Tuesday / April 23

LGBT Curriculum Matters

This post is an excerpt from Ch. 4 of Dignity for All: Safeguarding LGBT Students

When we open a good book and read about a character that we identify with, it’s like the weight of the world goes away and everything around us is going to be all right. Everyone needs an escape from their daily lives. Turning on the television, reading books, or seeing billboards as we drive to work or school exposes us to a variety of images that are predominately heterosexual. Where are the homosexual images that can help lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) kids and adults feel normal? The hidden curriculum is that being heterosexual is normal and being gay should be hidden. The reality is that there are many people who feel that way, including politicians who use it as a platform to run on for office. “Promoting awareness would curb antigay stereotypes and thereby reduce bullying of and violence against lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered students (Robelen, 2011, p. 10).

In 2010, the In Our Own Voices organization began a campaign titled “I Am Gay,” and there were several billboards promoting the campaign around the Albany, New York, area. The billboards had several African-American men and women on them. The idea of the billboard was to bring awareness to the AIDS epidemic, which plagues the African-American community. By having the billboards, In Our Own Voices wanted to take the stigma away from being gay in the African-American community, and therefore perhaps more men and women would stop engaging in risky behavior that they have to hide. The ultimate goal for this campaign would be to raise self-esteem in the community so LGBT men and women would be out, open, and safe, which would bring down the inordinate number of people with HIV in the African-American LGBT community. Some local politicians and community members were infuriated with the campaign and stated that In Our Voices was a gay movement that was putting the gay lifestyle “in the faces” of residents. A politician appeared on the news and said that the campaign made it sound as though being gay was all right, and that In Our Own Voices was promoting that message to the community. The organization was interviewed after the politician’s remarks and said he was correct. The message they wanted the community to get from the campaign was indeed that being gay was all right and should not be hidden.

Living in the Albany area, I commute every day to work and began taking a more focused look at the billboards that run next to 787 and I90, which are both major highways in the Capital District area. It was interesting that no one spoke up about the billboards that promote participating in the lottery (gambling), the numerous drinking billboards that contribute to alcoholism, or the billboards that promoted the local strip clubs. These images are so accepted in our society that we are desensitized to them. However, two billboards promoting the acceptance of gays and lesbians are appalling to some people. We as educators can find ways to introduce LGBT related topics in school. One of the easiest and most unobtrusive ways to introduce LGBT topics in the classroom is through the use of literature. Literature can expose students to the topic in a thought-provoking way.

Diverse Literature at an Age-Appropriate Level

From kindergarten through high school, there are many books that show characters that are either gay or live in a home with gay parents. These are important characters and families for children and teenagers to see for a variety of reasons. If a student is gay or living in a family with gay parents, these books provide a familiar setting. If the students listening to the story are neither gay nor are they growing up in a family with gay parents, the books provide important exposure to diverse families.

Books that appropriately expose children to sexually diverse families have been a controversial topic because conservatives and religious groups believe that books that have a theme of introducing sexually diverse families or characters are pushing the gay agenda. Whether these groups agree or not, there are a percentage of students who do not identify with the nuclear family and deserve to read about families such as their own. School is the important venue for this because these LGBT families are involved in the school system.

The American Library Association’s (ALA) Office for Intellectual Freedom only documents written challenges to library books and materials (there were 420 cases in 2007), and even then, it estimates that only one out of five cases are reported. But when it comes to self-censorship, it’s almost impossible to quantify because no one is monitoring it or collecting stats, and there’s no open discussion on the subject. (Whelan, 2009, p. 1)

Vignette: Book Banning

I suspected that there would be some concern about the gay character named Pan in my book, Magic and Misery. And I knew it was something of a risk for the main character, TJ, to have her first sexual experience with a boy, especially without its resulting in her pregnancy or HIV contraction, or in a bout of hysterical crying. Perhaps the candor between TJ and her gay best friend would ruffle some feathers. Even before the book was sold, my agent warned me that certain publishers would not take kindly to its sexual forthrightness.

But there are tons of books for teenagers with far more explicit sexual situations, and there are hundreds of LGBT-themed young adult novels. Magic and Misery received all kinds of good press, a starred review in Booklist, being named to that publication’s Top Ten Books for Young Adults, and the ALA Round Table, which selected it for its 2010 bibliography. A raft of online bloggers’ reviews ranged from positive to raves. But a writer only pays attention to the bad reviews. We survive them, even when that doesn’t at first seem like an option. I knew the usual demographic wouldn’t like the book, no accolades from Christianity Today, for example. But I was not prepared for the latent homophobia in some of the responses. One reviewer for an influential publication commented on the “cringe worthy homophobia” that the gay teen experienced, the insinuation being that what he experienced was over-the-top, manufactured. Another reviewer actually blamed the boy for bringing on the torment he was subjected to. And one critic posited that the gay character was so enamored of his straight girl best friend that parents should be concerned about the positive portrayal of a potential stalker. Oy.

Truthfully, lots of school librarians bought the book and championed it in their institutions and online. Before the book’s release I had joked that I wanted someone to challenge my novel so it would sell more copies, maybe get a few minutes on Oprah. But in order to be challenged, a book has to get into public places, and this was my introduction to the concept of soft censoring. Soft censoring is where librarians and teachers avoid what they predict to be inevitable conflicts by simply not buying a book in the first place. For the first time I truly understood how school librarians and language arts teachers are on the front lines of the censorship battle, how part of their job description is defending and fighting to keep relevant books in their libraries. Several librarian friends and acquaintances of mine told me they would not buy Magic and Misery because they could already see the fight they would be embroiled in: a book with an unapologetic gay male teenager who jokes about sex, and a girl who has her first sexual experience and speaks candidly with her gay best friend about it. I finally saw the reality of their daily working lives: dealing with nervous administrators, volleying with aggressive parents who would accuse them of trying to turn their children into sluts and homosexuals. And then it came back to me: When I taught secondary English in the 1980s, I did soft-censoring all the time, even avoided authors—when I had a grant to bring them into the school—who would elicit controversy. Even as a college professor I have treaded lightly with material with gay themes, often announcing verbally and in my syllabus a disclaimer that includes an opt-out option (though the option is dropping the course).

