I’ve spent a lot of time in the last twenty-four hours thinking about my daughter’s teachers and her education in Maplewood, finding myself in tremendous gratitude. As many people may be aware by now, yesterday, Vicki Knox, a teacher at Union High School, was making news and facing a school board investigation for having made disparaging comments about LGBT people on her Facebook page.
Among other comments, she posted, “Homosexuality is a perverted spirit that has existed from the beginning of creation.” Seemingly frustrated by her school’s display depicting prominent LGBT people in celebration of LGBT history month, she says, “Union is not South Orange/Maplewood where one out of four families consist of two Mommies or daddies. … Why parade your unnatural immoral behaviors before the rest of us? I/we do not have to accept anything, anyone, any behavior or any choices! I do not have to tolerate anything others wish to do.”
While this story was unfolding, I was helping my daughter with her homework before she left for school. Emma, a second grader, was reading Odd Velvet, a book from Tuscan’s ROAR Project, a project whose mission — as I understand it — is to help students think about difference and diversity as well as to combat teasing and bullying. As part of the writing assignment, Emma was asked to think about times when she felt different.
Now here’s the crazy part: she couldn’t think of one instance in which she felt left out or different or ostracized by her peers.
I couldn’t believe it. You see, Emma has two moms, and I thought for sure she could write about that. However, having lived in Maplewood for five years where she has been surrounded by families both like hers and different from hers, it apparently doesn’t occur to her that her family is different. (And in case you’re wondering, in the end the only thing Emma could come up with for her assignment was that she was one of only two girls on her t-ball team which was apparently much more upsetting to her than being a child of two moms.)
We’ve had this come up before: We got cut significantly from an article earlier this summer in NJ Magazine about kids growing up in gay families because Emma couldn’t come up with an exciting story for the reporter about the hardships of being part of a family with same sex parents. We’ve found that we can’t read her the books that have been written about having gay parents, like Heather Has Two Mommies or Tango Makes Three, because they start with the premise that the child (or child penguin) in the book is experiencing her or his family as different.
There are ways in which my daughter holds a significant amount of privilege. She is white; she has ample resources financially and consequently access to many educational opportunities; she is physically able; she is gender-conforming. I hope to raise her with an awareness of all that privilege. She is advantaged in that the way in which she is marginalized is often invisible in the way that race or ability is not. I also know one day soon she won’t continue to live in ignorant bliss about her family. Despite the fact that we’ve taken her to numerous rallies (ranging in location from Memorial Park to Washington, DC) and that she was a flower girl at our wedding when marriage was legal for a second in California, she still doesn’t quite get on a first-hand basis that there are still many people in this country who believe that her parents are immoral and deserve less than equal treatment under the law.
Sometimes I worry that this is a form of naivete that will leave her unprotected and unprepared to defend herself in the future when she finds out the world is not as accepting as Maplewood/South Orange (apparently you only have to go down the street).
It’s led me to wonder what would it be like for her if she had a teacher like Ms. Knox. Ms. Knox’s Facebook posts have led people to question whether someone can hold such strong anti-LGBT beliefs and still adhere to the State and school district’s policy that require teachers to support students regardless of sexual orientation (and other protected categories).
It’s a good question.
In Emma’s three years at the South Mountain YMCA and three years at Tuscan, every teacher she has had has accepted her family configuration seemlessly to the point where, despite our worry, I would go as far as to say it’s been a non-issue. Early on, one of her teachers hailed from a religious background that deems LGBT people “detestable” and “an abomination,” and we were concerned that consequently we might run into some problems. I don’t know what this teacher’s particular views are because I never had reason to inquire. She treated my daughter and discussion of her family with respect and acceptance and — here’s the important point — adhered to the regulations and policies of her particular school and school district.
I never once felt that this teacher supported my child begrudgingly or found subtle ways to convey her disapproval (if there was any).
Now, as a queer and as a progressive, sure, I would love to see all teachers (and people) come to see being gay as a natural variation of human sexuality. As a pragmatist and realist, I’ll settle for behaving as your employer expects. I personally do not believe that Ms. Knox should be fired as a result of her comments. Investigation into her behavior within the classroom is absolutely necessary as is perhaps further sensitivity training which makes clear that, although her beliefs might not shift, there are very clear behavioral expectations.
Primarily though, I am left feeling not only thankful to this community but also incredibly grateful to Ms. Margie and Ms. Kathleen of the South Mountain YMCA and Ms. Guerra, Ms. Nelson (Plummer) and Ms. Cicolello at Tuscan Elementary for letting my daughter learn in an environment where she can feel proud of who she is and where she comes from.
Laura Booker is a psychotherapist who has also done numerous trainings on reducing homophobia in schools and within the foster system.