49 | Queer Families & the Classroom

Listen to Is It Bedtime Yet? for funny parenting insights and stories.

Meet the Guests

Caitlin L. Ryan is an Associate Professor in the Watson College of Education at the University of North Carolina Wilmington. She holds a B.A. in linguistics and African American Studies from the University of Virginia and an M.A. and Ph.D. in Teaching and Learning from The Ohio State University. Before arriving at UNCW, she taught K-5 literacy enrichment programs in the Washington, DC, public schools and literacy education courses at East Carolina University. She is the co-author, along with Dr. Jill Hermann-Wilmarth of Western Michigan University, of the book Reading the Rainbow: LGBTQ-Inclusive Literacy Instruction in the Elementary Classroom, which received the Edward B. Fry Book Award from the Literacy Research Association in 2018. Her interests include multicultural children’s literature and literacy instruction for educational equity.

Justine Gonzalez is an LGBTQ Advocate and Community Engagement Strategist, and recently served as President of the City of Los Angeles Human Relations Commission. Justine believes in the economic power of diversity and the fair and just treatment of all people and has dedicated her career to advancing policies and partnerships that promote economic and political inclusion. Justine has served as staff to former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, and Mayor Eric Garcetti, in addition to supporting the life-changing work of the Los Angeles LGBT Center, and advocacy of Equality California. Her work ranges from providing legal services to survivors of hate violence and discrimination, working with the Los Angeles Police Department to codify its first policies and standards on interacting with transgender people, advising on the creation of and serving on Los Angeles’ first Transgender Advisory Council, and securing funding for supportive services dedicated to homeless transgender youth.

Justine studied Political Science at California State University, Northridge, and Gender, Ethnicity, and Multicultural Studies at Pasadena City College. She has lived in Los Angeles for 15 years and currently resides in the neighborhood of Echo Park with her daughter.

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Episode Transcript

Emily: All right, folks, it’s time. With over 30 episodes under my belt. It’s time. We talked about the education system, which touches all of our families around the world in very different ways. We’ve mentioned to school in past episodes, but this one we are dedicating to the ups and downs, the challenges and inspiration of pushing for LGBTQ+ inclusive policies and practices in schools. We’re focusing on elementary and early education this time, which means most advice is really geared towards adults in our families, but queerspawn in school and out of it also have voices and a really important role to play in advocacy in the education system. So with me to help me sift through all of these pieces are Justine Gonzales and Caitlin Ryan. I want to start with the question. We start every episode off with who is in your family and how was it formed?

Justine: It’s a complicated situation. So my family, primarily it’s me and my daughter. She turned six years old just a few weeks ago and just started kindergarten. So that’s really exciting. Me and my co-parent have separated. So we have sort of an extended family and luckily we’re still good friends and she lives nearby. So, Cecelia is my biological child, me and my co-parent are both queer and we decided to have a biological child together.

Caitlin: In my family of origin was my mom, my dad, my brother and me. But currently my family is me and my wife and we have just started foster parenting within the last few months actually. So we are new to parenting and we are very excited and we currently have a wonderful kiddo with us and we’re having a great time. He just turned 17 months old today.

Emily: How would you describe your relationship with the education system and how, when, why do you advocate for LGBTQ families in school? What is your role in this particular conversation?

Justine: Yeah, so like I said, Cecilia, the idea of where she was going to school was always sort of in the background. How are we going to do this? Me coming out as transgender happened when Cecilia was one year old and she was a big part of that decision for me to come out because I didn’t want to have a future where I was her dad. I thought that I could move up my transition, get it done in a way that, I could just be Cecilia’s mama and it could be clean cut and we’ll move forward from there. But it turns out transitions don’t happen that way anyway. You can’t really force them to happen a certain way. So lessons learned there, but also she spent a full year in transitional kindergarten already and it was really concerning about how would teachers react, how would other students react, other parents. And so as that time approached over the years, you have the general anxiety of like what this is like, what will it be like, what challenges would my daughter face in this? And to think of four or five, six year old has to even navigate this space was scary. Fundamentally there’s just that personal experience of being in it. And so it was sort of overwhelming, sort of like, I don’t know how any of this is gonna play out. We live in LA unified school district and California has some of the strongest policies on paper in terms of inclusivity. From my experience in working in the nonprofit sector and in local government over almost 10 years, I knew that having policies on paper is very different from the lived experiences and encounters of LGBTQ families, among so many other groups of students, families. What are the real resources there and how do we navigate them? So there was the personal journey, there was my professional career, which informed me of like, Hey, you need to be prepared to be an advocate. Like so many other parents have to be. So right now I’m a consultant still, but working specifically with nonprofits around building parent communities and building parent workshops to give parents the tools to 1) support their children and 2) then to navigate the districts in a way that when they need to, they can access the right channels and resources to get the support they need from staff and administrators.

