Manual TypewriterEssays, Reviews, and Commentaries

By Arlene (Ari) Istar Lev

School Daze I

Posted By on June 30, 2009

School Daze: A short series of columns on American Education
By Arlene (Ari) Istar Lev

A note on our National Tragedy:

New Orleans is a city with a huge LGBT population. Let us all keep in mind that some of the victims and survivors of this national tragedy are LGBT people, who may experience additional harassment in shelters, and massive social ignorance about the configurations of their families. These southern states do not have LGBT family protections. There are children who are separated from their biological parents, for whom their nonbiological parents will not be legally recognized. There are unique issues our families face and this will not be addressed unless we, we the national LGBT community, keep them front and center.

Let us also make note that all of us, queer and otherwise, share a planet together. It is the only home we have. If we destroy our wetlands (a huge sponge that could have absorbed some of this water) and we continue global warming, we will see an increase in these huge weather systems that leave devastation in its path. Warnings were issued six years ago that if a category 3+ hurricane hit New Orleans, the devastation we are seeing would be the result, yet the Bush administration denied Louisiana the federal funds they needed to build sufficient infrastructure to protect the levees and pumps. The massive flooding into the New Orleans basin is due to environmental conditions that are human caused as well as poor government planning. Why didn’t we have an evacuation plan in place? As I write this people have been without food and water for many days. May I note that most of the inner city of New Orleans are poor Black people, and our government — busy with its overseas wars — has yet to fully respond. Michael Moore reminds us that if this tragedy hit the rich white citizens of Kennebunkport, Maine, the federal response might have been very different. Please let us remember these glaring errors on the part of our President during the next election.

My hearts prayers go out to the train they call the City of New Orleans; I write my column this month listening to jazz, mournful tunes for Bourbon Street.

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School Daze: Part I

In June when classes end, student yell “School’s Out,” but now that school is starting up again, I can’t help but wonder who is out in the schools, and how out one can actually be. I myself am out as a college teacher, as well as a returning college student (still queer). I parent two boys who attend elementary school and I worry about how out, how real, they can be about their two moms.

My older son, undeniably taller than me now, begins fifth grade this year and my younger boy, undeniably more opinionated than me, enters kindergarten. When my kids return to school and talk about their summer vacation, they will tell about our weeklong trip to Maine, and the day we spent at Great Escape Amusement Park, but will they also tell about the ½ week we spent in Provincetown, Massachusetts with 400 other LGBT families, and the day spent watching the entire Gay Pride Parade in New York. And how will they be received?

In Lafeyette, Lousiana, in 2003, a 7-year old boy was punished in school for telling a friend that his mom was gay. Apparently, the teacher thought gay was a bad word and apparently the school board agreed with her. Thankfully, the ACLU didn’t. How can a teacher have the right to tell a child he can’t talk about his parents, within a school setting? Homophobia like this represents a different kind of hurricane, a different kind of federal emergency, but without any national relief efforts. I am appalled that this child had to experience this, but yet not so sure that we are completely protected from this in liberal New York.

I am lucky (read privileged), since my children attend a progressive independent school, it is very unlikely that they will ever experience this level of homophobia. But homophobia is insidious, and sometimes long-term exposure to a more subtle toxin can be very dangerous.

The first time I saw the video “That’s A Family,” I was in San Francisco at a conference for therapists who specialize in working with LGBT families. It was the premier of the video, and I was moved by the sweet stories of children talking about their diverse family forms. In the video children talk about having parents who are divorced, and about being adopted. One child talked about living with his grandmother because he mother was using drugs. Another child talked about having two moms, who he said were “in each others hearts.” Honestly though, in the context of being in San Francisco with radical queer therapists, other than finding the video “sweet,” it didn’t hold much of my interest and I was quickly ready to move on to more racy, more heady, more challenging adult conversations.

The last time I saw the video was in a classroom in North Greenbush, New York, at a staff meeting of my sons’ school. We were previewing the video before showing it to the students. This cute video of children celebrating their families had a very different edge in a room of teachers. I found myself sinking down into my seat. I can’t remember the last time the word LESBIAN sounded so loud, so harsh, so indecent. I mean the child was just saying that his moms were lesbians, but I found myself, wanting him to whisper the word. I could feel the tension in the room and it has made me wonder more about what is not is not being said in our schools, then what is being said.

The teachers expressed some concern about not knowing how to talk with their students, not about drug-abusing parents, but about families headed by same-sex parents. It was then that I realized not only how very silent our schools are regarding LGBT families, but how silencing they are.

One of the teachers said, “I don’t think I’ve ever said the word lesbian out loud before, certainly not in a classroom.” I debated for a minute whether to transform myself into my “big ole dyke warrior raised-in-Brooklyn change-or-die mode,” but I opted instead for my best “touchy-feely, matronly social worker persona.” “Let’s say it together,” I said. “LESBIAN.” I said, drawing out the letters in a long loud moaning sound. I turned to the group. “Let’s all do it together — LESBIAN.” They all repeated it after me, and then with me, until we all started laughing together.

We did show the movie to the students. One young boy said to me afterwards, “If everyone’s family was the same, how would you know which one was yours?”

We have a long way to go to rid our schools of homophobia, but luckily the children can lead the way.