We were walking down the hall to go to recess. Two boys started hugging each other. Their embrace was cut short by a third boy standing next to them. “Are you GAY?” he boomed, loud enough for everyone in the hallway to hear. The two boys quickly leapt apart and continued walking in line as if nothing had happened.
However, something huge had happened, something that many would be wont to ignore. Clearly, despite the fact that these children are only 8 years old, they have already largely internalized our society’s homophobia, and they have already adopted many of the ideas of toxic masculinity, one of which is that men showing affection towards each other is weak and not okay.
I knew I had to act. I also knew that in this day and age, I had to act in a way that was not only going to get my point across and provoke intellectual discussion, but also not get me in trouble for espousing my political opinions. Being a teacher in this past election year has already been immensely difficult, with my kids coming in every single day passionately arguing about the election and administration with the extremely limited tidbits of knowledge they had and having to withhold my own opinions. But it is my opinion that teaching tolerance and acceptance is not and should not be remotely political.
“These children are only 8 years old, and they've already largely internalized our society’s homophobia.”
The next morning, we had our regular morning meeting. We greeted each other in Urdu, the language spoken at home by two of my students. We reviewed our daily schedule and my morning message to the students about what to expect for the day. Then I joined the circle and told the students we were going to have a class talk. All their ears perked, since they had been extremely engaged in our previous class talks of the year (discussions around issues such as racism, sexism, stereotypes, and religion). I decided to center the conversation around the idea of family.
“There are lots of different kinds of families,” I began. I looked around, and their eager expressions urged me to continue. “Some families have a mom, and a dad, and kids. Others have a man and a woman and no kids.” I paused. “But there are lots of other types too. I’ll share something with you about my own family. My family has a mom and two kids, but no dad.” I looked around at them, their innocent expressions, their empathetic looks, even at such a young age. “Does that make my family any less of a family?” I asked. They responded with a resounding “NO!”
I then opened the discussion to them, hoping they’d steer it in the direction I was anticipating. “Can anyone else think of another kind of family that isn’t a mom and a dad and kids?” Several hands went up, and the students shared examples, often personal ones, about families with just a dad with kids, or a dad and a mom and a grandma with kids, or a mom and kids and the dad was deported (and vice versa), and a family with pets, etcetera. After about 10 minutes of sharing I realized it wasn’t exactly going where I was hoping, so I interjected.
“What about a family with two dads and kids, or two moms and kids, or just two men or two women alone? Is that a family too?” “Yes,” they responded, with slightly less fervor than before, not due to intolerance or nonacceptance, but simply due to the fact that they had never been prompted to consider this before.
“Does this make them any less of a family?” “No!” they responded as 23 little light bulbs went off in their minds.
“The reason I am bringing this stuff up,” I said, “is because yesterday, someone chose to use the word ‘gay’ as an insult. That word is not, by any means, an insult. Using the word gay as an insult is just as bad as racism or sexism. This is called H-O-M-O-P-H-O-B-I-A.” I wrote on the board while spelling it out. “That means using or having negative stereotypes against gay people. It means using the people who someone loves as an insult. Is that an okay thing to do?” The students all shook their heads. I waited with bated breath for someone to tell me that their family taught them that it was wrong to be gay, that two men shouldn’t be together or two women shouldn’t be together. But no one did.
“My more religious students were definitely learning about the 'sins of homosexuality' at home, yet they didn’t have anything negative to say about it at school.”
This was a light bulb moment for me as well. I was fairly certain that at least a few of my more religious students were definitely learning about the “sins of homosexuality” at home, yet they didn’t have anything negative to say about it at school. This represented to me, more than anything before, that as their teacher, I have so much power over their belief systems, which are still so malleable and delicate. Therefore, it is not only my opportunity but my responsibility to educate them on these topics, which may very easily otherwise go unmentioned throughout their entire K-12 experience.
I ended the meeting by reading “And Tango Makes Three” aloud to the students, a wonderful picture book about the true story of two male penguins in New York City’s Central Park Zoo who become the parents of a baby penguin named Tango. Once I finished reading, there was a big fight about who would get to read the book to their kindergarten reading buddy later in the day.
We continued discussing issues of inequality, homophobia, and stereotypes throughout the rest of the school year. But the most poignant moment for me was on the second to last week of school. I had the students do an assignment about what a president should be like as a leader, and how they would lead if they were president (again, I must #resist in the most subtle way possible). The student who had used the word gay as an insult wrote this, verbatim:
“As the president of the United States, I would want to be kind, brave, and nice. I would want to try to end fighting. I can do this by trying to let them be friends instead of being enemies. I also want to stop people saying ‘gay’ offensively. And last I want to stop people saying stereotypes.” Well said, my friend.