Opinion

To support LGBTQ kids, Kansas parents and teachers must stand up against discriminatory practices

January 19, 2022 3:33 am

Wichita city officials and residents have debated a nondiscrimination ordinance protecting LGBTQ people. (Liz Hamor)

The Kansas Reflector welcomes opinion pieces from writers who share our goal of widening the conversation about how public policies affect the day-to-day lives of people throughout our state. Rachel Showstack is associate professor of Spanish at Wichita State university and founder of Alce su voz, an organization that supports health equity for Spanish speakers in Kansas.

When I attended a pep rally at my child’s pre-K-12 college preparatory academy in Wichita a few years ago, I was astounded at the way the teenagers performing on the basketball court in front of the audience were so succinctly divided between girls — scantily dressed cheerleaders and a homecoming queen and princess — and boys — football players and a homecoming king and prince.

The interactions around the homecoming royalty assumed heterosexuality, with jokes and games about the king and queen being physically attracted to each other. As a straight-leaning, cisgender adult with a fluid gender expression, I was not comfortable during the rally, and I spent the afternoon and evening wondering how the LGBTQ kids in the audience felt.

About a year later, when my child had begun to question their own gender identity, they mentioned to me that the teachers at the school often divided the kids into a boys’ group and a girls’ group for activities, and that the computer lab had boys’ games (shooting) and girls’ games (dressing up).

My child pointed out to a teacher at the school’s summer program that this kind of categorization could make a nonbinary person feel excluded. The teacher’s response was, “We don’t have that here.”

In other words, she told my nonbinary child, a rising second-grader at the school, that the school did not have any nonbinary students. I can still feel the rage rising in my chest when I picture that teacher responding to my child with those words.

That was when I began to advocate for the school to offer a gender and sexuality awareness and inclusivity training for its faculty and connected the then head of school with the chair of the Kansas chapter of GLSEN. Given that the school ironically proclaims inclusivity as one of its main pillars, I was worried about kids who might not perceive the school as a safe space to express themselves freely.

Research in the field of public health has demonstrated that LGBTQ youths experience higher rates of depression, suicidality, and victimization, compared with their straight and cisgender peers. Teachers who choose to be allies play an important role in making these kids feel included.

The school administration’s consistent response to my advocacy has been a warm “we care about inclusivity,” along with tiny steps in the right direction. Several months after our interactions on the topic began, the head of school informed me that a professional development committee would include the voices of LGBTQ staff in planning an in-house summer in-service. It did not seem appropriate to me to place the burden on these staff to inform the teaching of LGBT inclusivity, but at least this was better than complete inaction.

Another positive step was that the head of the academy’s elementary school purchased ally stickers for the teachers and began reminding them to use gender-neutral language and respect children’s pronouns.

While the administration at my child’s school stumbles toward inclusivity, homophobia and transphobia run rampant within school boards across the state. As indicated by Kansas Reflector Opinion Editor Clay Wirestone, some Christian and conservative parents, advocates, and legislators in Kansas believe that inclusive school practices could be harmful to their children. The Goddard school district even ordered the removal a selection of books with diverse characters, including gay and transgender characters, from its libraries, over a concern about whether the books met the schools’ educational goals.

Meanwhile, my child, an avid reader, asked me why the books they were reading did not have many gay characters. As a mom who wants my kid to understand that diverse gender identities and sexualities are normal and worthy of representation, I immediately investigated middle reader books with LGBTQ protagonists and quickly acquired a selection of new reading options.

– Rachel Showstack

Meanwhile, my child, an avid reader, asked me why the books they were reading did not have many gay characters. As a mom who wants my kid to understand that diverse gender identities and sexualities are normal and worthy of representation, I immediately investigated middle reader books with LGBTQ protagonists and quickly acquired a selection of new reading options.

A teacher who served as the elementary school librarian at my child’s school between 2019 and 2021 also obtained a collection of books with diverse characters from the GLSEN Rainbow Library and asked me for more recommendations. Including books with diverse characters in school libraries is a significant way to make sure that all students feel represented and an important part of teaching kids to be open and accepting human beings.

Outside of school, my child and I have encountered a mixture of ignorance and inclusivity. Last summer, at my child’s request, I cut their hair quite short. Then, they tried out a local YMCA day camp. Unfortunately, on the third day of camp, when my child started to enter the girls’ bathroom (which they have always used), a camper and a counselor both warned them to read the sign, assuming that my kid was a boy and was going into the wrong bathroom.

Not surprisingly, my child refused to go to camp after that. Later in the summer, at their theater program, they tried to avoid going to the bathroom during rehearsal because they were afraid that something similar would happen, until we discussed their concerns with the program’s understanding and supportive teachers.

Since the camp incident, we have found inclusive community in many places in Wichita. In my child’s Dungeons and Dragons group, another parent asked the kids to do a “quick pronoun check” before they started playing. I was moved to tears by that simple gesture, while the kids, who all came from inclusive families, simply went around the table and stated their pronouns.

At this point, my fourth-grader is probably more comfortable discussing gender and sexuality diversity and LGBTQ identity than I am, and they are surrounded by friends and friends’ families with inclusive attitudes and practices. I am not worried about my kid. I am worried about Kansas kids in less inclusive families and communities who may have difficulty finding allies at school.

School boards can make it challenging for teachers to be allies. The Olathe school board now requires teachers to obtain parents’ permission before addressing students with their preferred pronouns, and teachers are not allowed to ask students to share their pronouns or preferred names.

ACLU Kansas sent an open letter to the Olathe board expressing concern that the new guidance violates students’ privacy and the district’s own anti-discrimination policy, and encouraging the school board to adopt a comprehensive LGBTQ inclusive policy.

Now is the time to stand behind the ACLU and other organizations working to promote inclusive practices in schools. We cannot let homophobic and transphobic parents and school board members keep Kansas public schools from making all students feel included.

Meanwhile, private schools that take pride in inclusivity should be leading the state in the development of locally grounded curricula that recognize the presence of LGBTQ individuals in local communities and during different periods of history, explore LGBTQ experiences and family structures, and acknowledge the ways in which the English language and other world languages are evolving to become more inclusive. Long-accepted traditions such as the homecoming court and the all-girl cheerleading team can also be modified to be more inclusive.

To help ensure that schools provide a safe and supportive environment for children, regardless of gender identity or sexual orientation, parents, teachers, and kids can attend school board meetings to speak out against discriminatory policies and advocate for the representation of diverse identities in school curricula. For information about how to make schools more inclusive of LGBTQ students, you can contact the Kansas chapter of GLSEN by emailing [email protected].

Note: My child, who is now 10 years old, read this column, approved of it, and gave me permission to submit it for publication.

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Rachel Showstack
Rachel Showstack

Dr. Rachel Showstack is associate professor of Spanish at Wichita State university and founder of Alce su voz, an organization that supports health equity for Spanish speakers in Kansas. Her research on Spanish in the United States, language learning and teaching, and language in healthcare has been published in various scholarly journals and edited volumes. At WSU, she teaches Spanish language and linguistics courses and directs the Spanish Division.

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