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Breaking the Silences: Lesbian and Gay Parents and the Schools


by Virginia Casper, Steven Schulz & Elaine Wickens - 1992

Examines responses of homosexual parents and their children's teachers and administrators concerning parent-school communication. The article discusses dynamics that encourage homosexual parents to disclose their homosexuality to the school and the value or risk placed on disclosure. It reports on issues of gender, offering parent and faculty narratives. (Source: ERIC)


There is not one but many silences, and they are an integral part of the strategies that underlie and permeate discourses.


—Michel Foucault


Close connections between school and home are increasingly being viewed by teachers as central to their work. Responding to the challenges of antibias and multicultural education, many teachers are recognizing and grappling with an understanding of the cultural backgrounds of the children they teach. In the process, many have become even more aware of the importance of school-home communication. Yet cultural misunderstandings frequently occur between parents and educators.1 Besides language miscommunications and divergent expectations about the responsibilities of school and home, silences, too, complicate attempts to understand the other’s point of view. For lesbian and gay parents, these silences can play a more central role. The opening of a dialogue between gay parents and teachers and the existence of an active but “silenced dialogue” under the surface of parent-teacher discourse are two routes toward widely different understandings.2 Dialogue not only brings lesbian and gay parenting as one family structure into the open; it creates possibilities for children to experience greater congruence between their understandings of family at home and in school.


In this article we will report on the responses of some lesbian and gay parents and their children’s teachers and administrators concerning communication between school and parents. We are concerned with the dynamics that encourage gay and lesbian parents to communicate (or not communicate) their sexual orientation to the school, and the value or risk they place on such disclosure. Because this article is intended for educators, we focus the disclosure section on the voices of parents. By providing a chance to hear the concerns of parents, teachers and administrators can consider more fully their own practice as it affects lesbian and gay parents and their children. The second part of this article reports on issues of gender. There is a divergence between the ideas expressed by many gay and lesbian parents and their children’s teachers about issues of gender nonconformity and the importance of role models for their children. Because of this, we include the narratives of both parents and school staff in the gender section.


We began this project three years ago, building on our interests, past research, and the interests and questions of our graduate students at Bank Street College. As we heard teachers and students grapple with some of the issues emerging in their own classrooms, we became aware that t-here was no published research on gay-headed families and their interactions with schools, despite their increasing number and visibility.3 We wanted to learn about the concerns and questions these parents had as they enrolled their young children (between three and seven years old) in school. But we were equally interested in the responses of the school staff to teaching children with lesbian or gay parents. We started pilot interviews to ask the questions: What did they think of lesbians, of gay men? And how did their images of homosexuality—and children—mesh with their practice?


This is primarily a descriptive account. We include many excerpts from our interview transcripts because the voices of parents and teachers speak clearly and eloquently. The commentary is meant to organize, highlight, and give particular meaning to aspects of the narratives. We reserve our views about the implications of this work for teachers and teacher education for the discussion section at the end. It should be clear that when researchers use themselves as the instruments for data collection, their experiences, values, and perspectives become a part of the work.4 This certainly is the case in our study. We do not pretend to remove all vestiges of our own “biases; therefore, it is only fair to be explicit about those aspects of our background that have direct bearing on the work. Two of us are gay parents and one of us is neither gay nor a parent. We all have a history of work in promoting multicultural and anti-bias activity with young children, though focusing on different age groups. We have done this as teachers and as teacher educators. All of us hold the values and aims of progressive education close to our work, and we all have engaged in progressive activities outside of the classroom, within the larger political arena. We see our obvious commonalities and our clear differences as important strengths in our work together. The commonalities allowed us to work together as a team. Our differences kept us honest.


There are an estimated eight to ten million children being raised in three million gay- and lesbian-headed households in the United States.5 Gay families are usually described as a new family structure in the media, as in an article on gay and lesbian couples in Newsweek's Special Edition on The 21st Century Family.6 Actually, gay men and lesbians have always raised children. This is clear in the examination of diverse cultures in Europe during the Middle Ages, and of certain groups of Native American mea (whom anthropologists termed “berdache”) who had homosexual relations and occasionally raised children.7 What is new, we believe, is that gay political and t social movements are increasing the visibility of gay-headed families with children and that this visibility has encouraged more gay and lesbian adults to choose to have children. Thus, we do see an increase in numbers of gay-headed households as well as added visibility of families that already existed. Gay and lesbian adults are also increasingly being recognized and granted basic family rights, such as care of a disabled lover, rights to rent-controlled apartments in New York, and legal recognition of same-sex co-parenting.8 This is one reason why we will be careful to distinguish gay-headed families (gay parents with children) from gay families. The term gay families refers more accurately to any lesbian or gay unit regardless of whether there are children involved. In fact, the very concept of family is being redefined. The Gay and Lesbian Project at the Ackerman Family Therapy Institute is currently comparing how homosexual and heterosexual men and women define family.9

THE CHALLENGES OF PARENTHOOD


Parenthood is no longer considered a developmental stage in and of itself, in part because the maturational issues in children’s development are absent. Instead parenthood is seen as part of the complex and transactional nature of adult development.10 Shanok defines parenthood as a role, and parenting as a relationship in which “identity and intimacy together combine to form the essence of human experience: . . . the discrete self in relation to family, friends, community.“11 Although deciding to become a parent is different from simply becoming a parent, a process of identity change occurs nonetheless. Considerations about adoption, natural childbirth, sharing of caregiving roles, financial matters, and fantasies about the child’s place in the family begin before the infant’s arrival. After the child’s arrival, couples frequently redefine their priorities, their social life, and even their social group. Consider Louis’s reflections on just some of the changes in his life:12


It’s interesting, but . . . before I had the kids, I would go to [my parents] and all [they] would talk about was the kids. It was kind of lonely after awhile, listening about their kids. I found out that after we had ours, all we did was talk about the kids. So we fit right in with them. . . . Our single friends had very little in common with us now. . . . Now we were with our family in terms of meeting new friends who were also gay and had children. Also, the disco days were over, and I haven’t been to a movie for two years. . . . What do you talk about with your mother as a single gay male? Not really much, unless you talk about a couch for the living room, or gossipy things about the family. My mother is now much more involved in our lives. She’s a grandmother and she really enjoys it.


