It's that time of year again: back-to-school time! This is a busy time of year for us, as it is for most parents. Mostly it's about shopping. The kids need new school clothes, backpacks, water bottles, and sundry school supplies. But as parents of a gay-identified second-grader, we have a unique set conversations that accompany this time of year.
Each year, before school starts, we have intake conferences: half an hour of one-on-one time with each of our kids' new teachers. Our kindergartner was easy. I told them how great our 5-year-old son is, added a little about his quirks, and listened to the teacher tell me about the changes in the dress code and pick-up/drop-off procedures. Then it was time to meet with our older son's second-grade teacher. It went much like the first one, until the very end. Our kiddos were playing in another part of the classroom, putting together puzzles; discussions of curriculum changes are mind-numbing, so they'd found something better to do.
"By the way, my son identifies as gay," I told the unsuspecting educator.
"Oh!" she she replied, her eyebrows shooting up to her hairline. (And can I mention how used to this response I am? I just did.) Then she asked one of the questions that has become par for the course: "Does he know what that means?"
"Yes," I told her. "He even has a television boyfriend." I let that sink in for a minute. "I mention this because he has talked about his boyfriend in school before and probably will again, and I wanted you to know that we know about it. There is nothing wrong with our kid, and that's really the only opinion we accept on the subject."
After a few seconds she shook off her surprise. "No problem," she said. "I am totally on board."
We are lucky. When my son started identifying as gay last year, I had a sit-down with his principal. I wanted to make sure that the school was aware that they had a gay student, and that we know all about it and are perfectly OK with who our son is. I also wanted to make sure that the school was aware of the sort of anti-gay hate speech that can be overheard at elementary schools these days. Calling someone or something "gay" is unfortunately part of the vocabulary of younger and younger children. As "innocent" as this may be, it can be very harmful to gay children. It reinforces the notion, shared by an unfortunately large part of our society, that being gay, or being called gay, is something bad. Hate speech is not something I am willing to tolerate in my sons' school. Fortunately, the school's principal is a big ally in the fight for equal rights and leads his school with that attitude. He has been a great supporter of our kid.
Other families aren't so lucky. Their schools aren't willing to stand by all of their students and fight for their equal rights. They aren't willing to treat words like "gay," "fag," and "queer" like hate speech when they are used against their students. And as long as our state governments continue to exclude sexual orientation as a protected class in anti-discrimination policies, there isn't any recourse. And when there is, it usually involves the court system and long legal battles. We live in one of those states.
As I said, we are lucky. And although that's true, it is unfortunate that we feel this way. It shouldn't be luck that keeps my child safe at his school. Our son has nothing to be ashamed of; he is simply who he is. These talks aren't something we should have to do. But we feel it is important to be upfront and honest with our school and let them know what we expect of them. After all, the quickest way for anyone to fall short of our expectations is to be ignorant of what our expectations are. Our goal is to make his teacher more aware of her own words and actions, and those of her students, than she might have been before. I'm not assuming that she isn't already a big supporter of equality, but knowing that a student in her class will be directly affected by anti-gay speech can only heighten her awareness.
I'm not going to pretend that these conversations are always easy. I was happy that our boys were busy when we talked to our older son's teacher. I don't like him to hear too many conversations about his orientation, as if it were something weird or different. Right now, everything he feels and expresses is very natural and easy for him, and I'd like to keep that going for as long as possible.
We don't have a script to follow, because we are the only ones we know with a gay kid in elementary school. But the fact remains: We are our child's biggest advocates, and we need to be that for him.
And it won't end with this conversation. There will be others. After we finished our intake conferences, my husband and I openly wondered when we'll get to stop having these discussions. We don't think it'll be anytime soon, but that's OK, because we're his parents, and right now, it is just part of the job.