As school administrators and teachers encounter more diverse family structures, the burden is on us, as educators, to learn from their experiences and actively work to create a more welcoming school community in which everyone feels accepted.
I recently had the opportunity to speak with gay and lesbian parents about some of their experiences with their children’s schools. The majority of them spoke about positives; however, they said there are still many areas for growth.
Before we dive into what they shared, it’s important to understand a bit about heteronormativity. Heteronormativity is the assumption that all people are heterosexual by default, and research suggests that schools are, by default, highly heternormative cultures. We have educators working in schools who view the world through a heterosexual lens and therefore may not be aware of the some of the challenges facing same-sex families.
Through the voices of gay and lesbian parents, we can learn a lot about the steps we need to take in order to create more-inclusive school communities.
School Documents, Databases, and Communication
Ask yourself, “Can every type of parent or guardian find a place for themselves in my school’s documents, databases, and communication?”
These are a few things I heard from parents:
- “That always bugs the crap out of me. I hate it when that comes back, and I just cross out both ‘Mom’ and ‘Dad’ and write ‘Parent, Parent.’”—Sally
- “The action of having to do that does take me to the place of, if this is happening right now, what is this going to look like for my family as we move forward? It feels very marginalizing. I have to go an extra step to call attention to and make known the needs of my family, which other families don’t have to do. So, I think in that respect it can sometimes be very frustrating.”—Todd
- “At the time of registration, we had to complete 10–15 documents and were crossing out ‘Mother’ and putting ‘Father, Other Father.’ We got frustrated while completing the paperwork because we didn’t know which parent was Jason and which one was Rich.”—Jason
To solve this problem, schools could make simple modifications to their databases and paperwork allowing parents to self-identify who they are in relation to a student. Consider drop-down menus or blanks so that caregivers of all types can be included: mother, father, stepfather, guardian, etc.
Ask yourself, “When planning this event, can every type of student, parent, or family find a place for themselves?”
Here’s what I heard from parents:
- “We see these pictures online or in Facebook posts of daddy/daughter dances and things like that, and we’re dreading it. Right now, we dread Mother’s Day. We don’t think they’ll address it. We really don’t.”—Jason
- “School events can be a bit awkward at times. I think you get some of the looks like, well, what are you doing here, or whatever. At some point you sit down at a table with a set of moms, and it kind of comes up.”—Todd
- “So I think the girls in Sofia’s school used to have Invite Your Mommy for Make-Up Day or something like that, and then the dads get invited for doughnuts. So, when Sofia had that opportunity to bring what was originally supposed to be her mother, we asked, can she bring an aunt, and so she brought an aunt. And then for Mother’s Day, we just left it up to Sofia, and I think she wrote a card to her aunt or to her female cousin.”—Ron
As educators, our goal is to make sure that students feel good about themselves. All children want to fit in, and events solely for moms or dads can be alienating. Although these types of events are surefire hits in schools when it comes to building community and connections, they limit families by gender or relationship. Consider events such as Lunch with Loved Ones or Pastries with Parents. Elementary teacher Elizabeth Mulvahill has some great suggestions.
Word Choice, Actions, and Body Language
Throughout my research, parents recalled instances of word choice, actions, and body language that set a tone for future interactions.
These are some of the things I heard from parents:
- “Every time I talked to her, her face would get red like she was really nervous, and I don’t know if she was intimidated because I come off as maybe more masculine, that I would be mean. It was really interesting because I would see her interact with other parents, and her face wouldn’t get red.”—Shannon
- “The teacher was so incredibly uncomfortable with both of us sitting there. It was like she had no idea how to announce or address us. She actually cried one time because she was so frazzled.”—Jason
- “What’s so interesting about it is that they didn’t know what to call us. They didn’t know how to address us. If we went to pick up Jordan, the office would call the room and say, “Jordan’s—um, will you send Jordan to the office?”—Rich
In each of these experiences, the parents left wondering how welcome they were in the school. Finding this interesting, I asked each parent what they felt schools could do to ensure a more positive dynamic, and they all mentioned ongoing professional development and training. Recognizing that not all people have had close interactions with out gay or lesbian parents, they believe that some simple background information and knowledge could go a long way.