This is not what I envisioned.
I was sure that one day, years from now, when my two daughters were teenagers, they would face some sort of harassment in school because they have gay dads. In my daydream, they would stand up on the cafeteria tables and belt out some incredible song about diversity, inclusiveness and love. The entire school would join in at the chorus. After the closing line, the bullies would come up and give my daughters a hug. OK, so maybe that was just an episode of Glee, but a dad can dream, right?
Instead of what I envisioned, my now-7-year-old daughter came home last week -- the second week of school -- and asked me, "Poppy, what's a sissy?"
For a second I choked. "Well, honey, in what context did you hear that word?" Blank stare.
As it turns out, she heard the word in a story that fortunately did have a happy ending, with the bullies calling the book's character "super" instead of "sissy" by the end of the story.
But it did open up the dreaded conversation about bullying a lot earlier than I had hoped. So we talked about words that hurt people because of the color of their skin, who they pray to and, yes, who their parents or friends are.
I thought my kids were ready for school. They were armed with ready answers about why they had two dads, what adoption means and why families come in all sorts of colors.
But I was wrong. They were not ready. Perhaps more accurately, I was not ready. I should have been.
After all, I knew that a 2008 study showed that 42 percent of kids with LGBT parents reported being bullied or harassed at school. I also was aware that my own organization, the Family Equality Council, recently prepared a back-to-school tool kit for parents concerned about safe schools.
But unfortunately, I was living in a dream world where I thought I had time to prepare. Not anymore.
And so, I encourage everyone to follow these eight great tips:
- Ask Questions: Ask the principal and your child's teacher if they are aware of other LGBT families at the school currently or in the past. Ask how school staff deal with comments like "that's so gay" or other anti-LGBT slurs. Ask whether the staff has received training on how to support students with LGBT families. Ask the school librarian if the library contains books that include LGBT families. Find out who is on the school board, PTA and other influential groups at school, and research their records regarding inclusiveness.
- Be Out: Be as out as you feel you safely can be in your community. Meet with your principal and teacher to introduce your family. Introduce yourselves to other families at school. Let your child's teacher know what language you use to describe your family relationships (e.g., Daddy/Papa, Eva has two moms). Be a guest speaker in your child's class, at a staff meeting or at a PTA meeting.
- Get Involved: Parents can have a huge influence in their school communities when they get involved. Volunteer in your child's classroom, or help out in the school. Take on a leadership role: join the PTA, site council, diversity committee or curriculum review committee. Make your voice heard: express your thanks when the school or district takes steps to be LGBT-inclusive, and vocally oppose any anti-LGBT policies or actions. Speak up at a school board meeting, or email board members and district administrators about issues that impact your family.
- Check Policies: Take a look at your school or district's policies addressing discrimination, harassment and bullying to see if they include sexual orientation and gender identity/expression. If they don't, work with administrators, teachers and other parents to change them.
- Fix Forms: If your school forms say "mother/father" rather than "parent/guardian," ask if they could be updated to include all families.
- Provide Resources: Suggest specific, concrete ways the school could change to be more supportive of your family. Offer suggestions for age-appropriate books, videos, curriculum and other materials that include LGBT families. Donate some of these resources if you can. Offer suggestions for how to deal with potentially sticky situations like Father's Day, Mother's Day, family-tree assignments or how to respond when other parents have questions about your family. Let your principal and teacher know about LGBT-related staff development opportunities, such as local trainers or conferences.
- Build Community: Organize a get-together with the parents/guardians of other children in your child's classroom. If there are other LGBT families at your school, organize an LGBT and Ally potluck at school. Start an LGBT school advocacy group in your district or region. There is great strength in numbers and in diverse voices advocating for fairness.
- Expect More! Whether your school is just beginning the process of becoming a welcoming environment for LGBT families or has already taken great strides to do so, continue to raise your expectations. Nearly every school could take further steps to become even more welcoming and inclusive of LGBT families. Help your school move to the next level.
The kit, along with additional resources for parents, can be downloaded from the Family Equality Council website at www.familyequality.org/resources.