The birth of a child is known to be an exciting and turbulent time. Shadows of one’s own childhood return and adults often form or reform new relationships with their own families of origin. These well-known developmental principles serve as a pivot around which to begin to understand the enormity of the issues gay parents face. For new gay and lesbian parents, changing adult identity and the disclosure of homosexuality intersect with the usual heavily charged issues of parenthood. This confluence of factors can result in confusion and/or fears of being judged as an inadequate parent because of a clear societal bias against gay people’s having any relationship to children, much less a parental one. For some gay parents, the reality of raising a child shakes their own self-conception in a new way, and for some it may be the impetus to “come out” (to disclose their homosexuality) to their own parents for the first time, which can have ramifications for the relationship ranging from severely negative to joyously positive. Along with the usual well-meaning advice from neighbors and friends regarding the care of one’s new child, gay parents also face these more unusual issues. It should also help us to remember the powerful influence that teachers and administrators can have on parents, especially in the case of a first child.


Just as developmental theory is being increasingly recognized as culturally biased, it is also embedded in assumptions about family structure, assumptions that are only beginning to be teased apart and challenged.13 In a society where homosexuals are viewed first and foremost in terms of their sexuality rather than their total selves and abilities, homophobia and heterosexism are primary forces in thinking about children with gay parents. These forces, which take the externalized form of prejudice, can also be absorbed in varying degrees by gay people themselves as internalized homophobia, a form of internalized oppression.14 Heterosexism, which includes both personal and institutionalized bias against gay people, is responsible for the assumption that everyone is heterosexual unless proven otherwise. In our interviews, heterosexist attitudes became most apparent in the automatic connection of sex and sexual acts with lesbian and gay parents. This connection was enough for some teachers to shy away from discussing lesbian and gay parents in their classrooms. Matthew, a gay parent, discusses this assumption in connection with a children’s book about a child with two fathers that depicts the child in bed with her parents.15


Having people in bed is genital to [straight] parents. So it can’t help but trigger the homophobia. I think, generally, people can keep it in check. It’s there. We have it in ourselves. . . . That’s part of our own homophobia that we were taught. Everyone’s been taught it. It’s how they deal with it that’s the issue.


Even a solid grounding in child development may not prove to be as sustaining an ally for gay parents as it is for parents in more traditional family structures, where it can bolster one’s confidence in parenting. What happens when a boy who has just turned three talks to his nonbiological mother on the phone and tells her that she may as well not come home from work and that he and Mommie Val will do just fine and are going to get married anyway? This very familiar pre-oedipal anecdote might be dismissed with a chuckle in a heterosexual family (once its initial impact has worn off). For gay and lesbian parents this triadic tug may resonate with other insecurities emanating from their particular family form, its place in a heterosexist society, and the parents’ own accumulated internalized homophobia.

SOCIAL AND PSYCHOLOGICAL CONSIDERATIONS


Although there are clearly both external and internal pressures on lesbian and gay-headed families, research tells us that children who grow up in these families are doing well with their experiences. Research on lesbians with children took place in the 1970s and 1980s. Like most research on homosexual men, the studies were comparative, often contrasting cohorts of lesbians and their female partners raising a child with single divorced heterosexual women raising a child alone.16 While there was a methodological rationale for this design (at the time of the research most of the lesbians with children had previously been married, divorced, and then identified themselves as lesbian), the fact that the family structures in the comparison groups did not truly match was and remains problematic. Still, significantly, this first wave of studies was consistent in finding no differences between children with lesbian mothers and those raised by heterosexual women on variables of gender identity, sex-role behaviors, and general psychological health.17 It was also noted that in the few instances in which there were adjustment problems (for both groups), these issues appeared to be divorce-related and tied to separation and loss of a known father.


This early work was very important in providing a foundation demonstrating a basic psychological health in children of lesbian mothers (at least on par with others in the population). As one reviews these data, commonalities between children raised in homosexual- and heterosexual-headed families seem strong. Without other kinds of data one can make the assumption that no differences, in fact, exist. Common sense tells us, however, that growing up with two mothers or two fathers is different from growing up with a mother and a father, or with a single parent, for that matter.


In listening to gay parents, we have been impressed by the range of existing family structures. We interviewed blended families (where children were born within heterosexual marriages and the parent “came out” afterward) and intentional families (where children are born through alternative insemination or adopted by parents who have already come out as gay people). Most of the families were headed by two men or two women, but it is important to remember that many gay and lesbian parents are single. All of our single informants reported (with some regret) the tendency for all agencies with which they and their children come into contact to assume that they are heterosexual. This diversity within the grouping of lesbian- and gay-headed families is important to keep in mind.


We know from other work on alternative families that consciously planned families are different from those that occur through loss of a parent or through divorce.18 And while research on gay-headed family structures still fails to appear in new and proliferating research volumes on American families or in basic child development texts,19 small scale in-depth studies of gay-headed families are sprouting all over the country.20 This new work is more focused on process, smaller pieces of experience, and already involves a number of new publications that describe the experiences of the families themselves in rich detail as well as over twenty books for both older and younger children.21


The implications of this new research are enormous, and contrary to the first set of studies, the findings are not unilinear. Steckel, for example, in her dissertation, looked at the outcome of separation-individuation by examining how the presence of a female co-parent rather than a father might influence a child’s intrapsychic separation and how this might be experienced differentially by girls and boys. In their projective stories, young preschoolers raised by lesbian mothers saw themselves as more lovable and were viewed by adults in their lives (parents and teachers) as more verbal, emotionally responsive, and protective of younger children, yet somewhat more involved with issues of helplessness. Children of heterosexual parents were perceived as more action-oriented and aggressive. Although it involved only a small sample, Steckel’s work suggests that the presence of a female co-parent, as opposed to a father, does establish a qualitatively different separation-individuation experience, though one that is equally successful along every important psychological parameter.22


Other work in a five-family study gives evidence that nonbiological mothers play the role of “other” in helping toddlers separate from their primary mother around fifteen or sixteen months of age.23 We know that in single-parent families significant others can play this role. In the case of two mothers, this becomes supporting evidence that young children differentiate along other parameters than those of the traditional male/female. Now as gay fathers become more visible and increase in number, the field is beginning to open toward the study of some of the differences two fathers present to a developing child.24


When the data from these-studies are assembled in full-view, it becomes clear that professionals in all fields working with children need to rethink their basic theoretical approaches and emphasize those that allow for functional rather than structural interpretations of family.25

CULTURAL CONSIDERATIONS


For children who have lesbian or gay parents—and especially for those children whose parents have been quite open about their sexual orientation and family structure—the dominant cultural values reflected in the school help to explicitly (through a noninclusive curricular study of family, for example) and implicitly (through the almost exclusive illustration of heterosexual-headed families in picture books or other media, for instance) define family in ways that appear to be quite different from their own experiences. As children who have gay parents begin school, they come into contact with a wider social world. While they have had a connection with this world before—at the playground or through television or other family activities—the school as a social institution provides a different kind of contact. As representatives of the values of the dominant culture, schools have as their stated or unstated goal the socialization of children to mainstream cultural norms.26 When we look at the school culture as embodying these norms, we can see it as a “backdrop” that highlights children’s family configurations more clearly than the playground, more personally than television.