And any author gets the poison-penned emails. One admirer wanted to know why there were such books for teens “with rotten morals.” Another wrote, “Don’t you people write about anything else? You’re obsessed with this gay stuff.” These were to be expected. But the other issues took me by surprise. I learned a hard and important lesson—about the resilience of the old fears, prejudices, and assumptions, no matter how often they are beaten back.

—Peter Marino, Author

Although it seems surprising that books are still being banned, whether publicly or silently through the use of self-censorship, this widely accepted practice happens on a daily basis, and gay-themed books are often the genre that is at the heart of self-censorship. There are numerous reasons why this genre is often banned. “In the first survey of its kind, School Library Journal ( SLJ ) recently asked 655 media specialists about their collections and found that 70 percent of librarians say they won’t buy certain controversial titles simply because they’re terrified of how parents will respond” (Whelan, 2009, p. 2).

The following vignette offers one of the many reasons why librarians and teachers will not read LGBT-related books in the classroom.

Vignette: Banning Families

All first-grade teachers in the ACS school district read the book titled Families by Meredith Tax because it is a book on their curriculum list. The book, which was published in the early 1980s, is a picture book where the setting of the story takes place on an elementary school playground. Children out at recess begin talking about who they live with at home. Some of the children live with both parents, some live in two homes because their parents are divorced, a few live with grandparents, and one child lives with her mother and godmother.

After Mrs. Choukeir, a teacher in the Naylor School, read Families, a parent complained that the school was pushing homosexuality. The parents argued that the book focused on a little girl living with her gay parents. Mrs. Choukeir tried several times to explain to the parents complaining that the little girl lived with her mother and godmother and it does not specifically state that the child lives with gay parents. After numerous e-mails back and forth the principal, Dr. O’Brien, stepped in and asked to meet with the parents. The parents met with Dr. O’Brien and he explained that the book did not push homosexuality, but the parents wanted it banned from first grade. Dr. O’Brien went on to explain that even if the book did include a lesbian family, he would allow the book to be used anyway because there were several gay parents in the school. This fact seemed to surprise the parents looking to ban the book. The parents spent 30 minutes trying to get Dr. O’Brien to understand why the book needed to be banned. He ended the meeting by stating that the parents had very conservative private school views and that would end up being a problem in the school because it is a public school and they teach about awareness and do not want any group to feel unaccepted in their school.

After meeting with Dr. O’Brien, they went to the Assistant Superintendent of Curriculum and Instruction to ask her to form a committee to look at the relevancy of the book and possibly ban it. The ACS school district had a board policy that stated that parents could ask for such a committee to protect children from controversial curriculum. None of the teachers from the Naylor School using the book would be allowed to join the committee because there was a fear that Dr. O’Brien may force them to side with his opinion. After much deliberation the committee supported Dr. O’Brien’s decision and the book continued to be used in all of the elementary schools. The parents, per board policy, were allowed to bring it to the “next level,” which meant that they could bring it directly to the board. The board agenda went out a few days before the meeting and one of the items on the agenda was the decision to ban the book or keep it used in the classrooms. Numerous community members attended the meeting, most of them showed up to make sure their school district would not ban the book.

The board began to discuss Families and made the decision to support Dr. O’Brien and allow the book to be used in first grade. The parents left the board meeting stating that they felt that the school district went far beyond its boundaries with families and curriculum. However, they did not take their child out of the Naylor School.

The previous vignette is a true story but the names have been changed to protect the real participants in the story. Book banning, although many would feel is a thing of the past, is still happening around North America. Hopefully more courageous educators will stand up and go against the grain. Here are some books with an LGBT theme that I recommend:

  • Christian, the Hugging Lion by Justin Richardson and Peter Parnell, illustrated by Amy June Bates (Simon & Schuster)
  • God Loves Hair by Vivek Shraya, illustrated by Juliana Neufeld
  • Jumpstart the World by Catherine Ryan Hyde (Random House Books for Children)
  • Wildthorn by Jane Eagland (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
  • Will Grayson, Will Grayson by John Green and David Levithan (Penguin)
  • Freaks and Revelations by Davida Wills Hurwin (Little, Brown & Co.)
  • Love Drugged by James Klise (Flux)
  • The Boy in the Dress by David Walliams, illustrated by Quentin Blake (Razorbill)
  • Momma, Mommy and Me by Lesléa Newman and illustrated by Carol Thompson (Tricycle Press)
  • Daddy, Papa and Me by Lesléa Newman and illustrated by Carol Thompson (Tricycle Press)
  • My Princess Boy by Cheryl Kilodavis, illustrated by Suzanne DeSimone (Aladdin)
  • Magic and Misery by Peter Marino (Holiday House)
  • And Tango Makes Three by Justin Richardson, illustrated by Peter Parnell (Simon & Schuster Children’s Publishing)

These are only a few of the titles available. Please see your local independent book seller, book chain, or Internet-based book company for more examples.

Written by

Peter DeWitt, Ed.D is a former school principal and now consultant/author. He is the author of Dignity for All, Flipping Leadership Doesn’t Mean Reinventing the Wheel, and the forthcoming, <a rel=”nofollow” href=”Collaborative Leadership: 6 Influences That Matter Most. Schedule an on-site or virtual consultation, seminar, or workshop with Peter today!

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