When I first arrived, nervous despite knowing the audience was supportive, there were six of us. It was understandable. People are afraid of being out at school. Oh well, I figured, they tried. I keep thinking this sort of thing is long, long past due--that it's absurd we should even still need to be addressing these issues--but perhaps it must remain a dream for the future. What a pity, I thought, with all the lovely decorations on the tables of the hosting elementary school, food provided for up to sixty people, and a real chance at making the world a better place unrealized...
An hour later, it was standing room only. My principal had injured herself that day and could not be there to lend support or to see how well her efforts had been received; but my young adult daughter and her boyfriend were in attendance, along with the superintendent of our district (sixth largest in the nation), the hosting school's town mayor, liaisons from organizations representing sexual minorities, several school board members, and school personnel from paraprofessionals to principals. Estimates put the crowd at over 140.
Thrilled to be part of this effort, I had written a speech, but was asked last minute to trim it down considerably due to time constraints. Since I was one of the last speakers, editing was made simple, as earlier speakers voiced much of what I had to say. One school board member moved me and many others by saying that she worked very closely with many religious leaders, and was there to offer an apology. To paraphrase, she said that religion was supposed to be in the love and comfort business, and was coming to recognize that sexual minorities had been failed on that count.
After the ceremonies, a fellow teacher best summed up my sentiments in saying he didn't realize how much he had needed to hear those words until he did. It gave me pause to reflect that true equality and respect for all cannot be a divisive issue of us vs. them, whether the anger is directed at sexual minorities or the groups sexual minorities have come to see as the enemy, such as the religious and political right; but through communication and understanding.
Several people asked me to post what I had written in its entirety here, and I'm happy to oblige:
The Gay Agenda
For those of you who did not receive a copy of the gay agenda, it reads as follows:
For those of you who did not receive a copy of the gay agenda, it reads as follows:
7 p.m.: Total global domination.
8 p.m.: Celebratory vegan potluck supper.
We do have an agenda in public schools, of a different sort. I found the school board’s mission statement online. I won’t read all of it, but it includes being committed to ensuring that all students receive a quality education, within a safe and secure learning environment, all students being treated with respect and dignity, basing all decisions on what is best for student needs, and the promotion of diversity so that isolation of specific groups is avoided and the full benefits of integration are achieved. It goes on to require equitable resources, and teacher training to develop interpersonal skills to work with diverse backgrounds.
At some point, we realized that whatever group we’re discussing, it is vitally important to actively promote that the minority is not only not bad, but good. We figured out that genuine representations of diverse groups of people have real and lasting effects on both the minority and majority that can help overcome oppression and inequities.
I took online ESOL courses that challenged me to learn about cultural differences, and to be sensitive to the need for inclusivity so that all of our students have their social needs met in an effort to form a solid foundation to build upon to address their academic needs.
I was asked to respond to essay prompts on practical considerations that would achieve those goals. Based on the information provided in the courses, the answers were clear. We need texts that are representative of diversity in our classrooms, bulletin board displays, posters, multicultural fairs, language and practices that affirm the inherent worth and dignity of all of our students…
Unfortunately, we really dropped the ball when it comes to sexual minorities. Somehow, that has always been seen as “different.” Over the years, the conversation has been about whether or not it is reasonable for adults to impose their values on impressionable young children, a convenient diversionary tactic to draw attention away from the fact that “those people” who want inclusion and representation of sexual minorities were ourselves once children in schools, and that we continue to send the message to our students, especially our younger students, that their identities are so repulsive, they cannot even be mentioned.
Many high schools offer gay/straight alliances, but by then, the damage has already been done. We do not wait until high school to celebrate diversity on any other score. That bothers some families, because prejudices still abound, but we do it anyway because we know scientifically and historically that there are real effects to sins of omission that reinforce the notion of a desirable majority and undesirable minority.
There are parents who actively teach against many of the messages of diversity we send to our students. When we are confronted by demands to perpetuate their bigotry in our schools by parents who only want their views on race, religion, color, ethnicity or gender represented, we stand strong and respond that we do not cater to prejudice here.
Yet, despite the fact that there are teachers and families representing sexual minorities in our schools, and children in our classrooms who are themselves sexual minorities, here we cower and tacitly lend credence that this is different. That’s the argument that is always used to justify prejudices: that prejudices of the past that we now reflect upon shamefully were obviously wrong in retrospect, but that this time it’s different because these people are different in a way that really is unacceptable.
Religion has always been used as a weapon: to defend slavery, to defend the mistreatment and oppression of women…until, with the passage of time, outrage against minorities seeking equality turns to shame that the beauty in religions was ever so misinterpreted and twisted to have been used to cast aspersions and allow second-class treatment of our fellow human beings.