Emily: Wow. That’s, that’s fantastic. To have those kind of two sides of parent and then also really supporting others, improving the system. That’s awesome. Caitlin, how would you describe your relationship with the education system

Caitlin: One thing I like to remind the teachers that I work with is that all LGBTQ people, adults were actually kids. I think it’s important when we think about this topic to remember that I was a student, I was a queer person who was in schools for a very long time. But since then I have been a teacher, I taught, like you said in my bio in the Washington DC public schools and I am now a teacher educator. So I train current and future elementary school teachers, particularly in helping kids learn how to read and become lifelong readers. Also in that capacity, I’m a researcher and I study how to help K-5 teachers in particular, but all teachers become more LGBTQ inclusive in their teaching. So I feel like in some ways I have all the sides of it. I was a student, I was a teacher, I’m training teachers and like you said, now I’m a parent who will have kids eventually in schools as they get older. Most of the work that I do in terms of research around LGBTQ inclusive teaching, I do with my longtime research and writing partner, Dr Jill Herman-Wilmarth. We’ve been working on this for a while to try to make sure that teachers and other people in schools have some tools for how they can be better advocates and make their practice more inclusive so that families don’t have to do quite so much work. Sort of meet in the middle as it were.

Emily: And what inspired you to have that particular focus and to be doing that particular type of research?

Caitlin: I think in general my own queer identity. I identify as a lesbian and as queer. And so I knew that schools could be better. Both individually and then also collectively as a community, I knew that people’s experiences with schools weren’t great. As part of that, I also have been connected to COLAGE, which is obviously, as you know, part of Family Equality now. And I’ve been connected to COLAGE for a long time. Even though I’m not a COLAGEr or a queerspawn myself, I knew some of the very early founders of that work, including Hope Berry Manley, who was a very good friend of mine. And so I have been thinking about queerspawn experiences for a long time and ended up actually writing my dissertation on the experiences of young queerspawn in schools. And that led me to think about, well what could we as adults in schools, whether that be parents, administrators or teachers, how could we take on some of that work so that it doesn’t have to land on COLAGErs and queerspawn?

Emily: How do LGBTQ+ families, both parents and youth themselves, how do we advocate for safe and inclusive schools for our families? You’ve each mentioned a few different ways. Justine, you talked about those larger scale policies that sometimes will explicitly state LGBTQ people and families need to be celebrated and recognized and affirmed in school. So there’s a policy level, there’s the practicalities as you’ve both done of training staff, updating forms, using the inclusive language around the school. There’s the in-classroom experience, which again is a different level and sometimes there continues to be disconnect between those three. And then there’s those peer experiences and thinking about the welcoming of our youth in schools and the preventing and addressing of bullying.

Justine: There’s so many different ways and there’s not one answer. When I think about this and my current involvement, I bring the organizing and fieldwork aspect and campaign aspect to it, to the same sort of arena for parents where I go, you know, first and foremost on issues like this that are really powerful personal, intimate issues. I think you need to build physical spaces where people consistently communicate and talk. I think you need to have that entry level space of like, where am I safe to talk about these things? Where can I build the skills even to build inclusive environments? Because I think how my work has been steered here is because parents on a regular basis reach out to me and they’re like, Hey, I think my child is LGBTQ and wants to transition or wants to come out. How do I support them? You know, it’s easy to find a web page and handouts, booklets and online resources. But I think for most parents, looking at something like that and then turning that into an action with your child, it’s a scary thing. A lot of parents don’t want to get it wrong, so there’s very much a desire to like, Hey, I know I’m just a parent. I’m a parent, I’m not a teacher, but I want some of those skills. Can someone just sit down with me and talk to me about this? When we talk about like LA unified school district, the school district with 600,000 students covering millions of people overall and trying to find the right resources, you to get as many of those families on board is difficult from a budgeting perspective, from a district perspective. So I find myself sort of organizing and going like, where are the gaps?

