One of the most cynical - and successful - claims made during the Yes on Proposition 8 campaign was that unless the proposition passed, our schoolchildren would be subjected to teachings about homosexuality. The No on 8 campaign's response? In essence: as my 4 year old daughter says, "nuh-unh!"
Don't get me wrong. I know full well that the proposition has no legal impact on what we teach in the schools. And I also understand that in the heat of the campaign, engaging in a protracted argument over what our schools teach would not have been a smart move. Campaigns are all about sound bites, and "yes it's a good idea to affirm in an age-appropriate way the diversity of family structure and sexual orientation in our community" doesn't exactly fit on a bumper sticker.
So the No on 8 campaign ceded ground, allowing the opposition to frame themselves as defenders of our state's innocent schoolchildren and proponents of same-sex marriage -- including implicitly LGBT parents and teachers -- as a threat to that innocence. The Yes on 8 folks went so far as to frame King and King, a sweet fairy tale about two princes who get married, as a textbook on homosexuality. And in what had to be the most painful media moment of the campaign, they twisted a lovely gesture by a group of San Francisco parents to celebrate their kids'1st grade teacher's wedding into an object lesson on The Gay Agenda for Our Schoolchildren. All the No on 8 campaign could say, in increasingly shrill tones, was "but that's not what we're talking about!!!!"
I understand the strategy. But here's the thing: we lost. And lest we cede any more ground, I think it's time we tell it like it is. Respectful classrooms that teach children to value each individual and every family? A goodness.
Full disclosure here. My daughter is part of a two-mom family (and yes, we like the book King and King. We even named our cats after two of the characters.) My daughter is in preschool now, on the cusp of becoming a schoolchild next year. As I look towards her entry into kindergarten, I want to make sure she attends a school where she feels comfortable talking about her family. Where diversity of all types is celebrated, and where prejudice is addressed before it leads to bullying, exclusion, and worse.
But creating a climate of acceptance doesn't just benefit the kids of same-sex couples. It benefits all of us. We live in a diverse society surrounded by people different from us based on race, gender, nationality, ability, and sexual orientation. Schoolchildren live in families with single parents, grandparents, foster parents, same-sex parents. An acceptance and affirmation of this diversity should be integrated into every child's education.
To be sure, some would argue that such teachings should be left to the home. Certainly parents are free to raise their children with whatever belief system they choose. But when it comes to the institutions of public life, we need to ensure a basic level of respect and safety.
This doesn't necessarily mean reading King and King in the classroom (though if you ask me, we can't go wrong with a fantasy tale that we can all find the person of our dreams). It doesn't mean sitting kids down with a curriculum on marriage (I can just see it now: "Episcopalians define marriage as....For Muslims, marriage means....Mormons used to practice polygamy...."). But what it does mean is acknowledging that diverse families exist and that some schoolchildren will, in fact, grow up to fall in love with someone of the same sex.
A new national report shows just how important this acknowledgement is, and just how much work we still have ahead of us. The Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN) recently released a study showing that nearly nine out of ten LGBT middle and high school students experienced harassment at school in the past year because of their sexual orientation. But there's some good news, because this same study found that students in schools with protections based on sexual orientation and with supportive staff were significantly less likely to experience harassment.
Thankfully there are some great organizations out there to help schools create a safer, more inclusive environment. GLSEN works with school communities to create safe learning environments through policy advocacy and trainings for school administrators, teachers and students. Groundspark, creator of a number of educational films on preventing school bias and celebrating family diversity, will soon premier "Straightlaced," a new film encouraging teens to question their assumptions about gender roles and homophobia. Children of Lesbians and Gays Everywhere and (in the Bay Area) Our Family Coalition help families and youth navigate the school system and advocate for all families.
So there's one thing both the proponents and opponents of Prop. 8 were right about -- Prop. 8 had nothing to do with the schools. And it had everything to do with the schools.