipline problems, and the school culture in general.

Last year the Anoka-Hennepin School District in Minnesota came under scrutiny for their bullying policies and their practice of neutrality toward homosexuality in schools after many  students in Anoka-Hennepin district schools killed themselves after LGBT-related bullying. Associated Press writer, Chris Williams describes the situation on Boston.com:

It [the Anoka-Hennepin School District] has found itself caught between gay-rights supporters, who insist that any anti-bullying program must include specific policies aimed at protecting gay youth, and religious conservatives who call that unnecessary and biased toward homosexuality.

The district has told its staff to remain neutral when discussing matters of sexual orientation, while also ordering employees to step in if they learn of any harassment or bullying. [Emphasis mine]

Neutrality is not enough.

When I recently met with my daughter’s school principal to discuss that fact that she had chosen to come out to everyone including her friends at school and their parents, the principal made all the appropriate, district-sanctioned statements about how bullying was not tolerated in her school. She reassured us that our school community is especially tolerant of disabled students and therefore we could expect the children and parents to tolerate a lesbian student. (There are plenty of problems with that comparison, but that’s another post).

I have the utmost respect for our principal and I love my daughter’s elementary school. I know we are very fortunate to send our child to good, generally supportive school; however, neutrality and pat promises of zero tolerance are not going to deal with the reality of prejudice, hate speech, and intimidation that occurs in schools across the nation, even in nice schools like the one we send our daughter to.

I wondered how my local school district would compare with the Anoka-Hennepin district. So, I did some research about our local school district’s policies on harassment, discrimination, and sexual orientation.

Student/Parent Handbook and Code of Conduct – Our Discrimination Policy

What I found is very disturbing. I have excerpted the pertinent sections from both the Student/Parent Handbook and the Code of Conduct. The Superintendent states that these documents: “foster an environment for learning in which students respect the rights of others. State law requires each school district to create and implement a code of conduct for students that specifies policies and procedures.”

The sections of these documents that outline discrimination and harassment fail to include sexual orientation as a factor considered when determining

Discrimination Prohibited
XSD maintains a strict policy of equal opportunity and nondiscrimination. 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. Any student who believes he or she has been subjected to prohibited discrimination at school or while participating in a school sponsored activity, should promptly report the concern to the student’s principal or to the Deputy Superintendent. . . . [Emphasis mine]

Harassment
XSD strictly prohibits harassment based on an individual’s gender, color, race, religion, national origin or disability. Harassment, in general terms, is conduct so severe, persistent, or pervasive that it affects the student’s ability to participate in or benefit from an educational program or activity, creates an intimidating, threatening, or hostile educational environment. Slurs, insults, or other inappropriate conduct related to those protected characteristics described above are wholly inappropriate, violate the District’s equal opportunity and nondiscrimination policies, and may subject the student who engages in such conduct to disciplinary action. . . . [Emphasis mine]

Thus, according to the discrimination and the harassment policy of my local school district sexual orientation and non-normative gender identity are not covered.

Hazing/Bullying
XSD strictly prohibits hazing, bullying, or intimidating students. Specific definitions of hazing and bullying are in the glossary at the end of the Student Code of Conduct.

The glossary sections that define hazing, bullying, or harassment are general and inclusive enough to include acts that make students frightened for their safety and undermine their ability to learn, but as the policy states above students cannot be subjected to “prohibited discrimination” and harassment is defined at “slurs, insults, or other inappropriate conduct related to those protected characteristics described above.”

Thus, discrimination and harassment based upon sexual orientation are not identified as actions that would undermine “an environment for learning in which students respect the rights of others” per district policy.

The policy on cyberbullying includes the following language:

Misuse of Computers and the Internet Students shall not:

  • send or post electronic messages that are abusive, obscene, sexually oriented threatening, harassing, damaging to another’s reputation, or illegal, including off school property if the conduct causes a substantial disruption to the educational environment; or [Emphasis mine]

If we assume that there is a comma missing between “oriented” and “threatening” then we can surmise that messages that are sexually oriented are innately prohibited. The use of the word “abuse” could be interpreted broadly and include hate speech, but only that which includes “slurs, insults, or other inappropriate conduct related to those protected characteristics described above” (not based on sexual orientation).

Cyberbullying that is “damaging to another’s reputation” would only apply to sexual orientation if one believes that being queer diminishes one’s reputation.

The district’s Human Sexuality curriculum not only does not mention the sexuality of LGBT people at all, but it limits discussion of sexuality to that practiced within marriage. Same-sex marriage is not legal in our state, so that effectively implies abstinence is the only sanctioned possibility for queer people.