Caitlin: It’s interesting, Justine, I’m really struck by how your description of parents and organizing parents and limited knowledge and wanting resources and wanting help translating resources to practice. It rings so true for my work with teachers. I want to echo what you’ve said, but again from a teacher perspective. Jill and I find over and over that teachers really often want to be supportive. Now there are unfortunately still cases where there is explicit outright homophobia and transphobia expressed by teachers. GLSEN has some unfortunate documented statistics about things that students hear and families hear from educators themselves. To say it’s a shame is putting it mildly, but we also find there are many, many teachers who in fact do want to be supportive of LGBTQ people and families, but they either don’t know how or they don’t think they know how. And so there’s still a lot of questions around, okay, well how do I do it? What can I do in my state? What are the laws say I can do? What does my district say I can do? And so trying to make sure that people know that they can advocate and as teachers that they can make their classrooms more inclusive. And in fact that it’s a responsibility of educators to serve every child and to serve every family. And you know, you talked before about the gap between some of those policies that if your district says that you’re going to educate every child or that you’re going to work with families as partners in student’s education, then that has to mean LGBTQ people. And it has to mean LGBTQ families as well. And just sort of helping them see the sources of support that they do have.

Caitlin: This just has become really important. And so the other thing I would encourage when we’re thinking about parents is, and this is hard because I know for many LGBTQ parents, there’s a lot of vulnerability in this and not everyone can be out or can be safe in these kinds of advocacy. But for LGBTQ parents who can be vocal, the more visible that queer folks are as parents and as family members really helps to change the discourse. Because the number one thing that Jill and I hear from teachers is, but what about the parents? I mean, we’ve been doing this for like 12/15 years now. I don’t know the exact number. And every time we talk to a class, we talked to a school, we talked to a district. The first question every time is, well, what about the parents? And what they mean by parents is, what about the conservative parents? What about the religious right parents? What about parents who object? And one thing that Jill is really good about saying, Jill has two children and is queer as well, is – I’m a parent and trust me, you don’t want to not do this stuff if my kid’s in your class cause I will come in there. And I was like, no, you really don’t want that. So, how can we shift that narrative of who parents are and to think about that there are in fact many parents, queer and allied parents, who do want school to be LGBTQ inclusive and who do want a reduced focus on gender binary in elementary education and who do want classrooms to be more inclusive for more learners, particularly for queer learners. And the more that we can start to think parents want that too, I think teachers will feel a lot more security maybe or just a lot more confidence in undertaking some of those things that really can still be risks in a lot of places.

Justine: Yeah, that totally makes sense when we talk about students and teachers. And administrators as the other and then parents and the other. I think we all need to realize that all three need the tools. There’s not really a way to do it one at a time. I see it here locally in Los Angeles where there are so many resources for LGBTQ youth to be loud and to create those spaces, which is amazing. I accessed those services I when I came out. But there’s just a gap in that availability between students and then administrators, teachers and parents. Like you said, there’s so much desire but there’s a lack of capacity in terms of the real funding needed, the real resources needed by schools, by districts, by parents that really get on the same page. I mean, all of these groups need to work together and there are people, there are teachers, administrators, parents already doing good work and parents and all of these people who want to do more good work and want to be on the same page and supportive.

Caitlin: And I think in addition to the structural things that you named in terms of resources, sometimes I also come up, especially in elementary education with just limitations of what feels possible – what people have thought through, particularly straight people. The teaching force, I don’t know if the numbers are true in LA unified it might be different, but nationally our teaching force is overwhelmingly white female, middle-class, Christian, able-bodied and straight. Just overwhelmingly. And so a lot of times teachers who fall into those identity categories haven’t thought about their privilege in those particular ways. They haven’t thought about what other needs people from more marginalized communities might have with intersectional identities and other kinds of topics. They just haven’t thought about it. And so they don’t have a sense of what it could sound like. Sometimes it’s a failure of imagination almost, in addition to some of the structural issues that you mentioned. And so just helping people think through how education could sound, because unfortunately I think for teachers and for us as parents, we haven’t actually seen schools where queerness has been affirmed very much, that is kind of a new thing at least at the national system wide level. And I remember when I was working with a teacher I worked with for a long time and she was reading a chapter book with an openly gay middle schooler in it to her fourth and fifth grade students. And I remember the first time she came across a derogatory slur for gay people in the book. And I realized I had never been in a classroom space where that word was said in an educational way to talk about it and to take the power out of it. And here were elementary school students doing this work that I do for my job. Professionally I’m supposed to be the expert on this and I realized I’d never really heard this kind of conversation in a classroom before – as a student, as a teacher or as a researcher. And so it is new and it’s going to feel new in different ways to different constituents and different people. So giving ourselves some grace and some space to build those kinds of new practices and that new picture, but also knowing that it’s absolutely imperative that we get to it because kids’ lives are at stake and families safety’s at stake.

