Although summer doesn’t officially end until the third week of September, most parents can probably agree that the season of sun and fun comes to an end when the school year begins. How do you feel as the first day of school approaches?
Do you experience the same angst as a parent that you felt as a kid?
Are you nervous for your child, wondering how he or she will navigate those hallways without your hand to hold onto?
Are you more worried about how you will handle the added pressure of getting your child dressed for school as you try to get ready for work?
Perhaps the logistics involved when your children need to be at different places at the same time causes you more stress than you care to acknowledge?
Do you feel just a little guilty for being happy to have a few hours to yourself again endearing sound of small voices calling you to their aid every time you shut the bathroom door or crack open a book?
If you answered “yes” to any of the above questions, then congratulations are in order. You are officially the best kind of parent, a normal one.
But all kidding aside, the start of a new school year can be very anxiety-producing for anyone, but particularly so for gay or gender-non-conforming parents or children. The idea of coming out to a child’s teacher or school administrator used to be fraught with fear of rejection or ostracism, and worry about negative repercussions for the child.
Now that gay marriage is legal, even commonplace, in our area, this conversation is likely to be much easier. Indeed, some school registration forms and other legal documents, including birth certificates, reference “Parent 1” and “Parent 2” rather than Mother and Father. But for some of us, this is still not an easy subject to broach. Fortunately, the law and public opinion are on our side.
Although there is not much consolation to be found in the fact that it is illegal for your child’s school to discriminate against him or her based on your sexual orientation, the fact is the vast majority of teachers care very deeply about their students and welcome any input from parents that will help them get to know their young charges. In all of my dealings with gay parents, I have yet to hear one “coming out ” at school story that hasn’t ended with the teacher thanking the parent for his or her honesty and giving heartfelt assurances that every effort would be made to make the child feel comfortable and accepted.
Coming out as transgendered might be a little more difficult for parents than simply coming out as gay, especially if the parent has not finished transitioning or the child has only recently become aware that a change is taking place.
But here again, honesty when dealing with your child’s school is the best way to go. When revealing your trans status to your child’s school, keep in mind that outside of the gay and trans communities, it is not uncommon for people to have little or no understanding of the transition process. Be prepared to educate the teacher and other school staff members, and try to do it in as non-threatening a manner as possible.
Remain aware that the school’s efforts to accept you openly might be met with push-back from some less enlightened parents. Consider asking the school to host an educational forum for the parents of your child’s classmates, wherein you, and perhaps your doctor or other medical professional, can address any concerns they or school support staff may have.
While you may be met with some negativity, there is also a good chance that the other parents will welcome the opportunity to discuss ways in which they can explain your situation to their children using age-appropriate terminology and a non-judgmental tone. It would not be unusual for your child to be somewhat troubled by your transition, and having the support of his or her classmates, teachers, counselors and other administrators, can help make this time easier on everyone involved.
Once your child has entered middle school or high school, it won’t be as important for the school staff to know about your sexuality as it was during the elementary years. However, if it is your adolescent, rather than you, who is gay or transgendered, it will be vitally important for the school to understand that protecting him or her from bullying and harassment is the obligation of the institution.
As your child’s main advocate, it’s up to you to ensure that the school takes this responsibility seriously and that your child’s right to an education in a safe environment is not violated. Taking a no-nonsense approach that makes it clear from the outset that you expect reasonable accommodations to be made lets the school know that you will be taking an active role in ensuring that your child’s rights are protected.
Teens and even pre-teens are coming out as gay and trans earlier and more publically than they ever have before. Many of them are fortunate to have Gay-Straight Alliance organizations at their schools, and are accepted by their peers with neither fanfare nor reticence. The open and affirming atmosphere at their school allows them the freedom to be themselves, with the support of their teachers and counselors. Not all gay or gender-different kids are so lucky, of course, and parents can be faced with difficult choices regarding their child’s education.
Sometimes, despite an administration’s best efforts, gay or gender-different children still find themselves victimized by hateful slurs or actions on the part of fellow students. In some cases, the adults that are supposed to protect them from such abuse are more inclined to look the other way than to intervene on their behalf. In such situations, it may be necessary to enlist the help of an attorney who can convince the school district that transferring your child to a more appropriate learning environment might be the only solution.
Given the high suicide rate among children who have been bullied, regardless of the real or perceived reason for the harassment, it is vitally important that parents and administrators work together to ensure that children feel safe and accepted at school and are given the opportunity to benefit from all that their schools and communities have to offer. All of our children deserve a good education, in a safe space, where they can feel free to express themselves and grow to their fullest potential, and parents must remain ever vigilant in order to make sure that they do.
By Chris McNamee