So, we don’t have textbooks, or bulletin boards, or book bins in elementary school containing books that are inclusive of sexual minorities, out of fear that families will object. There are still teachers who either intentionally or unwittingly promote heterosexuality as the desired state of being. Our human sexuality training itself specifically prohibits mention of sexual minorities.
As a result, I--and many of us here today--went our entire lives only ever having received the message that our existences were too vile to be mentioned in school. In more recent times, my two children never once saw their family represented in our schools.
What we do not say speaks volumes, to where even gay teachers think it too dangerous to be openly gay role models, again reinforcing the message that sexual minorities have no place in our schools.
I am openly gay, and it usually comes up fairly early in the school year, generally when I introduce the concept of ethnocentricity to my class as a precursor to our social studies curriculum. I read the children an age-appropriate version of Professor Linton’s satirical description of Americans, written to make even mundane norms sound unusual, to make the point that anything can seem odd depending on our perspectives.
I tell them that what we know to be true of all people is that they are all people, and that people do not like being considered less than equal human beings, specifically mentioning many different types of people. For the most part, they respectfully nod in agreement; but there are always a few who exchange surprised glances or snicker at the mention of gay people, at which point I state plainly that I’m gay, and that respect for all people is a classroom rule.
For every raised eyebrow from children for whom that message seems a bit of a stretch, there is always a child who sits up a little straighter, eyes wide with joy, either because I have just stood up for a loved one, or for that child.
To those in the majority, it may come as a surprise to know that it is other gay teachers who usually object to this approach most vociferously. The most common response is, “Are you crazy?” I've been asked that a lot, starting over thirty years ago at my insistence that one day gays would marry, have families, serve openly in the military, and achieve equality under the law. My colleagues acknowledge that my reasoning is sound, that my approach is necessary to instill an acceptance of self and others, and that gay teachers being openly gay to even our youngest students is no different than straight teachers mentioning spouses; but there is still great fear.
I understand that fear. I’m afraid right now. I don’t want to put my career in jeopardy. I don’t want to put my family or myself in physical danger. I don’t want irate parents screaming at me. I don’t want to leave here to find “dyke” spray painted on my vehicle.
These are real fears that we face. How we deal with them is a very personal matter. I only know that if we are to find real acceptance for our students, for our children, the number one deciding factor in how minorities are viewed is how well people are educated on people they consider different from themselves and the attitudes we attach to what we teach. I personally cannot teach children acceptance of themselves and others if I do not treat my own sexuality as a casual matter of course.
What we teach goes to the heart of our problem. We teach even very young children about the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., but they do not know who Harvey Milk was. We teach children that Sally Ride was the first American woman in space, but not that she was a lesbian. We think it’s important that children know that George Washington was married to Martha; but not that Maurice Sendak, who wrote the classic children’s tale, “Where the Wild Things Are,” was gay.
We teach that there IS no opposing viewpoint to the oppression of minorities—unless we’re discussing sexual minorities, where we have sacrificed children to cater to and reinforce prejudice. I’m sick of hearing that people are sick of the gay agenda, when that agenda is equality. I’m sick of our children being discarded by their own families, and shunned by their schools. I’m sick of statistics on suicide, children living on the streets who become part of the sex trade, kids turning to drugs and alcohol—and those facts being attributed not to systematic abuses that we have allowed society to perpetuate against them, but further evidence of them being inherently inferior.
Enough already. We need to make the changes, in our schools, in our classrooms, in our minds--unapologetically.
When parents complain that they don’t want their children being sent the message that it’s good to be something other than heterosexual, the message we must send to them is that we do not cater to prejudice, that our mission is to eradicate prejudice, and that we are doing what is just to promote acceptance of diversity.
It is not enough to promote tolerance—there is no other minority group for whom we could call for tolerance without it sounding as though we find them objectionable but are stuck with them.
Similarly, while I personally believe there is a genetic component that determines orientation, we need to steer away from the patronizing argument that we need to be more accepting of people because they were born that way. People of minority religions could convert to the majority religion; but that doesn’t mean they should be marginalized or discriminated against. The concept that minorities are to be pitied because we cannot change only reinforces the notion of there being a superior and an inferior status, when that ideology is where change needs to take place.
People always object to change. That’s why it’s foolish to solicit feedback from the majority on minority issues. Our mission is to protect all of our students and promote diversity; and for that, we do not need to seek permission. We do not need to defend. We need only respond to objections dispassionately, with the reminder that we do indeed have an agenda: that all of our students know that they have inherent worth and dignity, and that we do not cater to prejudice here.