Young children with gay parents who enter school for the first time, and who previously held an unquestioning acceptance of the naturalness of their family, are suddenly confronted with countless situations in which totally different family configurations are the norm. These children must contend with the frequent representation of their family configuration as deviant or, perhaps most common, with the fact that it is not represented at all. As we learned in Clark’s pioneering work on the self-image of African-American children, the nonrepresentation of important aspects of one’s own identity can result in negative feelings about oneself.27 Prior to the publication of Ezra Jack Keats’s ground-breaking children’s books in the 1960s, Little Black Sambo was perhaps the best known picture book offering a portrayal of African-Americans to children.28 Another example can be seen in the experiences of young girls and of women. It was only with the application of the women’s movement to early childhood education that studies exposed the sex-stereotyping or invisibility of women in children’s literature—a situation that continues to exist.29 This misrepresentation and under representation in early childhood curricula of children who fall outside the cultural and the socially created gender norm has the effect of delegitimizing their present lives and limiting their possibilities for the future. These results are instructive here as we examine the extent to which schools stereotype and ostracize homosexuality; to the extent that the school does embody dominant cultural values, the lives of lesbians and gay men will not be represented.

TALKING TO PARENTS AND SCHOOL STAFF


Although in-depth interviews were our primary research tool, we also collected data through observation and anecdotes. We became a clearinghouse for information from our colleagues and from some of our graduate students. We collected more stories from participants at conferences at which we presented preliminary results from our study. All of this provided important, useful information.


Our interviews were obtained through a structured outreach process. Utilizing our connections with Center Kids (see note 3) and through personal and other organizational contacts (particularly organizations of lesbians and gay men of color), we put together a highly diverse group of parents to interview (see Table 1). The population of over thirty informants is comprised of gay parents and school staff who are white, African-American, and Latino/a; middle class, working class, and poor. Their children attend private schools, day care centers, and public schools up through the second grade. Whenever possible, we employed a triadic structure involving interviews with the child’s parent(s), teacher, and school administrator. However, because a number of parents did not want the school personnel to know of their sexual orientation, we also included some parent-only interviews. In addition, we have some school-staff-only interviews with individuals who could offer valuable information based on years of work in the schools. Where follow-through was possible, some interviews were conducted for three successive years. This enabled us to note educational, developmental, and parent and teacher attitudinal changes.


Due to issues of confidentiality and invisibility, subject-gathering in the gay and lesbian community has its own set of standards in terms of numbers of subjects and recruitment techniques considered sufficient for study.30 Although it is not a random selection, we believe our population represents a broad cross-section of gay and lesbian parents in the greater New York-Tri-State area in terms of race, class, and family structure. But our sample does not claim to, nor could it, be statistically representative.


We asked our interviewees open-ended questions and allowed ourselves the luxury of following up differently depending on the person with whom we were speaking. This flexibility was important. It enabled us to gather a great deal of information in depth, It did not lock us into a standard format that might have been perfect in an interview with one parent or one administrator, but a dismal failure in another. This type of data collection helped us to blend the “native’s point of view” with our own more distanced perspective. We agree with Geertz’s criteria for a good ethnography: an optimal blend of “experience-near” and “experience-far" perspectives.31 Near experiences enabled us to gain closer understandings of the culture of the people from whom we sought to learn—a feeling for what it is like to be a lesbian or gay parent or a teacher or an administrator of a child with lesbian or gay parents. Far experiences gave us the perspective to look at this knowledge from a spot distant enough to label, categorize, and compare it—to blend what we learned with knowledge gleaned from-other research and theoretical writings.


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THE SILENCE OF HOMOSEXUALITY


Although the parents we interviewed had a common bond of being lesbian or gay adults raising children, we found a great deal of variance in their ideas about disclosure. One difference is that they did not all believe that they should be the ones to communicate family structure to the school. Shanique,32 an African-American lesbian raising a six-year-old son in Bedford-Stuyvesant, discusses her feelings about coming out:


No, there’s no way I would come out. If you tell them, they might . . . change their attitude against you, and you gonna feel, like rejected. So let them find out on their own.


Manuel, a Puerto Rican single gay man raising two children, has also not come out to the school. He discusses the constraints on him as a pre-adoptive father, and how he feels about those constraints:


And it’s really sad that we can’t . . . because of the repercussions. It’s very unfair. . . . Because people make parents, not gay or straight. And you have some lousy heterosexual parents that I see on the street, you know. I mean, so it has nothing to do with . . . the sexuality issue. But especially when you’re dealing with city agencies. All of the nonsense. All of the bureaucracy. You’re not really sure of the person you’re dealing with. It’s not wise. It’s not wise at all.


The obvious similarity between these two statements is that neither parent is ready to come out to the school. However, when we look at them more carefully, they reflect two contrasting lines of thinking concerning the issue of disclosure. Shanique frames her rationale for not coming out around the theme of personal rejection. For her, the experience of rejection is heightened when she is the one who makes clear reference to her sexuality. It opens her up to ridicule, to a vulnerability. By assigning responsibility to the other, Shanique places herself in a more powerful interactional position.


On the other hand, Manuel is most concerned with the power of the official social agencies who have direct links to his family. He says it is not wise to come out to city agencies. It is not wise because these agencies have the power to literally take his family away from him. The removal of two foster children from the home of two gay men in Boston in 1985 is a real-life case in point.33 Given the extreme consequences of-such information falling into the “wrong hands,” Manuel’s reservations are not only understandable, they are eminently rational.


On the other hand, we have talked with parents who are militant about coming out. James and Matthew, two gay men raising two young children, interviewed the school staff concerning their attitudes before deciding to place their older child there. James says:


We went and spoke to the teacher and principal about it. [We asked,] “Would you have any problems?” And if they did have any problems, I was hoping they would tell me. And the issue is that I wasn’t ready to slap a lawsuit on their hands. It’s just that I didn’t want to deal with it. . . . If they want to live and think that way, that’s fine. I just don’t want to be subjected to it. Let them live there, I won’t send my child to that school.


James and Matthew also invited all the children in their son’s class to his birthday party early in the school year. At this party, their family configuration was clear to everyone.


Lesbian and gay parents are like all parents in this respect—they are not a monolith. They do not all agree with each other about the importance of disclosure or whether it is worth the trouble it will involve.

