Monday, February 26, 2018

ANOTHER problem with mentioning sexual orientation in an elementary assembly

This past fall, I reported an unfortunate circumstance in which a parent complained to an elementary school principal because an author speaker (me) mentioned a person's sexual orientation during a presentation. To be specific, I said Bill Finger's son Fred was gay.

Despite that incident, which (as far as I know) blew over quickly, I've continued to identify Fred as gay in presentations for all kids in grades 3 and up—with virtually no other pushback elsewhere. 

This past week, however, I experienced a different response—one I had not fully considered beforehand. 

After doing three assemblies at a Maryland elementary, as I was about to head out, both the principal and vice principal approached me. They said they knew I was trying to beat traffic but warmly asked if had even a few minutes to meet with a parent who was in the main office.

Before another word was said, I figured this, too, was probably about me saying "gay."

And I was right. 

But in the wrong way.

The father of two of the students had come in because one or possibly both of his girls were upset. Not because I mentioned that someone was gay. 

Because of the way a few students reacted when I mentioned that someone was gay. 

Because he and his husband (the girls' fathers) are gay.

Those few students had expressed disgust. Dishearteningly, this has happened at numerous other schools—and I swiftly and sternly crack down it on every time. I remind them to be respectful. I remind them that we treat people equally, as we wish to be treated. The snickers or snorts screech to a halt.

Of course their intolerance is not innate. It's not what these young people think. It's what certain adults in their lives think and have toxically passed down to them. 

It's secondhand hate.

This father—let's call him Matt—was rightfully distraught (at one point on the verge of tears) that his children were in the room when this happened. (I was not clear if he had seen his girls since the assembly.) I sympathized deeply with his whole family. The principal and vice principal praised how I handled the situation and impressed me by facilitating a conversation between Matt and me.

Matt was not mad at me. Quite the contrary: he was happy that I plainly referred to Fred's sexual orientation like any other fact of life. But he was eviscerated that this put his daughters at risk for emotional anguish among their peers. They do not live in an area with a visible gay community.

This is an especially terrible conflict: Matt simultaneously craves and fears full disclosure. Heterosexuals do not truly know how it feels to have the nature of our love—the core of a human's being—challenged, mocked, loathed. Straight privilege. 

Then Matt asked me a question I was not expecting:

"What should I tell my daughters?"

I am quite sure he already knew, but was fogged in a kind of grief. I said I'm disappointed that we as a society are not there yet but I feel moments like these move us forward. Yes, talking about sexual orientation in mixed company can be difficult because of the small-mindedness of some, but not talking about it is a disservice to all. Of course he already knew that, too.

Matt wondered aloud what if anything schools could do to prevent ignorant reactions like what happened that day. I said I feel a good approach is simply bringing up the subject naturally, without any setup; this normalizes it.

I assured Matt that it was only a small handful of students who reacted insensitively and when I told them that was unacceptable, they went silent. I told Matt that I believe this situation, while hurtful at first, would have a positive effect. His girls heard an adult tell a group of young people that it is perfectly okay (and common) to be gay. Some kids have never heard that before. His kids have never heard that before, in such a setting.

I stammered other words that I hoped would sound supportive. Matt seemed genuinely receptive…and by the end, even somewhat relieved. He thanked me. I thanked him. The vice principal thanked us both. Everyone thanked everyone. 

Matt's family had plans to see Black Panther that night. Speaking of broadening minds…

By the way, the name of one Matt's daughters is Athena.

Same name as Fred's daughter.

4/27/18 addendum: what happened next. (Warning: emotional.)


KirstenA said...

Great way to handle it! My daughter was introduced to 2 moms at the bus stop when she started kindergarten. She was confused about it and asked why the girl called both women mom. I simply said all families are different, some kids have parents in different homes, some kids have just one parent, some kids are raised by grandparents, or an aunt or uncle, or have 2 moms or 2 dads, etc. In any situation, as long as they are loved than that’s what makes a family. I’m glad that girl was able to get some reassurance from a superhero super author to let her know that it’s ok! Hey, if just one child will take pause before saying something disrespectful in the future, I call that success.

Joey said...

I am Matt (Joe) in the blog above. I really appreciate Marc taking the time to talk with me before leaving our school last Friday. I was emotional and very concerned, and even a little surprised at the negative reaction of some of the students. Yes we do not live in an area with a large LGBTQ community, but there is a sizable one. But it’s the pool of families headed by same sex parents with school age children that is miniscule. As far as we are aware we are the only such family at our school. I was surprised because, naively, I had thought that living in a liberal area of a liberal state would mean episodes like this were unlikely to happen. My daughters were very hurt by the reaction in the presentation, and later one of them experienced two other homophobic episodes that same day. It’s hard for any parent to watch their children process episodes like this. For the most part since we have been at the school, less than a year now, all has been wonderful. We did have an episode earlier in the year where a good friend at school repeated some negativity her parents had said. Yes I am happy that Marc talks about the authors gay son and his daughter. I absolutely agree that it is a positive in the long run. But I hate that my daughters are part of the learning curb for their classmates and the school and I cringe and wince every time I think of the little lgbtq children sitting on the carpet who anonymously and silently suffered the negativity and ugliness of some of their classmates. We are lucky that the staff knew about us and quickly decided to,check in with out girls, we are lucky that we have such a receptive and caring leadership and staff at our children’s school. We are lucky that we live in state that has laws to protect us. But I was surprised to learn that there has been no professional training in this particular area. We have been reassured that this will change. We love our school and our new community and we are determined to help them move forward to meet all their students needs. As I told some of the staff at the school, when I was in elementary school there was no safe place there or at home to be open and myself. I hope we can do better for this generation of little lgbtq children and for families like ours. We did enjoy Black Panther, it in itself being unique, we are a racially varied family, discussing it helped us process the day. Again, thank you Marc for your inclusivity and your empathy. Our best to you!
Joseph, Chris, Gabriela, and Athena

Joey said...

Just a quick footnote, I in no way fear full disclosure. I came out at 15 and have never looked back.

Marc Tyler Nobleman said...

So great to hear from you, Joe. Your comment adds so much to this story. Thank you.

I apologize that my "full disclosure" comment was unclear: I was not referring specifically to your orientation but broadly to the fact that some people are gay. We want to openly discuss it but worry that the reactions of an ignorant few could have a negative impact.

Bellevue reader-teacher-librarian said...

Hi Marc and readers,
Each time you receive push back in an assembly or school session about telling the story of your book and using language to describe sexual orientation, I would urge you to report the issue at the American Library Association's Intellectual Freedom office's website for reporting censorship and challenges: (Hoping you already have, but just in case.) Their office provides free consultations on these matters as well, so anyone reading about this should reach out if you have similar issues in your schools.

Thanks for your open and honest storytelling!

Marc Tyler Nobleman said...

Bellevue - thanks for this kind and helpful comment!