Kids today are already being exposed to information about sexual orientation and gender identity from a young age. It is time to move from the debate about whether or not we should be having these conversations, and consider how we should be having these conversations.
Some of my colleagues who teach primary grades argue that, when it comes to topics like sexual orientation or gender identity (SOGI), their kids are too young for “that.” Though perhaps well intentioned, it’s a frustrating perspective. Some students enter our Kindergarten classes already asserting their gender identity. Some students have some awareness of their own same-sex attraction. Students enrolled in our schools have same-sex parents, or other family members who identify as LGBTQ2+.
I started responding to comments like “they’re too young for that” by asking, “Out of curiosity, when I’m on recess supervision, are you going to keep your kids in your classroom?” The first time I did, I got a confused expression in response. I continued, “When I’m presenting at an assembly, are you going to keep your kids in your classroom?” More confusion prompted the question, “Bryan, what are you talking about?” I replied, “You keep, saying that your kids are too young for ‘that,’ and since I happen to be ‘that,’ I’m just curious how you’re going to ensure that they aren’t exposed to ‘that.’”
People in our families, communities, and in the media who identify as LGBTQ2+ are more visible than ever before. Isn’t it a better use of our time to move from the debate about whether or not we should be having these conversations, and consider how we should be having these conversations? Whether intentionally or not, kids are being exposed to information about sexual orientation and gender identity. So, how do we help them understand what they are seeing and hearing?
How do we have conversations with younger children about SOGI?
When a child poses a question, it’s a good idea to make sure we understand what it is they want to know. A simple response like, “Tell me why you are asking that question” can be really informative in determining how to answer it. As adults, our assumptions about kids’ questions can often be incorrect. Sometimes we give a much more complicated answer than is needed because the question we’ve heard isn’t exactly the question that’s been asked. It’s not that we’ve misinterpreted the words, but because we’ve misinterpreted the intent of the question. Children’s questions tend to be naïve, asked out of genuine curiosity, and for younger children, a simple answer is often satisfactory.
Below are some common questions children ask, and some thoughts on how to respond.
What does gay mean?
Even children who will never identify as LGBTQ2+ can be subjected to homophobic or transphobic harassment. In some cases, it is because of their perceived sexual orientation, and in other cases, it’s because kids use words that they know will provoke a shocked or upset reaction. The child may indicate that someone called them “gay.” Alternatively, the child might explain, “My friend said their uncle is gay.”
In either scenario, a simple statement defining that it refers to a man who is attracted to men instead of women often satisfies the curiosity. Helping students understand the definition of the word and how to use it correctly, and not as an insult, can be practical outcomes of the conversation.
Why are they holding hands?
If a child asks “Why are those two men (or two women) holding hands?” it is important to recognize that this question is not an invitation to explain the sexual behaviour of the parties. Consider how you would answer the question if a child were asking the same question about a heterosexual couple. Most of us would simply smile and respond, “Because they’re in love,” or “That’s how they show their affection for each other.” Surprisingly enough, this answer works just as well in a same-sex scenario.
Are they a boy or a girl?
Sometimes children will ask if someone they observe is a girl or a boy. In determining how to answer this, it is helpful to consider what the child’s connection is to that person is. If it’s a stranger encountered in passing, it might be helpful to start with the question, “Why are you asking that?” This helps determine what the child’s investment in the question is. If the child responds with a response like, “She looks like a girl, but she has short hair and boys’ clothes,” you can simply address the fact that “some girls like to have short hair and choose clothes that are comfortable, whether they are masculine or feminine.”
Another option is to answer, “I’m not sure. Does it matter?” If it really does matter and the child is persistent about understanding, you could elaborate on the conversation. Help students understand that we make assumptions about gender based on appearance and behaviour. Sometimes it can be confusing when we assume someone is a boy but we see them dressed in feminine clothing or engaged in activities that we might perceive as being stereotypically “girl” activities. Help young students understand that, in the same way that they might have questions about another boy or girl, that person might be exploring their gender to confirm their own understanding of whether they are a boy or a girl.
Introducing new vocabulary
One of the reasons for the shift from LGBTQ2+ to the term SOGI is that every person has a sexual orientation and a gender identity. When introducing new vocabulary, it is helpful to use inclusive language. Including the term “cisgender” in conversations to develop understandings about “transgender” is a way of affirming the identity of students. Cisgender (a term used to describe a person whose gender identity is aligned with their biological sex assigned at birth) is relatively new vocabulary in conversations about gender identity, and is regarded as the opposite of transgender. Most students would identify as cisgender, which helps them to understand the definition of transgender.