THE IMPORTANCE OF CONTEXT IN DISCLOSURE


What might explain these differences? Clearly, personal ideas will account for some of them, as well as beliefs about how secret-keeping affects children versus how disclosure might affect the way school staff treat children. But these differences may also be associated with contextual factors, which no doubt affect the decisions of many parents, regardless of whether they are straight or gay.


Context includes social circumstances such as the neighborhoods in which families live. A homogeneous neighborhood in which homosexuality is invisible is very different from a heterogeneous neighborhood that includes a highly visible lesbian and gay presence. Context is also cultural and includes particular taboos and the ways that practices impinge on a variety of topics, such as privacy. Economic class is also a part of context. It involves the ways that the class restricts or enlarges the choices available to parents. James and Matthew stated that they would simply move out of an intolerant neighborhood rather than keep their gay identity secret, but Esperanza does not have that option.


Esperanza, a Puerto Rican lesbian mother of two, who is also a paraprofessional in a Queens public school near the one her children attend, says, “[If I could be assured that there would be no repercussions in disclosing my true family structure] I would shout it at the top of my lungs, from the highest mountain. But that’s not real.” What is real is the fear that the principal of her children’s school, who is a friend of the principal of the school that employs her, will share this information. Esperanza has no illusions about the fact that this would result in her losing her job.


June and Shelley, parents of a school-age son and daughter, offer another look at the influence of class on parental decision making about disclosures.


JUNE: We’ve gone to all of them and said, “You know, our family structure is different from the other kids, and it may not be familiar to you and there’s lots that we can tell you about it if you have questions. . . .” When we first went to the schools, we felt very strongly that we weren’t going to go to a school unless we had some assurance ahead of time. . . . We spoke to the principal, and he couldn’t have walked up those steps ahead of me faster.


SHELLEY: I remember that we had gone on a tour of the school and we stopped to speak to him and we said, “Are you comfortable with a lesbian family?”


JUNE: I think he felt assaulted by the question. . . . It was like, “Why are you discussing this with me? I don’t have a problem with this, so we shouldn’t talk about this cause there isn’t any problem.” . . . As long as it isn’t mentioned it’s okay.


June and Shelley are white, middle-class professional women who live in a part of town that includes one of the most highly visible lesbian and gay communities in the country. Although they report that the principal is uncomfortable with them, their perseverance and their own confidence in their rights and abilities to pursue the topic is, at least in part, contextually bound.


Along with the differences among lesbian and gay parents, there were also similarities. We found a common dynamic containing two opposing factors. The first involves feelings of anxiety. Almost all parents expressed feelings of stress and fear when describing how they did bring up their family configuration to the school, or when explaining why they had not done so, and this crossed all economic and cultural boundaries. A gay man who has not yet informed the school about his sexual orientation describes the imagined reaction of his child’s teacher: “Oh my Gad. He’s raising the child in sin!” These feelings are elaborated by June. She discussed her family’s advantages of living in a “tolerant area.” She described herself and her partner as having goad interpersonal skills and as people who are “resolved internally about [our] choices about being gay . . . [and are] comfortable with [ourselves] about it.” Even with these advantages, she says that coming out to school personnel is difficult.


I mean, with all our practice and skills and whatever, I’d say that every time we have to do it you feel your blood pressure go up, you feel your heart pound, your palms sweat. It isn’t easy . . . we get the lowered eyes, and the muffled clearing of throat and the back-turn.


This fear was not only connected with how people would respond to them. It also concerned how, or whether, teachers would use this knowledge about them against their children. Manuel describes this fear:


But if the need arose, you know, . . . [that would] be the occasion for me to say, “Well, look, I’m gay. Paul is living in a gay household.” . . . But of course . . . Another fear that you have is how they’re going to treat your children . . . after you say that, you know, and with that you have to be real careful. Very careful. I mean there’s a lot that goes on.


Teachers particularly should be aware that parental anxiety surrounding disclosure is a very real and natural feeling. Even when the teacher works at providing a warm and accepting environment, some parents may still feel reluctant to discuss their family with them or with school administrators. These issues are larger than the school alone, and teachers should not feel slighted or mistrusted because parents, who are still feeling unsafe, are unable to come out to them.


The other side of the stress dynamic provides an important balance. This is the desire that parents expressed to live their lives openly as lesbians or gay men who have children, and this includes disclosure to the school. While anxiety is present, so is a wish for openness. James and Matthew, who thought about disclosure for almost two years before they could tell their child’s teacher about their sexual orientation, discussed the hazards of not coming out, a phenomenon that has been reported elsewhere.34 James explained:


It’s also giving a very negative message that what you’re doing is wrong. So how can [your children] have a clear, positive concept and understanding about what this relationship is about if someone’s telling them not to tell anybody?


As discussed earlier, some families have more or less freedom of mobility because of financial resources, or because of racial or cultural discrimination that restricts access to housing in comfortable areas. But just as important is Shanique’s consideration about the way she would be viewed by the school or community if she were out to them. The combination of being a person of color and a lesbian is often experienced as a double form of oppression, and, as we have seen, even such factors as place of residence or parental occupation can press more heavily on the anxiety side of the stress/openness dynamic we found in all parents. Those of us who are not so familiar with particular economic restrictions or a particular set of cultural mores often misunderstand why parents act as they do. When the teacher is not gay but the parents are, the cultural values and meanings carried within a lesbian and gay identity have to be added to class, racial, ethnic, and other cultural differences that create rich contexts for one’s life, but may not be easily understood by an outsider.


Some teachers, having given the issue a lot of thought, believe that the responsibility for coming out belongs to the parent(s). There is some research that demonstrates that the new visibility of gay people in general has fostered a change of mood in the psychological and social service communities as well as in the gay community. Cain, for example, documents how the American Psychiatric Association responded to actions from the gay social and political movements to demedicalize and normalize homosexuality in 1974.35 Since then, this change has prompted some professionals to frame coming out as healthy, and further to expect gay men to be open in their relationships with mental health and community agencies. Reflecting this point of view, and perhaps not having fully considered the cultural context, Fran, a preschool teacher in a private school said:


I think . . . that you have to have an open line of communication. . . . I mean if people chose to do this, they chose to have a child . . . then they have to be open about it. . . . I would think that if you have a gay family that comes in and they’re trying to hide the fact that this is the kind of family they are, or not address it at all, then I think that this needs to be addressed to the family first of all. I guess that’s not really the teacher’s position to do this but maybe—if it is—saying, “Gosh, you know, we have a school psychologist.” Because I think that would be detrimental to the child and the family as a whole because I think that’s too key to the family’s well-being if someone’s saying, “Oh my God, I’m embarrassed that we’re a gay family.”


