Our LGBTQ journey began in May when my son came out as nonbinary and pansexual as an 11-year old in middle school. We changed his first name to a gender-neutral, similar name. At Christmas he said he wanted to be called “he” and to change his middle name as well.
Despite living in a Boston suburb with many liberal community members, we have found the social environment in our middle school to be unaccepting.
When we approached our school principal, she was understanding and supportive at first. We asked her to support forming a gay-straight alliance but were told this was opposed by the superintendent at this grade level (there is a high school GSA) and that there was concern about community backlash. We were assured that teachers would be sent to training and we were advised to take things slowly.
When we changed his name, initially we were told that was not possible without a full legal name change, but when we pointed out the Massachusetts directive that requires schools to use the child’s preferred name (recognizing a common law name change) and gender identity, we were told this would be done right away. It did not happen right away, and our son ran into conflict in the classroom as some kids refused to call him by his new name, and teachers were confused. Eventually, we had the name corrected, but it contributed to what our son perceived as a hostile environment.
Every morning, we struggled to get our son on the school bus. We heard very little about anything going on at school–socially or academically, but it was clear he was miserable. He went to a different bus stop to avoid standing with the group of kids from our neighborhood. We could not get him to engage with any activities at the school, even an after school art program–despite his love of art and talent at creating amazing drawings. A child who had previously excelled at math said he hated math now, but progress reports continued to come home showing that all was well.
Throughout this time, we were very concerned about his mental health. It was obvious how unhappy he was. There was no laughter, no enthusiasm for anything. We found disturbing journal entries and other things that convinced us that we had to do something beyond participating in counseling and support groups.
We decided to withdraw from the middle school and begin a program of home schooling by having him attend an independent learning center. We expected this to be an administrative challenge and prepared a detailed education plan. It was approved within 45 minutes. Later, we met with the principal to discuss why we had taken this drastic action and the environment was quite different. They seemed defensive about their decisions to delay doing anything more than staff training at this time and ultimately told us something to the effect of, well, sometimes, the middle school environment just doesn’t work out for everyone.
The problem was solved from their point of view.
When we have met with LGBTQ parent support groups, we have heard from parents who are much more “activist,” who are ready to sue their schools and demand rights. We did not feel that way. We believed our schools were full of supportive community members and they would “have our back.” When we first contacted the school early in the year as were were concerned about our child’s social anxiety and possible depression, we were invited to team meetings and were greatly reassured that so many caring adults were actively watching our child.
I have two more children who will enter the middle school; one starts this fall. I want them to experience a school that is welcoming to kids who are different. In our community, there has been a great outpouring of support for mental health issues after a recent tragic youth suicide. There is widespread acknowledgement that the social environment at our middle school is toxic, but mostly what I hear is that it is a difficult time of life for kids no matter what the school does. I am not too old to remember that many kids of this age can be very cruel and much of this goes under the radar of adults. Just because kids are not being physically beaten up for being suspected of being gay does not mean there are other ways kids find to be cruel and hurtful. And if a kid ultimately kills himself, that saves the mean kids the trouble of doing it directly, right?
Schools can train staff and teachers all they want, but the only way communities and societies become accepting of different is when they see it in their midst and the world does not end. When gay marriage was just an idea, it was easy for homophobic foes to preach about all the horrible things that would happen if it were allowed.
There will always be a small minority of openly hostile opponents who think there is some vast gay agenda to corrupt our youth, but I believe the majority are capable of taking a moment to consider walking in the shoes of those who are different, and asking not why can’t you change, but instead, what can I do to support you?
We need to start with a gay-straight alliance in our middle school. We need acknowledgement and acceptance of difference. We have gay parents in all grades. We have kids in elementary school who are finding that they don’t want to join in with the self-segregation of boys and girls. We are all different in some way and it is not enough to simply say that we tolerate differences–for others.
The whole problem is about the “other.” It is always “they” who do the bad things…it is always someone else who is a “bully.” The bullies are the first to tattle on a child who does something that can be labeled bullying. But accepting change is hard for everyone. Are we encouraging choices that will hurt our kids laters? Should we guide them to be more “normal,” so they don’t get hurt by the cruelty of others? Or should we instead say, NO, normal is no virtue as different is no vice. It is not our job to “correct” our children to what society expects of them. It is our job to protect them, to help them grow and learn, and to clear the obstacles that are bigger than they can handle on their own.