School's Out: Giving Our Schools Some Homework
I just read an article in the most recent Curve magazine issue (which was themed around the concept of lesbian families) called "Back to School: How to Choose an LGBT-positive school for your child." This article was mostly written from the perspective of queer parents choosing a school for their child of whatever gender or orientation, based on the priority of finding an environment that is LGBT-affirming. The article suggests approaching potential schools with a checklist of questions such as "do school forms specify 'parent/guardian' rather than 'mother/father'?...Are any teachers out?...How does the school address issues of gender diversity?...Does the school encourage or support gender-diverse expressions and play?". Obviously, things have changed a lot since I was in elementary school, and I'm glad to see it.
I'm not sure why exactly, but I had imagined parents and schools as somehow separate, unable to talk to each other except through legislation and the occasional obligatory parent-teacher interview. My experience in the Canadian system was also one of being in public schools, never religious schools or private schools. I get the sense that community and accountability may be conceived differently in those environments. This article inspired me to think differently about the transformative power of education in queer issues and beyond, by helping me to realize that LGBT parents approaching schools to express their expectations and their child's needs can be a form of activism.
If parents evaluate a number of schools that don't meet their criteria for being an affirmative place, they have still raised awareness in those institutions about a set of specific questions which could be turned into school policies. And anyway, as one contributor to the article, Andra Oshinsky, notes "more often than not, [the] parents end up in the situation of having to move the school forward, rather than having the luxury of picking a school that's perfect to begin with." Though it may not be that most families have the options, the means, or the social status to be choosy with schools, those who are fortunate enough to vet schools for their queer-positivity are creating new relationships of accountability. They're saying that there are queer families in the community who are owed equal consideration by schools. Their quality of life cannot be justified as less important just because there may appear to be fewer of them. Schools don't just have to account for the gender and sexual diversity of their students, whose needs as young people on the subordinate side of the student/teacher authority relationship can sometimes be ignored with relative impunity. Schools also have to attend to queer adult tax-paying community members with kids—straight kids, queer kids, all kinds of kids.
Urging readers to think "big-picture," the Curve article also acknowledges that a student's needs from their education environment will change as they age, pointing out that schools which are affirming of a child's family may be most important in the earlier years, whereas issues pertaining to the child's individual identity may become driving factors later on. The article offers a hypothetical scenario where "a teenage male of color who has been adopted by white lesbian moms... may want to go to a school where he isn't an ethnic minority." While it would be totally counterproductive to anti-oppressive politics to assume that there would naturally be any antipathy to queer families from a community of color, I wonder if Curve's parental advice could go a little farther to acknowledge that the family may not just face a choice between which school district has more queer families or more families of color. They may also have to deal with the fact that it can be harder sometimes for a person of color to be out about his gay moms in communities of color that are fighting their own political battles. (I'm thinking again here of all those ideas about intersectionality, interlocking oppressions, etc. that I've mentioned in previous posts.)
I wonder, too, about this ubiquitous tacking of the T onto LGB, and what that means for choosing an affirming school. Just as the article implied with its example of a non-white student with queer parents, a positive environment for one minoritized identity is no guarantee of a positive environment for another. (I say "minoritized" instead of "minority" because I don't think that fewer numbers can justify less social attention to quality of life, and if you added the numbers of so-called "minority" peoples together, you would far outweigh the "majority.") In the Venn diagram of life, trans* interests and needs don't overlap wholly with LGB ones. A school which sees itself as "gay positive" doesn't necessarily have the resources or infrastructure (the bathroom debates rage on) to provide the same level of support for trans* kids.
And what about straight parents with not-straight kids? If they're inclined to collaborate in making safer spaces, they could also apply pressure to schools in this way. So could other parents, guardians, and families as a way of working in solidarity with gender and sexually diverse families and students.
As I was writing this post, my fiancée peeked over my shoulder and pointed out that the downside to a trend in school selectivity could be that homophobic parents could use the same set of questions to avoid schools that would broaden the viewpoints that their children receive at home. Their discrimination could contribute to a wider separation between ideological camps. My tongue-in-cheek response to her was that, since bigoted thinking is lazy thinking—a way to avoid critical reflection and paying attention to the experiences of others—I can only hope that those who use it as a weapon against gender and sexually diverse families won't bother expending the effort to make sure their schools don't open any closed minds.
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