Fran’s statement is rich in the beliefs she expresses and the assumptions it contains. She places responsibility for coming out squarely on the parents’ shoulders. She expresses a certainty about the location of responsibility and the degree of harm that she believes will fall on the children and the family as a whole if the parents are not open about their family structure. And she assumes that all parents, deep down, want to be open. There is a faith (which was not supported in our findings) that the teacher can pick out gay parents, as she talks about how the teacher might send parents who have not come out to a school specialist. Finally, it is important to underscore her belief that such a situation requires psychological intervention as we look more closely at how her statements sit with the point of view of Al, a Puerto Rican man who shares the fathering of three boys, two of whom have been diagnosed with AIDS, with his African-American partner.


Al sheds a different light on this issue as he talks about placing the responsibility for disclosure and some of the underlying beliefs and constraints that determine his actions. He has not informed his oldest son’s teacher fin a public neighborhood school) about his family structure.


I never volunteered anything. It makes it very difficult, because homosexuality is not accepted per se, but in the Spanish culture it is even worse. I don’t want to advertise, and I don’t think it is my responsibility to sit on a soap box and tell everybody that we’re gay and we have three children. Because it doesn’t make any difference. If you’re going to ask me, I’m going to say it. So I don’t volunteer the information. I make it known in other ways. If you’re smart enough, you’re going to put it together. If you have a problem with it, it’s your problem, it’s not my problem. It’s you that has to tell me, not I to tell you.


Al’s version of the world is a little more complicated than Fran’s. While he takes into account cultural attitudes toward homosexuality, he also reveals different ideas concerning both the responsibility for and importance of coming out. He does not assume that the lesbian or gay parent must shoulder full responsibility for communicating the family structure and its implied meaning to the school. The very act of disclosure is a shared responsibility in the sense that he will provide some information, but on a very conscious, deliberate level, he demands that teachers join him in taking risks—in putting two and two together. If there is a pressure against coming out as a gay parent in the schools, all involved must take active responsibility for disclosing this information. And Al is not talking only about the school’s providing a supportive environment. School staff need to take risks alongside the parents and to take the responsibility to learn about gay people and gay parenting.

THE MECHANICS OF DISCLOSURE


Parents have found many ways, both subtle and blatant, to communicate their family makeup to the school. Sometimes their sexual orientation is disclosed for them, without their choice or awareness.


Many parents in two-parent families simply made themselves visible to the teacher as caring adults—as parents. When both parents became visible-taking their child to school and picking their child up, volunteering to help out in various ways in the classroom, discussing child-rearing issues with the teacher—they also communicated their family configuration to the sensitive teacher. Some parents used this as a prelude to more direct communication, but others simply left it at this, feeling it was a more “natural” type of communication.


Altering application forms was a popular means of communicating family structure to the school. Lesbian parents have crossed out “father” and written in “co-mother.” Interestingly enough, altered applications have been both understood and misunderstood by teachers. Carla, a nursery school teacher in New Jersey, described her own difficulty with deciphering this information.


All you have is this piece of paper [the application with “father” crossed out and “co-mother” written in] and you’re going to have a little boy in your class and you’re looking at it and you’re saying, “Well, what is this?


What does this mean?” And you go to the director [and ask] “Well, when [they] filled that out, what did they mean?” [She says] “Well, I don’t know.” There’s a lot of mystery there that could [have been] cleared up right away.


On the other hand, Cathy, a teacher of a combined kindergarten/first grade in a public school in New York City, described her assumptions that Lizzie’s parents are lesbians:


I got Lizzie’s records, and I saw on the records that they had crossed out “father” and written in “co-parent.” It [Ricky] was sort of a name who could be a man or a woman's. So I wasn’t exactly sure what all that meant, although the first thing that I thought of was that they were probably lesbian parents. . . . So that was the first thing I thought of.


Another method, described earlier, involves parents’ interviewing the school prior to placing their child there. Sometimes this was done to help determine whether their child would attend the school, and other times to inform. Parents have also discussed their sexual orientation with their child’s teacher during the admission process, or after the school year had already begun. In one case, the three-year-old child of two gay fathers who had not come out to the school came out for them, and without their knowledge for over a year—Jeffery told his teacher he “had a good weekend because [I] got to sleep in the bed with Daddy and Matthew.” Children’s “outing” their parents is probably more frequent than parents realize and teachers often feel they cannot use this information, even in conferences with the parent.


There were also times when the child’s teacher or other classroom staff simply knew or guessed the-family configuration. Al describes the importance of schools’ reflecting the makeup of the world around them, in children, staff, and curriculum. He sees this quality in the public day care center that his three-year-old son attends. Al tells how Gerry, the teacher, understood that he was gay:


They knew about it, because they’re sensitive. They’re open to these kinds of things. . . . Gerry is gay. You pick up that I’m gay. . . . There's a reality there, because this is how our staff is made up. There are different kinds of people and we talk about it. Gerry . . . is extremely flamboyant. . . . He’s not there saying, “I’m gay, and everybody should be gay,” but it’s just that freedom you have to go in there and that openness to be able to say “I disagree with you.” . . . You see them as human beings in a place that’s very reflective of society. . . . The daycare center is Black, white, Hispanic. It’s a mixture of people.


Nora and Jacqueline describe a different kind of situation where the assistant teacher in their son’s public school kindergarten classroom approached Jacqueline. And she ultimately just said to me point blank one morning when I dropped him off when we were just sitting around chatting, “Well you didn’t tell me about you and Nora.” . . . It was not something I didn’t intend to bring up and to raise. I would have set a meeting, I wanted to do it. She did it in the morning when there were parents behind me, children all around who had needs, and it was inappropriate for her to bring it up at that point and it’s not as if it’s something I wouldn’t have discussed in all detail, in all detail within limits . . . any questions that she had to ask about I would have been thrilled to talk about it, but the setting really limited the focus and then it’s hard to get back to it.


This kind of “forced” disclosure created ambivalent feelings in these parents. Jacqueline and Nora later described how they were relieved that their family makeup was out in the open. At the same time, they expressed a resentment because they were not able to choose their own time and place to come out. They would have preferred to discuss their family in the privacy of a parent conference with the head teacher. Instead, it was quickly-and unexpectedly—brought up by the assistant teacher during a time that the parents felt was both uncomfortable and inappropriate.


Al offered a different perspective. He sees the day care center as encompassing comfortable qualities and a diversity that accounts for the ease with which his family situation is simply known. Al does not find it inappropriate that the center staff has figured out his family makeup and his own sexual orientation. But there are some crucial and unusual qualities to this school. The staff reflects the makeup of the surrounding community. The children reflect the variety of the neighborhood as well. This enriched atmosphere has a powerful impact on the ease of disclosure and communication because being a member of a gay-headed family becomes only one aspect of the many parts making up the individual in this community setting. At the same time, it is a powerful case in point for the importance of a truly diverse staff and student body in promoting an atmosphere that is truly multicultural.