Emily: In this particular conversation we’re really focusing on elementary school. We’re talking about advocacy that parents can do, understanding that for youth to have some of the tools for them to be their own best advocates, it’s so important for them to have adults in their lives who are able to do that with them, support them, and help educate them. Do you get push back or different responses based on the level of where kids are in education and the types of schools?

Caitlin: I would say absolutely, in terms of age and grade level. There’s also a lot of assumptions about where this work can happen geographically. I teach in the South and I am in a mid-sized city now, but I was in a very rural area and until just this fall. And so teaching teachers who are going to be teaching in very rural areas in the South and there’s definitely an assumption that, Oh, this might be okay in other places, but like we couldn’t do that here. And the thing is that I understand the fears, but there are kids and families here and so not being able to do something isn’t really an answer. So one of the things that we like to say is there’s maybe a lot of things that you can’t do. There might be risks that a teacher or a school can’t take. There might be decisions that a school board would reject or are against the laws, like with the “no promo homo states”. There are some limitations unfortunately still. But find what you can do instead of thinking about what you can’t do, is to think about what you can do. And so if what you can do is put a safe space sticker up, but you can’t read a book aloud. Okay. If you can read a book, you can put a book on your shelf but you can’t read it a lot. What is it that you can do? Or if you can just stop using boy and girl lines, right? If you can just treat gender in a more, what my colleague Lee Aerogen calls gender-friendly way. Can you just expand what’s possible? Find what you can do because yeah, there might be a lot that doesn’t feel possible right now, but, what are the ways that you can continue to push back on the system, even with young kids? Cause that’s the other thing, how can you teach about families? Family is in every ELA and social studies standard in K and one. It’s such a go-to topic for early childhood topics. There’s definitely places to talk about LGBTQ people. But that also means that the teachers and administrators and other parents, particularly parents who aren’t allies, have to understand that talking about LGBTQ people is not talking about sex, which in schools is still really a huge misconception. We have to tell people that it’s talking about connections and families and communities and love. And so I think shifting to that is a good starting point sometimes too, particularly when you start to talk about early childhood because so many of those myths unfortunately still circulate and do make it risky for queer educators and do make it risky for queer families. And so thinking about what you can do and finding age appropriate ways to talk about LGBTQ people.

Emily: That’s so true. Both of you have brought this up – our families are everywhere. We know in recent studies that have been done by the Movement Advancement Project and other research institutions that LGBTQ families are more likely to be in states that have broad laws that are not a safe and affirming for our families. Youth who identify as LGBTQ are in elementary schools, people with LGBTQ parents are in classrooms and of all ages. And Justine as you mentioned, what our peers are saying to us, what we’re observing in the classroom, what we’re hearing from adults doesn’t suddenly turn on when we enter high school. It is something that meets us at the door that first day of pre-K.

Justine: So much of what both of you have said has resonated with me. I’m in Los Angeles and you would think Southern California, California has best laws on the books protecting folks. We have the Fair Education Act. There’s incredible delay in implementation across the state. So there is no consistent implementation, no consistent enforcement, even in the region in Los Angeles since it’s such a sprawling city. When I talked to different parents in different schools, they go like, well that could work in your neighborhood in Northeast Los Angeles, but what about the heavily Latino and immigrant community in Southeast Los Angeles? And you know, it’s really difficult to hold that line of one – we have to do it. This is about kids’ safety, health, wellness for the long term. This is the trajectory of their lives and how they are impacted. There are incredible stakes to this and getting it done right. But also too, I think in my experience, and I ran for school board late last year, really sitting down with parents in that region and even monolingual Spanish speaking immigrant families said, we tell our kids that they can be whatever they want to be and you are embodying that. And it was one of the most powerful experiences professionally I ever had. When we don’t do the changes necessary, so many of those kids and their families fall through the cracks.