Transitioning: In some ways, they’ve always been
Currently, one of the most controversial conversations is around transgender identities. Young students are encountering peers who are actively undergoing social transition (where students are typically dressing as the gender with which they identify, despite how they may have been labelled at birth). This process may involve a name change and revised pronouns affirming their gender identity. Some students, supported by their families (and the professionals they’ve consulted), are making this transition in early stages of their school experience. Students are sharing classrooms with students who’ve undergone these adjustments, prompting teachers to facilitate lessons focused around acceptance and the respectful treatment of others. Some teachers (and parents) feel unprepared to respond to the resulting questions.
A common question students ask is, “How did he go from being a boy to being a girl?” I have found that the best way to respond is, “In some ways, she’s always been a girl.” If necessary, there could be a more extended conversation about what transgender means, but I encourage adults to focus more on aspects of gender expression than on genitalia.
From a statistical perspective
The first conversation I had in my classroom about sexual orientation involved a lot of preparation, and a lot of fear. I worried whether students would understand and make connections. I worried whether they had already learned to hate or fear gay people. I worried they would automatically make the assumption that I was gay. I worried there’d be a line-up of angry parents who wanted their child removed from my class.
I began the conversation in my Grade 5/6 classroom by commenting that, as a teacher, I had concerns about messages students might be getting from the conversations that adults were having in their communities, on their local broadcasts, and in their local papers. I explained my concern for students who identified with the gay or transgender students whose protections were being argued about in policies that school boards were considering implementing. I said that the negative messaging could be damaging to a student who was questioning their attraction or their identity. I worried that a student could be sitting in a classroom and feel that they could not talk to anyone about those feelings.
I shared with students that, statistically speaking, approximately ten percent of the population is gay or lesbian. It is difficult to determine precise numbers as the statistics rely on people self-identifying and there are situations, where, even when the measurement tools are anonymous, people do not feel comfortable or safe in revealing this aspect of their identities. It also depends on which populations are surveyed. Younger generations who’ve grown up where attitudes towards the LGBTQ2+ community have been more favourable, appear to be more comfortable claiming and declaring their identities. I settled on ten percent in part because it made for quick and easy mental math calculations.
To put it into context, in a classroom of 30 students, approximately three students might eventually identify as LGBTQ2+. In a school of 600 students, that’s approximately 60 students. I asked my class to avoid speculating as to who those individuals were, because there could be more or less: the number is based on a larger sampling of a population. To continue the conversation, I shared an article that had been in our community paper and asked students to respond.
The first hand that went up in response was a Grade 6 student who stated that she was taught that being gay was a choice and that it was a sin. I paused to reflect on how to respond to her comment, considering how to avoid undermining her faith and to maintain her dignity. Interestingly, in the time in which I paused, one of the boys on the other side of the room responded, “It’s not a choice. They’re just born that way.” He then proceeded to share the story of the son of a friend of his mother’s who had come out and been rejected by his father. He shared that he thought it was unfortunate, because the son was “pretty cool.” This was followed up by another boy stating “My uncle’s gay. It’s not that big a deal.”
Teachers I work alongside who were initially reluctant to raise the topic with their primary students have been similarly surprised by how their students handle these conversations. In a Grade 2/3 classroom, a colleague was facilitating a conversation about diverse families when a young girl volunteered that her aunt had married her girlfriend. In a Kindergarten class, an argument erupted over a kitchen play centre where two students fiercely debated who would play the role of the mother. Not wanting to invest a lot of time in problem solving, the teacher responded, “Why don’t you just have two moms?” to which one of the girls responded, “Oh, like my friend, Philip?”
Kids are already exposed to SOGI and to LGBTQ2+ identities. Skilful adults are creating environments where it’s safe to share anecdotes about families without shame or ridicule. Constructive, respectful, and informative conversations that are SOGI-inclusive expand our understandings of the diverse communities in which we exist. I’d much prefer that kids had these conversations with informed, caring adults in classrooms and in homes, than learning misconceptions about the LGBTQ2+ community from rumours and innuendo on the playground.
First published in Education Canada, June 2019