Disclosure emerged from our research as a key and requisite issue, but a need for broader communication between parents and school staff also exists. More open and honest communication could, for example, help parents and teachers address curricular issues or their divergent ideas about gender nonconformity.

GENDER ISSUES


Most educators are aware that we cannot presume that our theories and beliefs about child development are necessarily the same as those held by the parents of the children we teach. One emerging difference between gay and lesbian parents and school staff demonstrates this basic tenet starkly. The ideas of educators and parents about what we call role models and their thoughts about sex-role development and gender nonconformity were found to differ. That there were almost as many definitions of “role model” as there were informants signaled a need for more exacting terminology—for example, Maritza said, “When I think of role models, I think of his teacher, about people who come to his class, people who do things with him every day. I don’t think of MTV. We aren’t into that. I think about history books. Is that what you mean?”


The issue teachers have consistently raised about children with gay and lesbian parents echoes a traditional theory of same-sex identification and the need for an available role model.36 Some placed more emphasis on the emotional tie between the child and the role model, while others framed it in a less sophisticated way, simply implying that the physical presence of a role model was crucial. This concern, expressed by almost every teacher in some way, is crystallized in a statement made by a teacher of toddlers and twos. She assumed that men were not part of the life of an almost-three-year-old boy who was being raised by two mothers, and wondered about the effects:


And I feel that in both ways, I mean with boys being raised by two women, and a girl by men. I remember when Lonnie was first at the center and he had a fear of jumping off the blue house. I remember thinking, do his parents, Diane and Val, ever get rough with him? And then I wondered, where does this fear come from? I mean Lon is a tall lanky kid, so I could say that just physically, he wasn’t ready to jump yet. But this is one of the things I thought, “If there were a man in his life, would he be less afraid?”


We found such honest comments most helpful because this teacher articulated what others only hinted at. However, she made certain assumptions based on the child’s behavior and her knowledge of his family. The first assumption is that Lonnie did not have a male contact (this teacher taught in the room next to Lonnie’s and spent time with him but was not his primary caregiver). The second assumption is that a man would provide rough-and-tumble experiences for this child—and, conversely, that a woman could not or would not provide such play. Third, the simple fact of two-year-old fears was not taken into consideration. We use this example almost as a metaphor because of the richness of interpretation. There are many reasons why Lonnie might have not been ready to jump off the house. Within a short time he did, and with gusto. In the two years since this teacher made the statement quoted above, she has changed her thinking, and now goes out of her way to talk with new staff about different family structures and about how easy it is to make generalized assumptions. She advises them to watch, listen, wait, and learn.


Few children raised by gay and lesbian parents are raised in gender-separate worlds. We discovered some mystification on this point on the part of some teachers, who perhaps had not given the matter a great deal of thought. This is not to say that gender issues are not important for gay parents. They are, but the emphasis tends to be different. They are less concerned with presenting a model of another sex as a necessary ingredient for healthy development. As Maritza, a lesbian mother of a five-year-old boy, put it:


We feel it is important that he has role models of both sexes . . . people that we feel are good people, like the dentist is female. We feel the same thing about culture. We want him to be exposed to as many role models as possible. We think it is more important that he is around people who have the same kind of morality, ethics that we have, rather than what sex.


Manuel, a single gay father, echoes Maritza’s ideas:


What’s important? That they have a fair view of both ends. That he sees single straight men, single gay men, married straight men, couples of men, single women, single lesbian women, married women and lesbian couples. That he knows the range of the possibilities, that at any given time that these people are all exactly the same, except for the preference that they’ve chosen to live out their lives. That show their affection and their love.


Parents repeatedly emphasized the all-consuming nature of heterosexual norms. Many underscored the importance of a person’s individual qualities over gender and stated that they want their children to know that there are many ways of being male or female. Even parents who did feel that same-sex role models had value were not emphatic and exhibited some ambivalence. When asked about the importance of role models in their child’s life, Nora and Jacqueline responded:


Jacqueline: I don’t know the answer to that question. That’s the big issue of people in my family.


Nora: Although interestingly enough, none of her sisters are with their husbands . . . so none of them have any role models of any consistency.


Jacqueline: If the need were communicated to me from Dan then it would be something I would pursue. I don’t feel it as being real important? [said with rising intonation of a question]


When pressed to say more about why it wasn’t important, Jacqueline continued,


I don’t know many men . . . much less role models for Dan. [Pauses] That’s not altogether true. I have cousins and relatives who could be role Breaking the Silences models for Dan but who don’t necessarily embrace the relationship. [Pauses] But I don’t know if I would say that if he didn’t have a male teacher three years in a row. I can’t answer that question because I don’t have any way of basing it otherwise. He spends five days a week with an extremely nurturing, loving, gifted male teacher who adores him and thinks that Dan is just, you know, the cat’s meow. And I don’t think he hurts from that. He spends as much time with Fred as with us. I guess I do value it.


What appears to be Jacqueline’s great ambivalence may be influenced by her own changing ideas (she had recently left a heterosexual marriage) about how children develop. These newly emerging ideas are coming up against powerful messages from family and society. She does believe men have an important place in her son’s life, but she is grappling with emphasis and meaning. We heard other examples of this kind of ambivalence even from informants with long-term gay identifications. A classic example has to do with a male teacher serving as a role model for a boy with two lesbian mothers. Although pleased with her son’s male teacher, this mother reveals her internal contradictions: “ I wondered why he was in Andy’s class. I wondered if the school wondered if he needed a male. Maybe that was more in our minds than their mind. I am sure there must have been other reasons to put him in Andy’s class.”


The majority of parents we interviewed were clear about wanting their children to be exposed to many men and women. Beyond that, they wanted their children to understand that there are many ways of being male or female, gay or straight. While no teacher challenged this notion, rarely did a teacher discuss it in any depth. For gay parents, however, it was a theme running throughout almost every interview.


Most educators had traditional ideas about role models and sex-stereotyped play. When we pushed them to discuss questions about the children’s developmental outcome, they always returned to gender issues. Emory, a principal of an urban public school, discussed role models in a framework of generalization about all children without fathers.


