4 min

Homosexuality for kids

In Toronto's elementary schools, anti-homophobia education is all about families

Credit: Dean Tomlinson

Steven Solomon, school social worker in the Toronto District School Board’s Human Sexuality Program, is sitting in front of approximately 44 wiggly grade ones and twos at Hawthorne II Bilingual Alternative School.

He wants to know what a lesbian is.

The eager faced kid with the spiky hair right up front knows the answer.

“I think it means born with no arms or legs,” he says.

Solomon smiles – next!

Talking to six-year olds about lesbians is part of Solomon’s job. He runs what he calls “family values” workshops: anti- homophobia workshops for Toronto District School Board students.

Solomon’s workshops are available to all Toronto public school students, but he conducts the bulk of them with primary and junior-school students. Registering for his workshops is easy. At the beginning of the school year, Solomon sends out information on the workshops to each of the schools in the Toronto District School Board, then, teachers, principals or students can telephone him to arrange a workshop at their school.

Rightwingers argue that younger children shouldn’t learn about homosexuality, since they don’t even know about sex. Solomon’s approach focusses more on families, labels and not judging people. It’s pretty tame stuff.

Back at Hawthorne, Solomon wants to get the grade ones and twos thinking about gay and lesbian families.

“What’s a normal family?” he wants to know.

“Someone with one mom and one dad,” says a boy, bobbing back and forth.

Nope! Solomon asks the kids if everyone has that family, or if families even have to have children to be a family.

Their answer to both questions is no. Solomon gets the kids to name different types of families and writes their answers on a blackboard next to him.

Then, Solomon shows them a video on gay and lesbian families. Afterwards, he wants to know what they remember about the kid’s families in the video.

One calm, quiet girl has the answer.

“They looked like any type of kid having two dads and moms,” she says.

Solomon points to the blackboard, which is now full of descriptions of different types of families. Which of these families is normal, he wants to know.

“All of them,” says a girl with pigtails.

Hardly scandalous work, but something that many people feel makes a real difference. The Human Sexuality Program was developed in the wake of the 1985 fatal beating of Kenneth Zeller in High Park. The five male high school students were heard saying hours before that they were going to beat up a faggot. Since the November murder of Aaron Webster in Vancouver’s Stanley Park, BC activists have been working on similar projects.

Solomon has been conducting these workshops for a year and a half. He’s received occasional complaints. For example, one parent pulled his child out of Solomon’s workshop at Hawthorne, citing religious concerns. But his workshops have also received support from many parents.

Solomon isn’t the only educator in the Toronto District School Board talking about gay and lesbian families and homophobia with children. He’s part of an increasing number of Toronto public school pioneers who are addressing these issues with primary and junior school students.

Solomon says primary and junior level teachers are just “catching up to demographics,” by talking about homophobia in their classrooms. Although there have always been queer parents, “there are more kids being raised by a lesbian mom, a gay dad, or a bisexual parent. I think the comfort level of those parents to be out at their schools is incredible.”

Solomon says it’s important that these parents feel that their child’s school situation is safe.

“For them, anti-homophobia work is crucial to ensure the physical and emotional safety of their kids,” he says.

Teachers’ unions and school boards are also starting to recognize the need for homophobia-free classrooms. Last August, the Elementary Teacher’s Federation Of Ontario passed a resolution encouraging school boards to fund each school in purchasing materials that reflect lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender realities. Also, the Toronto District School Board passed its anti-homophobia equity policy in 1999. It requires that principles related to anti-homophobia, sexual orientation, and equity are reflected across the school board.

Doing anti-homophobia work at the Toronto board isn’t easy or risk-free.

In fact, talking about homophobia and queer families in schools still makes many teachers and administrators nervous, says Vanessa Russell, instructional leader at the board’s equity department. She fields calls from principals and teachers who want to know how to deal with parents with religious objections to anti-homophobia education in their child’s schools.

Russell says many principals have even received a form letter, entitled the Declaration Of Parental And Family Rights from some parents asking that their child be excluded from any class that “discusses or portrays the lifestyles of homosexuals, lesbians, bisexuals and or transgendered individuals as normal.” The letter threatens legal action if the declaration is violated.

“The anxiety around doing this work is palpable,” says Russell. “It takes one parent to complain to make the school really nervous about doing this work again.”

And, she says, it’s very difficult for the six people who work in the board’s equity department to enforce its anti-homophobia equity policy across 600 schools. In the end, it’s up to the teacher or the school to decide how homophobia will be addressed.

But despite the risk of offending some parents, many teachers aren’t sitting back.

Gini Dickie, a grade six teacher at Lord Dufferin junior and senior public school, uses subtle methods to include gay and lesbian realities in her classroom.

For example, on her math tests she might include a question about a gay couple’s purchases in place of those of a heterosexual couple. This year she will present an article about a woman who passed as a man during the American Civil War and include information about two-spirited people when she teaches Aboriginal studies.

Dickie knows that many of her students still have homophobic attitudes; they just don’t express them at Lord Dufferin where homophobic put-downs aren’t tolerated. But she thinks that she can fight homophobia by creating a queer-inclusive classroom.

“In one year I don’t think you can make kids really comfortable with it,” she says. “But I think you can plant the seeds.”

At Church Street Junior Public School, anti-homophobia education is taught year-round as part of the school’s mandatory anti-oppression curriculum, We’re Erasing Hate For Good.

But in June last year, teachers and students did something extra to fight against homophobia and to celebrate the families they came from. The whole school created a quilt that showed families in all their diversity: same-sex families, inter-generational families and multiracial families and hung it outside their school during Pride week.

Serge Parravano, the librarian at Church Street, organized the quilt.

“It was uplifting because the kids all of a sudden started to make the connections, [that] here we’re all very different, we all have different families,” he says. “We reaffirmed the people who felt insecure about their families…. It was a validation for everybody.”