Caitlin: One thing I would encourage LGBTQ families who are listening to this to do is to really think about what safe and inclusive means for your family because with the diversity of our families, that’s gonna look and sound different for different people. In my research with COLAGErs in particular, the number of times I heard kids say, Oh well she doesn’t make a big deal about it, so it’s fine. This idea that silence was somehow good enough or as good as could have been expected given their experiences. That there was some sort of, well as long as I wasn’t being mocked or teased for my family, then it was okay. And thinking about the gap between that as acceptable versus being affirmed and fully included, it just feels like a really wide distance still. And so this idea that a lot of teachers have, and I don’t know if it comes out of a sort of politeness, like a fake politeness idea that if we don’t talk about it, then somehow that’s polite. If we don’t talk about it, then somehow that’s good. Where it’s like, no, I want you to talk about all the parts of my kids’ life. I want you talking about everything and talking about it in respectful, inclusive, thoughtful ways, just like you would talk about anybody else. Just not realizing how damaging that kind of silence can be. And what I found in my study is that the more that adults are willing to open up conversations, the more kids will fill the space. So I started to find this over and over – the more that an adult made some space to say, this topic is valid here, this part of you is welcome here, kids would hear that and kids would take up that space. That’s really important for us to remember as parents and as teachers and as organizers and as administrators, is that if there’s a silence, it’s probably because you’re sending some kind of message that you’re expecting it. And so the more that adults can take on the role to say, no, this identity is valid, this kind of family is a family, this kind of whatever those things are, then kids will hear that message and then kids will feel more free to make a wider range of choices for themselves.

Emily: What can people look for to help them determine or decipher how safe and inclusive a school or a classroom is?

Justine: I think it’s all about communication. It starts when you go on a tour of a school, when you’re researching and you set up that first meeting. Just being upfront about your concerns I think is very important. Saying this is our family. And I remember having that first conversation at Cecilia’s transitional kindergarten and going like, do you have other families like ours? Have you ever worked with families like ours before? What’s your experience? And get like a real sense of would they know what to talk about? Do they need resources too? And just getting on the same page and it’s a learning experience. There were some bumps along the road, but I always felt that our teachers and administrators were open to it as long as we had an honest conversation.

Emily: Caitlin, any other advice for anybody who’s trying to make some of those determinations of the environment of a particular school?

Caitlin: Yeah, I’ll say for people who might not have a lot of choice in the schools their children attend. If you’re just trying to get a sense of how you might keep your family safe, one thing you might do is check the shelves. Do they have books with LGBT families or LGBT people on the shelves? That can be a place if you’re not comfortable having some of the more direct conversations that Justine was mentioning, that would be also a really great way to do things. But if you’re looking for other signs – what’s on their bookshelves, you could also see how they respond to requests. So like if you said like, Oh, has anyone ever asked for this form to say parent one parent two? If they say no, why would we do that? That’s good information. You could see what happens if parents have ever challenged books before. Has anyone ever said that something that you were teaching or a teacher was teaching wasn’t okay? And what happened? So just get some more information. How does the school talk about marginalized people generally? What are conversations like around race? What are conversations like around immigration? What are conversations like around other kinds of identities and power to give you a sense for your family specifically. If those are identities that interface with your family, but also more generally about their openness to a range of identities and a range of people.

Emily: And any final thoughts?

Caitlin: I think that I would just encourage all the LGBTQ families out there listening to just, in general, be advocates for education, be advocates for public education because of the diversity of our families, things that affects kids and communities affect our kids and communities. Whether that’s class sizes, whether that’s over policing and school to prison pipeline issues. All of those big education issues affect our kids in queer families. So you know, all the things that affect kids in education or affect our kids. And so just standing up for educators and making voting decisions and funding decisions that support teachers and support schools so that people can have more spaces, better spaces, safer spaces, more inclusive spaces. And if teachers need any resources, give them Jill and my book. There’s lots of other great ones too.

Justine: I don’t think I have anything really major to add other than that I think public schools need to be funded. We need to give the teachers the resources they need and really you push ahead as partners whether we’re parents, teachers, administrators and work together because that’s the only way we’re going to get to fully inclusive schools that respect that intersectionality between race, gender, class, LGBTQ+ families. The only way we get there is that is if we’re working together.

Emily: Thank you both so much and we will link on the website to more information about Caitlin and Jill’s book “Reading the Rainbow: LGBTQ-Inclusive Literacy Instruction in the Elementary Classroom and also some really awesome writings and interviews with Justine as well.