That’s a hard one to answer. I’m not sure it can be limited to the issue of gay and lesbian parents. I feel that there were kids [at my school] who did not have a male in their lives, whose fathers might have died, who lived with two females. I think that kids who did not have—especially male children who did not have—a male in their lives were very, very close and attached to me and other male teachers in the school. [There was] a lot of hugging, holding hands and bonding with males in the school. I really don’t think it mattered whether there were male children living with two female parents or that there-were male children living with their mother because their father had either died or left. So I'm not sure that you can eliminate that other variable. I’m not sure that you can say that it’s just because they live with two females, or that they are girls who live with two females and bond with other females in the school. But I do think the kids sought out that other relationship that they may not have had at home.


When asked whether he thought this behavior reflected their sense of self, Emory continued,


I don’t think I can answer that question. I don’t know. I just know clearly there were kids who didn’t live with a male . . . boys who did not live with a male, who would run and give me a hug every time they saw me. And it was clear after a number of times that they were looking for some male figure to be able to relate.


Clearly, Emory spoke from an experience that informs his point of view on this issue. He said, in effect, “I don’t really know what I think about this, but I know what I see.” This is the gist of many educators’ statements. Father Stephen Moore, a priest in charge of a parochial school, made similar points but framed them theoretically, and with a larger societal view. Prefacing his remarks with the well-worn “Some of my best friends are homosexuals,” he went on to say:


I think kind of a bottom line in my dealing is that with the importance of the traditional family and the presence of the father, with that being eroded, I don’t like to see or participate in things that would facilitate that erosion. . . . Then we do experience where a parent dies and a child is denied the male presence or the presence of a male father, there is an emotional effect on the child. Children need that presence of the male and the female.


Penny, a teacher who has been extremely responsive to the children of gay-and-lesbian headed families whom she has taught, also had questions:


I just wonder about long term. I have a friend in Ireland. She is an. unmarried mother and is raising a child. Her father is dead. She doesn’t have contact with her brothers and there are very few men in her life. The child has no male influence in his life. I think it is something that he has mentioned and it is not good for him. Just a mom. I know that lots of children have grown up when the fathers were away at war or away for work reasons but I think there were always some males around. Like when Enrico [the principal in her school] said when he was young, his father was away at war but his uncles were around. I think that in that situation long ago when the father was away, there were other people who stepped in and acted as the father.


This idea of stepping in and “acting like the father” is one all educators should ponder. Saul, the only gay teacher we interviewed, had the point of view closest to that of gay parents on the question of role models:


Where I’m coming from is that my father died when I was nine and a lot of the adult men really moved in to fill the gap. I appreciated it and even then I understood that my mother was alone and a lot of people were supporting us and it was important. [But] without being able to verbalize it, I understood from that age that this was really offensive. The assumption wasn’t that I had lost a specific human being who could not be replaced, but that I had lost the man that has to be in a boy’s life and I was offended by the whole idea of “big brothers.” So whether I was gay or straight I would have this perspective that it’s absurd to say you need a male or a female role model. You need at least one caring adult caretaker, period.


It is also crucial for educators to remember what most of us already know but often forget in practice: The road to clear, unwavering awareness of gender identity is a long one indeed. We observed many children and heard many anecdotes of children asking simple questions about family structure. Many times teachers could not answer them, or were too stunned to answer, or answered but spoke too quickly. An example of what can be accomplished in a classroom when a child asks a hard question comes from Cathy, a young teacher who knows that these basic gender concepts form the backdrop against which children place their thoughts and feelings about all gender roles and family structure. She tells of a conversation with a five-year-old girl with two mothers.


And she told me there’s mommy kisses and there’s daddy kisses, and there’s different kinds of kisses. And all she gets is mommy kisses. She doesn’t get daddy kisses. And I said, “Well, how are daddy kisses different?” And she said, “Men have scratchy chins and stuff from having hair on their face.” And I said, “Do you have uncles or anything?” And she said, “Yeah, I have a bunch of uncles.” And I said, “Don’t you get kisses from them?” And she said, “Yes.” Then I said, “Then you’re getting kisses that are sort of like daddy kisses." And then I asked her if there was anything else. And she was like, “No.” I think she’s thinking that she’s missing out on something, and she doesn’t know yet that in a lot of ways she isn’t. I don’t think she is. She has two very supportive, wonderful parents, and other supportive adults in her life as well.


This vignette has particular importance to us. Cathy did not presume this child was expressing loss or sadness, or if she did, she did not respond to it in that way. Through a supportive scaffolding, Cathy helped the child reach a more sophisticated level of understanding gender difference, and also helped her appreciate what she does experience.37 If a deeper need was being expressed, Cathy’s response did not get in the way by aggravating or denying it.


In another example, a day care teacher described how a three-year-old boy used his dramatic play to bring his own family constellation to life and try on other family structures for size.


There were a lot of things, when Lonnie would play with the doll people. At the beginning he never really made up the typical nuclear family, he would have two mommies and a little boy, and they did all the things together and that was the way his play went. After a while, he had two mommies and a daddy also, and then after more time, he got rid of one of the mommies and put the daddy there, but sometimes, he would put the daddy to the side and the other mommy would come in and I think he was, in a lot of ways, trying to figure all that out.


It is important to state that for such a child the issue at hand is most likely not one of confusion but rather definition. Over the course of that year some of the other three-year-olds began to take turns in their dramatic play or “playing house.” First they would play “mommy-mommy,” then another child would lead the play with “mommy-daddy.” In a similar vein, when a young child with a mother and father tells a child with two fathers “I have two daddies too” or “Why can’t I have two mommies?” a teacher of three-year-olds knows he is trying it on for size and that he does not necessarily wish his mother or father would disappear. While all these ideas seem simple and straightforward, it appears that they are not being discussed in early childhood programs. Although antibias and multicultural curricula are slowly being implemented, they seem to have different interpretations depending on the personal beliefs of the teacher, principal, or superintendent, or because of a combination of other factors. Psychology tells us that there are many paths that lead toward growth and development, but some teachers still confuse gender nonconformist play with early signs of homosexuality.38 This can be one indicator for some boys (only) who grow up with effeminate qualities, but research has shown homosexuality to be a complex transactional developmental and genetic process that we are still not able to untangle.39 As in other aspects of development, individual differences play a large role.


Gender-assigned roles are deeply rooted in our society, for children and for adults. In our discussions with two teachers of infants and toddlers in day care, it became clear that children with two fathers or mothers provided an opportunity to question some basic assumptions about parental roles in general.


FRAN: And that was a question that came up for me a lot, well, who’s like the mother and who’s like the father? Well, I don’t know. In one case, I would have to say that Val is more like the mom, and Diane is definitely more like the father who’s busy and not as accessible and is away more. But I wouldn’t say that emotionally, you know what I mean? And even with Rena and Miriam it wasn’t as clear at all. But people wanted to do that.


