Sunday, September 24, 2017

The problem with mentioning sexual orientation in an elementary assembly

In my hourlong author presentation for grades 3 and up, I say that Bill Finger's only son Fred was gay.

It is an essential point in the story because it misdirected researchers for years into thinking Bill had no living heirs after Fred died in 1992.

It is a part of life and always has been.

And as of 2015, when the Supreme Court ruled in favor of gay marriage, it is a legally sanctioned part of life in the United States.

Yet unfortunately, none of this means that all accept it as part of life. 

This month, I spoke at eight elementary schools in multiple Illinois towns and, as usual, had a blast. The audiences rode the emotional roller coaster of a story the whole time, laughing, getting angry, and getting sad on cue. The principals, teachers, and librarians said kind things. A local paper wrote a nice piece on one of the visits.

Then I got an email from the principal of one of the schools (not the one in the article), who copied the superintendent, assistant superintendent for early childhood and elementary education, and that school's library media specialist. Here it is, anonymized:

I wanted to share a concern from a parent about the presentation you gave to our students. As you were sharing your story about meeting the son of one of the creators, there were comments made about his sexual orientation. This parent's daughter was very uncomfortable about the comments and the parent expressed her displeasure at this being included in a school assembly for 1st-5th graders.
I wanted to make you aware. As a building administrator I want to have information about the content of presentations and I want assurance that the content is suitable for the audience. You were recommended to us through the school system. Prior to the assembly I reviewed your website and was excited about the connections we would make to encourage reading. I didn't have reason to be concerned, however this parent's concern has increased my resolve to ask direct questions and avoid potential issues.
Thank you again for your time at [our school].

In my seven years of telling some form of this story to students from kindergartners to high school seniors in more than half the 50 states and almost a dozen countries, there have been ignorant and disrespectful reactions from audience members (which I immediately tamp down on), but this is the first time I have heard from an administrator. 

But then, of course, I'm not really hearing from an administrator. The principal is passing along a parent's concern. I want to believe that the principal does not agree with the parent. (After one of my talks at this school, this principal paid me a compliment, though I don't remember if it was the assembly in which I mentioned Fred's sexual orientation.) Because the principal is not asking for any action from me, and because the principal copied top-level administrators, it seems clear that the principal is simply covering for him/herself. Otherwise, now that the assembly is over, there would be no reason to involve me.

This is not the appropriate response to this situation. 

The only appropriate response is to address the problem.

The problem is not that an author mentioned a person's sexual orientation to students but rather that a parent reported the topic as inappropriate.

There was a time when mentioning sexual orientation to elementary students would have been provocative…but it never would have been inappropriate because it never would have been inappropriate to mention that a man loves a woman or a woman loves a man. 

There is so much to criticize and combat in this world, but when any two people love each other is not one of them.

After my talks, most school staff say nothing about my mention of Fred's sexuality. As I said, it's part of life. And some have commented to the contrary of what some in their community believe. One librarian in a southern state told me "They need to hear about this."

I would hope that this is what a principal would say to a concerned parent.

To address specific points in the principal's email:

  • "comments made about his sexual orientation": As already explained, it was comment, singular, a simple statement of fact: Fred was gay. For the people who were not at the assembly but who were copied on the email, this phrasing could imply I was soapboxing or even going into detail that would indeed be inappropriate for the age of the audience. But referencing sexual orientation is not referencing sex.
  • "This parent's daughter was very uncomfortable": The child was uncomfortable because the parent—whether through modeling or explicit instruction—taught her to be. Children are not born intolerant.
  • "school assembly for 1st-5th graders": I did not mention Fred's sexual orientation (or Fred) to grades 1 and 2—but only because I cut out a lot of the detective story for kids that age. It's purely logistical. I'd happily address homosexuality (and the nuances of other points I omit) in an age-appropriate way to kids of any age, but presenters always have to weigh the value of including a point versus the time it will take to sensitively explain it when compared against other points we want to make.
  • "I reviewed your website and was excited about the connections we would make to encourage reading": Yet the principal did not indicate to the administrators that this is precisely what the kids got. (See the last line of the article above.)
  • "increased my resolve to ask direct questions and avoid potential issues": I hope this does not mean that the principal will be asking potential future presenters in advance if they will mention a person's sexual orientation (or religion, or race, or...). Denying kids the benefit of a good author talk because of one issue that the unenlightened may object to (and that is not the main topic of the talk) is a colossal disservice to our future leaders, and to ourselves as well. 

In short: it's prejudiced. 

Every adult has a responsibility to model empathy for every child.

There may be kids at this school who have an openly gay parent or two gay parents. There are definitely kids at this school who are gay themselves, even though they may not know it yet. I am equal parts disappointed and enraged that they are in a school system where simply mentioning this aspect of themselves could be a "potential issue." But based on my experiences in schools in all parts of the country, I am confident in the ability of 21st century youth to be proud of who they are and to speak up against injustice.

Still, when doing so, they need the support of adults.

I debated replying to the principal and others copied on the email with some form of the above. But ultimately I decided that short is best. The point here is not the one point one person disliked (an opinion that probably won't change no matter what I say) but rather the merit of the experience as a whole for the majority. So this was my reply:

Thank you again for having me at your school. I had a lovely time; the kids were enthusiastic and engaged. In case you missed this, here is how the local paper covered my visit. [hyperlinked]
What did you and your staff think of my presentation?

As of this writing, I have not heard back.

But if I do, and the response is along the same lines as the initial email, I will direct the person responding to this post.

9/27/17 addendum: I directed the principal and the principal's colleagues to this post. The principal thanked me. That was it.


Jen said...

I do not read that principal's response as generously as you. There's a direct statement that the principal intends to "avoid potential issues". That's a shame and a disservice.

Marc Tyler Nobleman said...

Jen - I see your point and agree on the shamefulness (hence the post). But much as this email infuriated me, I want to give the principal the benefit of the doubt. If the principal DOES start prescreening authors, the school will likely get no authors. But I hope it doesn't come to that to deliver the needed wake-up call.

Marjorie said...

Ugghhhhh. You handled it well. But UGGHHHHH.

rocketdave said...

That's frustrating. Sorry to say that I'd have to agree with Jen's take. While I want to assume the best about people, if the principal thought that the complaint was without merit, contacting you about it would be pointless, and they definitely wouldn't consider it a sign that they need a more thorough vetting process when it comes to future speakers. Your response was more diplomatic than mine might have been. Not that I wouldn't have tried to avoid being overtly antagonistic, but I would have probably found it difficult for me to refrain from sarcastically telling the principal that I was sorry that they thought that merely acknowledging that gay people exist was a controversial issue.

Marc Tyler Nobleman said...

I have sent this post to the principal and other administrators.