To Know We Are Not Alone: Identity (Not Sex) in the Classroom

“We read to know that we are not alone.” We have reached a point where we realize that the books our students read should reflect their racial, cultural, and linguistic identities. Is there anything different about gay and lesbian students, or the children of same sex-couples? Are we brave enough to take the next step?

It all started with a book about flowers. A small guided reading group, all boys. Carlos asked, “What’s a corsage?”

I began by explaining, “Well, when you guys get older, like around junior high, you might really like a girl and want to invite her to a dance.” My brain instantly clicked with one of those 3,000 non-trivial decisions a teacher makes a day. This one was a bias alert: You’re assuming all five of these boys are heterosexual. I quickly amended my statement to, “Or you might like a boy, and want to invite him to a dance.”

Carlos recoiled in his seat, his face wrinkled up as if he’d just smelled a skunk. “Ew!”

Billy, the only white student in the group of Latino kids, jumped in before I could begin my standard speech against homophobia. “I don’t care if boys love boys or girls love girls. Who cares? It doesn’t bother me.”

I nodded, grateful for the backup, and said, “Carlos, some people might have the same reaction you had to people with brown skin. But—”

Billy jumped in again: “Yeah! Me, for instance. I hate black people.”

How did we get here from a book about flowers? By the time we had talked through why Billy thought he hated black people (two African-American boys had once thrown a rock at him), explored the difference between actions of an individual and an entire group of people, and circled back to what it all had to do with same-sex couples, the topic of corsages and florists was long forgotten.

Part of me wished I had just said, “A corsage is a cluster of flowers arranged to look pretty,” and moved on. But the rest of me was amazed at the way the entire world thunders into our classrooms, whether we want it to or not.

The flower book had nothing to do with bias or discrimination. It wasn’t even Heather Has Two Mommies, a picture book I read aloud during our unit on families. It was a 32-page guided reading book about flowers being transported from fields and greenhouses to florists’ shops.

But teachers, like parents, always teach far more than we intend. By the time she started kindergarten this fall, my daughter had probably read 50 stories about princes and princesses, and watched 10 or 15 movies ranging from The Little Mermaid to Tangled.

Let’s leave aside the question of why Disney seems to think that dating and marriage is the perfect theme for young girls between the ages of 3 and 11, when literature for that age group is focused almost exclusively on friendship rather than romance. The fact is, I had let my daughter learn the implicit message that girls fall in love with boys, never with other girls.

I made the same mistake in my classroom. Based on 200 Read Alouds, 50 guided reading books, and the 500 titles in my class library, same-sex couples and families did not exist, with the sole exception of Heather Has Two Mommies.

It’s tempting to disguise my lack of courage as respect for families whose religion or personal beliefs lead them to believe that homosexuality is sinful and should not be discussed in school. I know the arguments for keeping even innocent books like Daddy, Papa, and Me out of classrooms and libraries. They’re echoed by the same groups that proclaim “Keep sex out of the Boy Scouts!” to discriminate against gay youth and adults.

But these books have nothing to do with sex. They’re about families. They’re about children who feel secure because their parents have put them at the very center of their world. Compared to Disney’s Princess Jasmine with her coquettish glances and bared belly, they’re downright wholesome. At least Heather isn’t flouncing around in a seashell bikini like that strumpet Ariel.

For children of gay and lesbian couples, or for students who develop crushes on a student of the same gender, their existence is about identity—not sex. Yet an examination of 1,000 books in the average elementary classroom or school library would turn up precisely zero books portraying these students’ realities.

High school English teacher Alice Rowe tells her students,

“We read to know that we are not alone.”

We have reached a point where we realize that the books our students read should reflect their racial, cultural, and linguistic identities. Is there anything different about gay and lesbian students, or the children of same sex-couples? Are we brave enough to take the next step?

 

*Note: For teachers interested in augmenting their class libraries with books on same-sex couples, including a delightful true story about two male penguins hatching a chick together, the following titles are available from Amazon:

Heather Has Two Mommies

Daddy, Papa, and Me

Mommy, Mama, and Me

And Tango Makes Three