LESLIE: I remember one of the things with my staff, was overcoming some stereotypes and the stereotype with Rena and Miriam, it never made much sense to anyone [assistant teachers] that Rena was the birthmother.


FRAN: Because Rena seems more masculine in some ways.


LESLIE: One thing I have to say that I’ve discovered about myself is that I [now] have a tendency to call the drop-off parent. . . . Well, the one who’s most consistent. Because that was something I asked myself one day, “Who should I call?” And I remember thinking this [about] Rena and Miriam because when the father is the primary drop off and pick up person, now I always call the person who is most involved in the child’s life at the center.


This is a truly rich example of how change in thinking occurs. Their whole center became involved in this issue and the discussion deepened for all children and families. For us, this was a poignant indicator of how our differences separate and unite us.

DISCUSSION


For children growing up with gay parents, simple acknowledgement of their family structure is crucial, but not enough. Young adults raised by lesbian mothers in the prior two decades speak about isolation, feeling that their families were not acknowledged in school and that they did not know many other children living in similar families.40 This is no longer the case, at least for many families living in larger cities where network and support groups now exist. But there has not been enough open discussion and support of the lives of these children inside and particularly outside the gay community. This issue is not only one for parents and teachers. It should be reflected in the larger arena of the school, where administrators can encourage frank discussions that can support gay parenting by grappling with such questions as: How can the administration help both teachers and parents? What kinds of parent meetings can support the work of teachers in building a more inclusive curriculum? What administrative changes are necessary? How difficult would it be to alter the “mother” and “father” line on school applications to a more generic “parent” line, or simply ask for a listing of family members, or use the single word “family” followed by a few blank lines? Teacher preparation programs can push future teachers to deeper consideration of issues of multiculturalism and antibias and their effect on the quality of the lives of children in school.


It is not only the subject of gay parenting that is absent from curriculum and parent work in schools. All school personnel—teachers, administrators, guidance counselors, assistants—and teacher educators must begin to feel more comfortable saying and hearing the words lesbian and gay. Both teachers and parents could more easily discuss gay family constellations if the fact that lesbian and gay people exist is accepted. Older children should hear these words in discussions of James Baldwin, for example, and younger children can hear them associated with discussions about Sasha’s Papi and Daddy. Teachers must know that using these words will not cause homosexuality, and that they are not inappropriate to use with young children. The argument that one should not talk about lesbian and gay people because it might promote a gay sexual orientation in children is itself biased, because it assumes that it is not a good thing to be gay.


Teacher preparation programs must also include this topic in course work and supervised field work. If teachers engage in open discussions in their course work about the needs of lesbian and gay parents, or begin contact with lesbian and gay people in an effort to understand the ways that society constrains their lives, they may feel more comfortable when they first meet a gay parent in the classroom. Child psychology and development courses must move beyond traditional theories of gender-identity development and include new theory and research. When teaching theories of gender identification, it is important to get students to think about different family configurations. They must become clear about their own values and deep-seated beliefs about homosexuality and in the process take an honest look at where theory and values intersect. There is not just one way to be male or female, or to grow into a man or woman, as lesbians and gay men and their children are demonstrating. By including the lives of lesbians and gay people in development courses, and by integrating anthropology and sociology disciplines into them,41 instructors can begin to ask students the tough questions about what children need for healthy gender development, and indeed, to ask what healthy gender development means. Must it result in a heterosexual orientation? If not, in what ways can we expand our thinking about the variety of routes children can take toward adulthood?


Schools must make the words guy and lesbian easier for parents, as well. One day care center director found a way to affirm lesbians and gay men when she opened the first curriculum night by saying, “We are proud to have children from diverse backgrounds with us this year; children from different cultural backgrounds, children with special needs, and children with lesbian and gay parents. I welcome you all.” When these words become more ordinary parts of our vocabularies, there will be less of a tendency for teachers and parents to use euphemisms like “nontraditional family” or “alternative families.” Naming is important. When the differences of gay-headed families can be acknowledged without negative connotations, then these families can truly begin to be treated “like any other family.”


We do not think it is appropriate to offer specific techniques for teachers to use to improve the quality of their communications with lesbian and gay parents. After all, each family and each school is different, sometimes in fundamental ways. Teachers need to fashion their own specific approaches to sharing the risks inherent in parental disclosure. The changes we do call for are more general changes that open the parameters allowing specific approaches for better communication to take place. This article presents the varied, authentic, and too-often-silenced voices of lesbian and gay parents. Hearing these parents and their concerns can affect feelings and actions. In this respect, attitudes are important. A teacher in a day care center advises other teachers to “explore their own feelings about what it means to have a gay family.” She says there are plenty of people who “think that it’s something that exists out there in the world that has nothing to do with them and don’t really want to have anything to do with it. . . . They need to address those feelings in themselves and really work through them because they are really going to get projected on the family.” We agree. Prior experiences and present values are crucial. But so are our ongoing experiences. Leslie, one of the teachers we interviewed early in the study, spoke to us after we made a presentation at a conference workshop she attended: “I guess I was a little upset to hear some of the things I said. I know I said it. but that was three years ago. I’ve changed.”


Attitudes and actions can change over time.


It is crucial that whenever and wherever possible, parents move beyond their fears and talk to teachers about their family configurations and their sexual orientation. This is an extra burden being asked of gay parents, and the stresses and dangers are real, as they are testaments of an unjust society that encourages discrimination against people based on such characteristics as race, sex, class, and sexual orientation. We do not want to romanticize this or ignore the painful slowness of the process that will lead to acceptance of gay and lesbian people in our society. Change is hard, and more difficult when it is an oppressed group that seeks to initiate it. Still, without the real involvement of such groups, the eventual results of change will not reflect their needs. In 1932 George Counts called for the schools to build a new social order.42 His call was a noble one, still relevant in today’s world. But a truly new social order cannot be built by the schools alone. Social change must occur in league with teachers, parents, and community. Clear and nonbiased understandings of family, gender, and culture will require the actions of teachers, parents, administrators, and activists.


We gratefully acknowledge the generous support of the Paul Rapoport Foundation, New York City. We also wish to thank the parents and educators we interviewed, Harriet K. Cuffaro and Edna K. Shapiro for their general support of our work in this area at Bank Street College, and Edna K. Shapiro for her insightful critique of a draft of this article.




Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 94 Number 1, 1992, p. 109-137
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 149, Date Accessed: 10/23/2021 12:22:41 AM

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  • Virginia Casper
    Bank Street College of Education

  • Steven Schulz
    Bank Street College of Education

  • Elaine Wickens
    Bank Street College of Education

 
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