At every turn LGBT students are absent in all district policy on discrimination and harassment.
For our child, who at 10 has already been told that God only approves of heterosexuality, there is no articulated protection for her or even an acknowledgement that she exists.

“God made boys and girls differently for a reason” she is told by a child on the playground. Can we really remain neutral about that?

Justin Aaberg’s parents Tammy and Shawn Aaberg, said that “one form of the bullying their son endured came from a student religious group whose members told Justin that he was going to hell because he was gay.” Justin, a gay fifteen-year old high school student, hanged himself after being bullied. Justin’s story is recounted on an ABC News story about the recent suicide of Jamey Rodemeyer.

“School systems need to do more to protect LGBT students from bullying, and not turn their back on them because of their sexual orientation” say the Aabergs.

I couldn’t agree more.


Queer Kid Speaks to Other Queer Kids – Installment 1

Tonight my daughter suggested that we start a book for queer kids:

I want to write this because I want other people who are in my situation to know. I have my mother, but my mother had nobody, so I understand how hard it is to be understood.

If you’re my age and are reading this you probably already know you are gay or lesbian or transgendered or bisexual. It’s not one of those things you learn early on – I was 7 when I learned. But some kids learn at 5 because they have a crush on an older person.

I might not be the most perfect and you might not think I am stating the truth, but you should come out.

Here’s the way I do it:

I say, “do you believe in gay rights?” If they say “yes,” then it’s a step and you say, “I’m gay” or “I’m lesbian.”

If they say “no,” then you just drop the subject because you don’t want to tell haters.

I think that it’s important to let everybody know. But I’ve learned from experience that not everyone is open minded enough to see that we’re still people.

We deserve rights.

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?

Why do we learn about Martin Luther King and not Billie Jean King or Harvey Milk? It’s not fair. They’re not giving us the education we need. These people did great things. They are right up there on The Famous People List and they should be taught. They did something for our world. They didn’t just bring equality, but something new. They brought me. I don’t have to just be fighting alone. I am fighting with them.

I know I’m not fighting alone and for all of you who are reading this YOU AREN’T EITHER!

You should be learning about gay culture and who you are and we should get the right education. We don’t need to only learn about straight people. We want to learn about us. We want to learn about who we are!

I just want to stress to you how much we need to learn. I feel like we are alienated out, but we’re still part of this world. We aren’t aliens.

- daughter, age 10

In her own words.


My Kid Educates Others – Before the Haters Get ‘Em

My daughter began raising LGBT awareness amongst the playground set when she was only seven.

She has come up with numerous strategies for starting the conversation. Some begin on the swing set with “do you have a pet?” and then lead to her own gay awareness campaign.

Some begin in the classroom when they are doing worksheets with “do you know what gay and lesbian means?” When as is generally the case her listener says that they don’t know what gay means she gives them an age appropriate explanation, “men who love men and women who love women” sort of thing.

Then she moves on to gay rights.

More frequently these days she seems to end this discussion with coming out, if the conversation has gone well and she likes the person. She came out to her friends in second grade too, but only to a couple of her close friends.

She shares with me that she is afraid of being bullied in middle school. Yet she hasn’t reported a single negative word that any of her classmates have said to her. As a matter of fact, after a play date last weekend she said her friends made her promise not to tell anyone who is mean, because they couldn’t stand it if anyone was mean to her.

Is it possible that she is going to educate most of her elementary school cohort before the haters get to them?

It appears that the school is going to abdicate any role in LGBT awareness/sensitivity education other than some broad anti-bullying education. Thus, there is a vacuum that my girl is filling on her own.

She has chosen to do this on her own.* She was born a crusader – the kind of little girl who had a superhero alter-identity from an early age. She wore her costume after school, weekends, and holidays for years. So, being a gay superhero comes naturally to her self-conception.

I sure hope my little queer superhero makes the world a better one for herself by educating her peers, instead of being limited to coming out into a world of haters.

*I have my own queer identity and commitments but it never occurred to me to expect it in my child. LGBTness and queer equality was just a part of our world. Her lesbian identity and convictions are all her, separate from me. She was born this way and was lucky enough to be born into a community where she always had the language to describe who she is and the confidence to be herself.


The Rhetoric of Bullying – What’s in a Name?

Interesting discussion of the language kids use to describe what they experience at school.

Link to the Danah Boyd blog post about her research on cyberbullying:

“The Unintended Consequences of Cyberbullying Rhetoric”

Op-Ed piece in today’s New York Times by Danah Boyd and Alice Marwick:

“Why Cyberbullying Rhetoric Misses the Mark”


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