Remember your first day of school? The excitement and anxiety over whether you’d fit in and whether the other kids would like you? For queer parents of kids in elementary school, these fears still loom large.
“We worry that people won’t like who we are and take it out on our kids,” says Rachel Epstein, a parent and coordinator of the LGBT Parenting Network.
“It can be an incredibly conservatizing experience. People who are otherwise confident activists will sometimes go into the school system and become quivering wrecks.”
Although the Toronto District School Board (TDSB) is one of the only school boards in Canada with an explicit antihomophobia policy, its application is uneven. Wayne Lee, a TDSB equity instructional leader, says the school board is committed to “a safe, positive and inclusive learning environment for all students” and has developed queer-specific curriculum guides like “Rainbows And Triangles” for classroom use. But antihomophobia training is entirely optional for teachers and cutbacks within the TDSB makeit hard to implement the policies.
In the elementary grades, inclusive curricula generally means including same-sex families in such exercises as the family tree project where students are asked to depict their families.
“We heard from one kid of a lesbian mom who asked the teacher what to do if she had no dad, which is required to fill in the traditional family tree,” says Epstein. “The teacher replied, ‘What, were you born in a jar?’ We want to change this exercise into something that includes our families.”
The Queer Parenting Initiative, a joint project of the LGBT Parenting Network and several other local organizations including the Centre For Addiction And Mental Health and Gay Fathers Of Toronto, have developed a queer-inclusive family tree poster, available in French and English. The TDSB is developing matching curricula that can be used for “family day” exercises.
The Elementary Teachers’ Federation Of Ontario (ETFO) has also developed materials to encourage teachers to make their classrooms more queer-friendly.
“There are two pamphlets called Responding To Homophobia And Heterosexism and Challenging Homophobia And Heterosexism,” says Joan Beecroft of queer advocacy group Egale Canada. “There is a terrific new book called Imagine A World That Is Free From Fear, which is a book of lessons, resource lists and much more for kindergarten to grade eight, which deals with themes of bullying, pride, safe schools and relationships.
“Parents could ask their child’s teacher if they are being used in the classroom,” says Beecroft, cochair of Egale’s education committee.
Despite all the official policies and available resources, the school experience is unpredictable. One queer parent may have positive experiences while another parent with kids in the same school may run up against a particular teacher’s homophobic attitude.
What’s even harder to counteract is opposition coming from other parents. In 2004 a group of Muslim parents with children at Market Lane Public School complained that their religious beliefs were being violated when their children were shown an antihomophobia education video.
Tackling parental opposition at a school is especially hard because there is sometimes no more than one or two queer families in any given school. There’s no citywide support group or parental equivalent of a gay/straight alliance, where support and strategies could be shared.
This means that queer parents are often left to tackle the system alone. Every new school year, queer parents make appointments with classroom teachers and principals to introduce their families, suggest reading materials and sit on parent-teacher committees in an effort to get to know other parents, but the effort often has to be sustained year after year.
“It’s exhausting,” says Epstein. “The temptation is to be the parent extraordinaire who’s at every bake sale and on every committee, just because we want to make other parents like us. And still, our families are always seen through a queer lens where if anything goes wrong it’s because we’re gay. It’s hard to know how to effectively support our kids.”