3 min

Home life, school life

Children of queer parents face the classroom

The gayby-boom is underway. Queer families of every configuration and colour are blossoming, producing a generation of children who take it for granted that they have two moms, two dads or sometimes both. So what happens when children from queer households enter our education system?

“Anyone who wants to be a parent has to deal with their own shame, bad feelings, homophobia,” says Rachel Epstein, coordinator of the LGBT [lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans] Parenting Network at the Family Service Association Of Toronto. “Because once you have kids you’ve got to be prepared to be out everywhere, including in schools.”

Martin Bourgeois is the gay father of two children, now 13 and seven, with a lesbian mother. He suggests that rather than reactive measures, it is important for queer parents to be proactive in ensuring a safe and open environment for their children. Every year he and his coparents introduce themselves to their children’s teachers and encourage them to be aware and inclusive in their classroom practices.

While individual queer families are slowly having an impact on the school system, institutional initiatives are also underway. In 2001, the Elementary Teachers’ Federation Of Ontario (ETFO) passed resolutions encouraging school boards to set aside funds to obtain educational materials reflecting queer realities in family structures. Resources available include books like Asha’s Mums, Daddy’s Roommate and One Dad, Two Dads, Brown Dad, Blue Dads. ETFO also asked its local branches to address heterosexism and homophobia among its own members.

Both ETFO and the Toronto District School Board (TDSB) have strongly worded equity policies in place to protect the rights of queer students and families. But Vanessa Russell, a former teacher with the Triangle program at the TDSB and a doctoral candidate at the Ontario Institute For Studies In Education at the University Of Toronto (OISE/UT) says it’s meaningless without enforcement. “The TDSB equity policy has strong gums but no teeth.”

Epstein agrees. She says kids are internalizing the heterosexism that they learn in schools and directing it toward their same-sex parents. “Why is it that children born into, living in LGBT families start drawing pictures of mum and dad? Why do they start writing stories about mum and dad?”

She adds that having out teachers and straight allies within the system is crucial. Long-time activist and former TDSB teacher Tim McCaskell says he’s often challenged other teachers to be out in the classroom and to use their position to improve school life for queer students. But, “the lubricant of closetry has eased our passage through the promotional canal [of the TDSB],” he says wryly.

Teachers’ closeted behaviours reflect the reticence to talk about sexuality in our elementary schools. The few conversations about sexuality, sexual identity and sexual orientation that do occur tend to take place in high schools. Anti-homophobia education workshops by groups like Teens Educating And Confronting Homophobia (TEACH) and SpeakOut are requested with higher frequencies in high schools than in primary grades.

Recently a Toronto high school the Ursula Franklin Academy, hosted Converge, a multi-school event organized by its Students Against Sexual Stereotyping (SASS) group. Unlike Ursula Franklin, most schools respond to queer sexualities and cultures in a reactive manner. They program anti-homophobia workshops only in response to a specific hate incident.

However, at a few schools in Toronto like the Scarborough Academy For Technological, Environmental And Computer Education (SATEC), Victoria Park Secondary and the University Of Toronto Schools the staff have made the first move by establishing gay/straight alliances. Although originally intended for queer youth, children of queer parents often get involved because they face similar discrimination.

Despite the potential difficulties, Epstein recommends that queer parents should not be overly protective of their children. She offers as example, “One day the child comes home from school, obviously upset, and asks ‘Why do we have to be so different?’ Her two moms look at one another in distress, angry that their child has been subject to homophobia. Gently they ask her what’s wrong. She replies, ‘Why do we have to be vegetarian?'”

Most of the time, gaybys will undergo the same trials and tribulations as any kid growing up and going to school. It is important for queer parents to remember that, just as it is important for society to remember that queer parents are just parents most of the time and have the same types of questions and concerns about their children as most straight parents have.

Bourgeois acknowledges that his children have and will continue to face varying levels of homophobia as they get older. But he cautions other queer parents from protecting their children too much. “Talk about homophobia… start at age two. Share your experiences with other parents and teachers. But remember that our kids have a right to their own experience at school.”

* On Fri, Jun 25, Pride’s Fruit For Thought speaker series presents Queer Parenting: The Kids Are Alright, an evening of discussion with couple Ann-Marie MacDonald and Alisa Palmer, and syndicated columnist Dan Savage. Event starts at 7:30pm at MacMillan Theatre (80 Queen’s Park Cres). Tickets are $17 and are available at This Ain’t The Rosedale Library (483 Church St), the Toronto Women’s Bookstore (73 Harbord St) and the Hart House Theatre box office (7 Hart House Circle).

Also on Fri, Jun 25, OISE/UT hosts the free conference Stories Of Struggle, Pride And Victory from 9am-5pm at (252 Bloor St W). For more info check out

The Family Pride Picnic is happening 11am-1pm at Church Street Junior Public School on Sat, Jun 26 as part of the Pride Week celebrations.