In the wake of legalization of same-sex marriage in 32 states in the U.S., another statistic bears acknowledgement: the number of gay dads who have children in school, grades K through 12. According to GLSEN (the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network), of the 7 million LGBT parents with school-age children in the United States, approximately half are men.
This is an astonishing number, one that begs the question that has received scant press: How are those kids doing in this environment, how are schools dealing with it, and what is the future of LGBT involvement in the private and public school system?
“Discriminatory practices and policies are the norm in the United States,” says Maddy Boesen, a Research Associate at GSLEN. “People are surprised to hear that.” In 2008, GSLEN released a report, “Involved, Invisible, Ignored,” chronicling, among other things, harassment and extensive bullying of students with LGBT families.
Boesen says it’s easy to highlight the accomplishments achieved in six years, but adds that not very much has changed since 2008.
On the positive end of the spectrum are reports from educators like John Walter, the openly gay head of school at The Wesley School in North Hollywood. Walter is at the forefront of a new wave in private education that advocates tolerance of same-sex families as part of the curriculum. The Wesley Middle School holds assemblies that address LGBT issues, along with assemblies that discuss religious tolerance and racial tolerance. In his view, the program is so successful it’s almost a non-issue.
At the assemblies, Walter says, “I tell the kids ‘I’m gay, but I don’t want you to see me that way. I want you to see me as the head of school. I want you to see the gay parents as dads.’”
“The gay dads come in and they talk, face-to-face,” he adds. “The parents start. Generally, the kids have submitted anonymous questions for the parents.”
The program has been in effect for five years, and Walter says that there have been no issues of bullying or harassment. He’s also not unaware of his school being located in liberal Los Angeles, and its being private.
“There’s no friction at all with the kids. Part of that is where I live, with more liberal parents.”
Walter says that gay dads approach him when choosing schools, and that he believes many gay parents are moving to liberal areas once they have children. His last job as a teacher, 10 years ago, was in South Carolina, and he flatly states, “I wouldn’t touch the subject there.”
While it’s commonly believed that most gay dads live in urban, liberal areas of the country, "The New York Times” caused a huge stir in a 2011 article stating that gay-parent childrearing in the South is more prevalent than in any other region of the country. If we don’t hear from these LGBT parents, the article states, it’s because they defy the stereotype of “white, affluent, urban,” and are more likely to keep their sexuality hidden. For gay men, especially African-American men, it’s all too often a subject of shame.
“Some kids have told me they’ve been made fun of by other kids,” says a Savannah, Georgia, high school teacher who asked that neither she nor her school be identified. “There is so much religious fundamentalism in the South that you have to be careful whom you talk to. The parents are out, but it’s not really talked about in school.”
“I would suspect that a lot of gay parents want their children to go to this school because it’s a better, more tolerant place,” she adds, noting that her high school specializes in the arts. “But a lot of the rest of the community hates us. In the South a lot of stuff goes unspoken.”
In Chicago and New York, should you ask educators about LGTB parents and kids, the answer is almost sidelined by other issues.
“The kids are worried about where their next meal is coming from,” says a public school educator who’s taught in both places and also asked that her name and schools not be identified. “They don’t really get into the business of other kids’ lives.”
That’s not to say it’s a gloomy or ignored subject, just one that takes a backseat to learning algebra and passing English. “Most educators that I know look at the situation and think, ‘What’s best for the kids? How will they understand this?’ When we have discussions about the legalization of gay marriage, we talk about how it affects students.”
“When gay marriage was passed in Illinois, it was ‘right on!’” she adds, on how teachers reacted. “Most of the kids feel that way, too, although some are struggling with the religious element.” She says that the subject comes up privately, with parents, and in sex education courses, and that, if there is harassment or bullying, it doesn’t happen on campus.
Todd Savage, the president-elect of the National Association of School Psychologists, and professor at the University of Wisconsin, doesn’t just teach LGBT issues to his students; he’s also the gay parent of a 9-year-old son.
“The rule of thumb is that you gotta take people from where they’re at,” he says in regard to teaching future educators about LGBT rights. “For some, this might be the first time they’ve dealt with the issue. Some are primed and ready for it. For those on the fence, there is hope. Their eyes are really open.”
Savage is unique among same-sex educators in that he speaks to schools about gay parents and other LGBT issues.
“What we are learning, in the fieldwork I do, is that not a lot of people and programs talk about it,” he says. “Until they are mandated to do this, I don’t know how many will do so voluntarily. There is so much other stuff for future teachers to prepare for.”
Savage adds that LGBT protections and the discussion of LGBT issues vary from state to state, from district to district, and even from school to school, which complicates the issue. He also points out that most people who are going to talk about this issue are from liberal areas.
Adds Savage: “It’s easy for me to talk about progress, coming from a school where it’s comfortable. We do represent a white, middle class perspective.” According to him, silence speaks volumes. “If no one in schools is talking about it, then they are afraid to talk about it, or of the retribution of what might happen if they do.”
According to GSLEN’s web site, eight states have enacted laws to prevent the positive discussion of LGBT issues in schools (rulings informally known as "no promo homo” laws), six of which are in the South; with Utah and Arizona filling out the map.
In addition to these laws leading to further discriminatory practices against LGBT youth, Boesen says they can affect LGBT parents as well. Illustrating a dilemma that will most likely play out in the years to come, Boesen poses a hypothetical question: “If your school or teacher doesn’t allow LGBT issues to be discussed, and you’re asked to write an essay about your parents, how does a student react without getting into trouble?”