I'm Scared of Small Children: Homophobia, Gender Discrimination and the Home
An educator explains that parents need to talk to their kids about gender earlier and more honestly.
After several years as a teaching artist in public schools and a private music teacher in homes throughout Los Angeles, I have experienced countless moments of homophobic and gender policing micro-aggressions from the curious and innocent children of well-meaning adults.
Kids take in everything around them, and they ask questions, as they should. But when parents bend down to intervene and tell their kid “We don’t ask that,” or “Well, obviously this person is a [fill in the blank]”—or when they don’t intervene at all and leave it to me to straighten out—I know that this young human before me has probably never had a safe place to fully delve into the complexity of gender identity and sexuality. And let’s face it, that was most of our childhoods.
We Need to Teach Children About Sexuality Earlier
Parents often think that their kids don’t need to know about sexuality or gender until they’re “old enough,” which is an unfortunate myth of privilege. Even if parents do explain the complexities of gender and sexuality once or twice to their kids, if the kids don’t have places to practice that knowledge (aka friends with those complexities), they won’t retain it. (Which is pretty normal.)
I surround myself with many queer and gender-variant individuals, and sometimes I forget that the rest of the world is not a gender-fluid mob of nonbinary vernacular and love. Many of the families I’ve grown to know over the years make obvious and loving efforts to bridge this gap, but that’s not always the case.
There might not ever be a perfect way to handle those awkward moments, but silence and disassociating are not only not perfect, but they’re also detrimental. After decades of experience, I can tell you that those little innocent moments of questioning often turn into the next natural step of social and emotional development for young people.
Parental Priorities Have to Lead the Way
I am using the term "discrimination" differently from the usual sense we’re familiar with in racist America. When an individual uses discerning discrimination to analyze a context—or in my case, how my gender identity relates to theirs—they are trying to understand one thing from another. It’s a very binary process, especially in terms of gender. Young people are entrenched in these processes for many years, across various stages of development.
During these steps, their brains are trying to consolidate information and categorize it. If you explain to a five-year-old that their piano teacher has a romantic relationship with someone who they call a partner who is female-identifying, and that their piano teacher does not use the gender pronouns “he” or “she”, but instead “they,” you might need to explain the same thing to them again in a matter of days or weeks or months—all along the way adding details about life that they’ve figured out since then.
Or you may need to use the example of a cisgender family friend, and their romantic partner and pronouns, but reinforce that the differences at hand are good, making life more interesting and meaningful. It might be helpful to also address the fact that transgender or nonbinary individuals are at greater risk of being bullied, gaslit and harmed.
As it is with all things in our world, every family prioritizes essential discourse differently. In contrast, when I enter an educational space as a teacher, I become a social worker, moderator, learning development assessor, content curator, caretaker and—hopefully—the holder of a safe space. No matter what type of students I teach, sexuality and gender can serve as more ammunition for bullying. Whether it’s loud or nonverbal, bullying effectively disrupts growth in the individual and the collective.
Stronger Communication at Home Would Be a Game-Changer
I recently completed my master's in education. One of my 13 colleagues was similar to me in that he also has an older sibling with disabilities who regularly had Individual Education Program meetings throughout his public school education. IEP meetings are held annually and are mandatory under the Federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.
My colleague and I both interviewed our parents about IEPs, and they felt that IEPs should be given to every student—not just students with disabilities. It was such an interesting coincidence that both of our parents think this same way, almost two decades after their last public school IEP meeting. My colleague, who also happens to be younger than his sibling with disabilities, probably experienced some of the hardship that I experienced as we both watched our parents and sibling navigate a world filled with ableism, and an education system often inadequate and underresourced for students who learned “differently.”
I bet our parents wished that they could have provided us more support in our education, too.
This bit of information not only to brings more attention to the struggle that individuals with disabilities face throughout their lives, but also how vital interactions are between a student’s family and education support team. If there was a cultural and systematic vehicle—like an annual IEP— for each individual student’s education support team to gather around and put together a comprehensive plan for them, educators like me wouldn’t have to be the sole voice teaching students, fellow educators and parents how to use educated discernment when addressing gender and sexuality.
For special education teachers and their students, one of the great side effects of the COVID-19 pandemic is that parents and guardians are more able to attend their IEP or education support meetings now since every single meeting is virtual and more flexible for working parents.
I truly believe that the gender policing and homophobic micro-aggressions I’ve experienced from students would be nearly non-existent if there were stronger lines of communication between school and home, teacher and family, as well as more support overall in public school. Families need the support of educators and administrators, while educators need the behavioral and social support of families. When we build better support for our students, we build better support for the people trying to raise and educate them.
Until we create new tools, I’ll still carry my fear of children’s words, and miseducation their parents give them.