Back-to-school time can be stressful for any parent. There are supplies to buy, schedules to arrange and forms to fill out. For many LGBTQ parents, it can bring up worries about our children’s inclusion and safety — but it can also be an opportunity for building bridges.
As I see it, there are three basic approaches we can take. First, we can wait until any questions or issues arise before discussing our families with teachers or administrators. This least-intrusive method gives children the chance to control how and when to come out about their families, which can be empowering and respectful, particularly for tweens and teens.
We can also be more proactive, setting up a meeting with the teacher to introduce ourselves and answer any questions they may have about LGBTQ families and individuals. If you think there may be issues, this could be the best way to bring them into the open. And if we find that the teacher is LGBTQ or a strong ally already, it could be a chance to share resources and ideas, such as inclusive books for the classroom.
A middle-ground approach is to find a way, without making a special appointment, to let our children’s teachers know we are an LGBTQ family — giving them a subtle reminder to be inclusive. A same-sex-parent family, for example, could go together to a start-of-year orientation, introducing themselves as “[Child’s] parents.”
There is no one right answer for every family every year. The first year in a school may require a different approach than the third. We may even mix methods the same year when dealing with homeroom teachers as well as music, art, physical-education and other specialists.
This flexibility is necessary because LGBTQ support in schools is still a work in progress. A new study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has confirmed earlier work showing that LGB students are at a higher risk of experiencing violence, bullying and depression than straight youth. (Other studies have indicated the same for transgender youth.) It seems that this climate would be stressful even to straight, cisgender students with LGBTQ parents as well. There are a few reasons to feel hopeful, however.
First, several of the biggest education associations in the country have recently made visible moves forward. On July 4, the National Education Association, long an LGBTQ ally, adopted a detailed action plan “to promote a culture of safety, support and affirmation that ensures civil rights and advocacy for LGBTQ members and students.” The plan includes partnering with civil- and LGBTQ-rights organizations on resources targeting “the unique needs of ethnic-minority LGBTQ students and educators;” supporting state and national legislation that forbids anti-LGBTQ discrimination; and challenging laws that allow such discrimination, such as North Carolina’s law prohibiting transgender students from restroom access matching their gender identity.
The next day, the National Parent Teacher Association adopted a resolution calling for “federal policies that specifically protect LGBTQ youth and local practices that create and maintain safe, affirming and inclusive learning environments for all students.”
Two weeks later, the American Federation of Teachers passed a resolution stating that the organization and its affiliates will support district, institutional and state policies for “the safety and educational achievement of LGBTQ students,” and will support the Federal Office for Civil Rights’ recent guidance to protect transgender students.
Also in July, 12 states plus the District of Columbia filed a “friend of the court” brief supporting the recent guidance from the U.S. Departments of Education and Justice on how federally funded schools can ensure respectful treatment of transgender students.
It’s a long way from policy to practice, of course — but California took a big step towards practice last month as well, when its State Board of Education unanimously approved a new History-Social Science Framework that requires students in several grades throughout elementary, middle and high school to study “the role of contributions” of LGBT Americans, among other groups.
And while this new curriculum doesn’t immediately translate to a better school environment, Equality California noted wisely in a press release: “By seeing themselves reflected, LGBTQ students are validated, which builds stronger opportunities for their academic and social success. LGBT-inclusive curricula also benefits all students by improving overall school climate.”
With or without state support, however, it can be hard for parents to know where to turn for advice and resources. I’ve therefore updated my annual annotated list of Back-to-School Resources for LGBTQ Parents, which you can find at my website, mombian.com.
We should remember, too, that LGBTQ identity is not the only aspect of school inclusion. Non-LGBTQ families that don’t fall into the one-mom/one-dad paradigm may have similar concerns. And both LGBTQ and non-LGBTQ families whose racial, ethnic or religious identities differ from the majority in their community, or where a member has physical or emotional challenges, may worry about a school’s response to those aspects of their lives as well. We may find sympathetic ears and mutual allyship in many places.
Sending our children off to school can be scary for any parent. As LGBTQ parents, we often have an extra layer of concern — but we have a community of support in the many LGBTQ parents who have gone before us and the allies who are increasingly stepping up. We must also trust that our children are strong and resilient at heart, even if they sometimes need our help. Things are not perfect yet, but I do believe they are getting better.
May the school year be full of learning and friendships for you and your families.