Although students often experience anxiety and stress at the beginning of a new school year, the same can hold true for parents, particularly for LGBT parents unsure of how a new school and its teachers and administrators will accept their families.
Richard Gervase, a board member at Rainbow Families D.C., a nonprofit organization for LGBT families and their allies, has a son entering fourth grade and another starting kindergarten at a private school.
Visiting your child’s school and speaking to the teacher and principal about your family is the best advice Gervase said he has for LGBT parents sending their kids to school for the first time.
“We started this whole process of working with the schools when they were in preschool,” said Gervase. “Get in as early as possible to meet with the teacher … even before school and just start the conversation about your family. You can’t control the random things that another child might say or if another family has issues about our family, but to have the teacher be kind of primed and kind of on your side is really important.”
Susan Silber, an attorney in Takoma Park, has two adult children, a daughter, 27, and son, 21. She agrees that getting to the teachers and administrators early helps, but she emphasized it’s important to describe your family to school officials in a way that is familiar to the child.
“The most important thing is that people describe the family to the teacher or the school administrators in the way the child knows the family,” said Silber. “The child should get support reflected back of their real family rather than having to distort their own image based on some sense of what a family should be.”
Gervase echoed those sentiments.
“We go by Daddy and Papa to the kids,” said Gervase. “We have experienced on the playground before, I’m Papa, where some other parent would call me Daddy. It’s kind of like calling someone named Jane, Susan or Bob. It’s a completely different person in the child’s life.”
John Parkhurst has twin boys who started fourth grade in public school this week and he adds talking to other gay parents really helps.
“Choosing a school, and one where you know there are other gay families and you know the environment is favorable and highly diverse.” said Parkhurst. “I talked to other gay parents and went to a school several of my friends had chosen.”
Silber agreed that finding other LGBT parents is important.
“All gay parents should be part of some kind of support system with other gay parents so that children can look around and say, ‘gee I’m not the only one with this kind of family,’” said Silber. “It should be something people think about, making sure that their kids know other kids with gay families.”
There are other issues that may surface that do not have directly to do with the parent’s sexual orientation. Gervase and his partner adopted both of their children from abroad. That aspect of their family needs to be discussed as well. Teachers need to know how open the family is about the child being adopted.
“We got to know what kinds of assignments and projects they did that might touch on family issues,” said Gervase. “A lot of schools are avoiding [Mother’s Day and Father’s Day] assignments. There are other things to be on the lookout for, a lot of younger classes asked the kids to bring in a baby picture or family picture.”
“The teachers, every single year, have been just fine to say, ‘well you can just do you dad instead,” said Parkhurst when asked abut Mother’s Day projects in the classroom. “So every year they’ve brought me home something on Mother’s Day.”
These kinds of assignments need to be discussed because a child who is adopted may not have any baby pictures because they may have been adopted when they were older. Some classes have students create family trees that could raise the same issues and questions.
“As part of the initial conversation with the teacher, we’ve asked to think through any assignments, to give them some ideas about the kinds of things we might be concerned about,” said Gervase.
When meeting with your child’s teacher, Gervase suggests not only offering to be a resource, but bringing some resources, such as books or articles on LGBT families.
“We always tried to see ourselves as partners in educating the teacher or teachers and administration and, in general, I think that is really appreciated,” said Gervase. “There may be a little bit of nervousness, on the school’s end, if you’re the first, or they are concerned about saying something wrong. I think you really can disarm that by coming in and being really comfortable and asking if they have any questions.
Gervase and Silber suggest offering yourself as a resource for when issues arise in the classroom.
“You can sort of make this alliance where you’re not critical of the teacher but you want to be a resource so that if something happens, she might even turn to you and talk about how to respond,” said Gervase. “For example, a question of gay marriage came up in the classroom, and the teacher called on us to talk about it.”
“I think every parent should act as a mentor, almost diplomat, to try to raise issues,” said Silber. “Figure out how to sensitize the co-parents or co-teachers to these realities we have.”
Gervase suggested bringing in a copy of the Welcoming School guide, produced by the Human Rights Campaign.
“[It] has been super helpful to us,” said Gervase. “When [the kids] were in preschool, we actually wrote some stuff like that.”
“Give it to every principal, because there is so much good information,” Gervase. “First, [parents should] read it themselves if they don’t already know about it.”
The guide includes a list of resources where teachers can learn more.
“There is a tremendous bibliography, so one of the things our school did was take that bibliography and every teacher read one of the books that had a family diversity theme,” said Gervase. “They each used it in the classroom for discussion then met and compared notes to figure out which ones worked well at which age.”
“There are also legal issues around actual legal authority to do things,” said Silber.
She said it’s important to ensure the school knows that the parent who may not have adopted the child has the authority to do things like pick the child up from school or be called when something goes wrong and the other parent is not home.
“The ideal thing is to use the school experience as a way of reminding yourself that both parents should have legal authority,” said Silber. “In the absence of [adoption] at least have some legal documents that give authority from the legal parent to the other parent.”
Parkhurst admits that one of the toughest aspects of back-to-school season has nothing to do with being a gay parent — but rather just being a parent in general.
“Looking at their little faces when they’re trying to be brave. They do what they’re supposed to do and be where they are supposed to be, and the parents just sort of stand there and let them go,” said Parkhurst. “The first … one of my boys was really good and strong about it, but … when he saw me at 3:15, his little lip started to quiver, but it wasn’t anything compared to me. Teachers were pulling me aside and giving me a box of Kleenex.”