Should Gay and Lesbian Issues Be Discussed in Elementary School?

Article excerpt

Today's teachers work in an increasingly diverse society. They are teaching children with varied cultural and ethnic identities and backgrounds. Teachers are expected to broaden awareness of, and appreciation for, this diversity among children and families by being advocates for all people, including those of different lifestyles. By addressing diversity issues in the classroom, teachers can celebrate both similarities and differences among children and their families.

One aspect of diversity that rarely is addressed in most public schools in the United States is the topic of gay and lesbian families. The exact proportion of gay and lesbian people among the general population is difficult to determine. One often-cited estimate is that one in every 10 persons is homosexual or bisexual. Even if it were only one in 20, we could project that every classroom has at least one child who will, at some point, realize that he or she is gay, lesbian, or bisexual (Chasnoff & Cohen, 1997). Unfortunately, scant research literature exists that might help educators handle gay and lesbian issues.

In addition, many teachers and parents have legitimate concerns about whether it is appropriate or necessary to teach young children about gay and lesbian issues. Furthermore, parents' beliefs on these topics may conflict with the teacher's, and teachers may feel torn between their personal beliefs and their responsibilities as educators. These conflicts need to be resolved in order to achieve a basic understanding of the issues surrounding the topic of homosexuality.

This past summer, a group of inservice educators learned about families with homosexual partners as part of a class on multicultural education. These educators taught children from kindergarten through 12th grade in public and private schools in a rural region of the southeastern U.S. The teachers and the school districts where they teach are predominantly Christian. This group of teachers decided to investigate if, and how, educators should teach about gay and lesbian issues.

The inservice educators had been exposed to National Issues Forums, which espouse guidelines for public discussion of sensitive or controversial topics (National Issues Forums Institute, 1999). Therefore, the issue and ensuing discussions were organized along a similar format. The educators had to follow certain procedures, and remain objective and non-judgmental. They could voice personal opinions, but they also needed to consider all points of view.

Each teacher was asked to anonymously list one reason for and one against teaching about gay and lesbian issues in school. based on the most common answers, opinions were grouped into three categories: a biological approach, a religious approach, and a lifestyle approach. Opinions that fell under the biological approach examined sexuality as a biological issue, and whether or not schools are responsible for teaching sex education, including gay and lesbian issues. The religious approach encompassed ideas relating to religious morals; religious rights; and separation of church, family, and state. Reasons relating to lifestyle, choice, and maturity were grouped under the societal and lifestyle approach.

One group of participants defined the issue as follows:

Gay and lesbian couples are a [reality] in American society. "Coming out of the closet" puts a lot of pressure and social criticism on individuals and their family members. Some consider [homosexuality and bisexuality] to be a physical problem (i.e., an imbalance in body chemicals); others perceive it as a lifestyle choice. Whatever the underlying cause, gay and lesbian lifestyles are often considered to be morally wrong. However, many states legally allow homosexual marriages. Gay and lesbian issues cross social, legal, moral, and religious boundaries and mores. Should issues regarding gays and lesbians be discussed in the elementary school? …