Supporting LGBTQ Students in Elementary Schools

Teaching tolerance and respect for difference.

Here is a first grader, reported by Paul Emerich France*

“Paul, do you have a girlfriend?” Parker asked me.

“I don’t,” I replied succinctly, hoping to avoid the topic altogether.

“Why?” she queried.

“Because I don’t want one,” I said.

“Why?” she asked again, smiling up at me.

It was clear I wasn’t getting out of this one. This first grader had questions—and would demand answers.

“Because I have a boyfriend,” I finally exhaled.

“Oh, that’s weird,” she said.

“I understand. Sometimes when things are different, they seem a little weird,” I replied. “Why do you think it’s weird?”

“Well, I just don’t like when people make fun of you. I feel bad for you.”

In these few minutes, it seemed as though my heart was broken and put back together all at once.

We adults often think of sexuality and gender as things that are out of reach for students—especially our youngest ones. We project our discomfort on them, assuming that discussing sexuality, biological sex, or gender is inappropriate for young students. But it’s clear from conversations like the one I had with Parker that children come into our classrooms with a wealth of knowledge.

* Paul Emerich France is a National Board–certified teacher and author of Reclaiming Personalized Learning and Humanizing Distance Learning. He spent three years in Silicon Valley opening schools for personalized learning and now works in Chicago as an educational consultant and writer. Paul has been published in ASCD’s Educational LeadershipLiteracy Today, and EdSurge.

Another Story: Today in kindergarten during snack time I overheard a friendly debate surrounding the question can moms marry moms and can dads marry dads. One friend adamantly denied this was possible- he kept repeating moms need a dad. Another friend chimed in and said you don’t need a dad and a mom you just need 1 or the other or a grandmother. The banter continued with all sides considering all the possibilities. I was brought into the debate and asked can moms marry moms and can dads marry dads? And my answer was simply yes. Life went on, snack was finished. All parties involved were satisfied and nothing else was mentioned. It comes up more frequently than you think in kindergarten as kids start figuring out relationships. The next time I am breaking the law if I answer truthfully?

An increasing number of students in elementary school are breaking gender stereotypes, identifying as LGBTQ, and coming from LGBTQ-headed families. GLSEN’s Playgrounds and Prejudice (2012) report found that 1 in 8 students did not conform to “traditional” gender roles, and that these children faced more hostile learning environments than their peers. Gender nonconforming elementary students were more likely to have mean rumors or lies spread about them, and to say that they had missed school in the past month because they felt unsafe (GLSEN). 

The Parental Rights in Education bill would bar teachers from discussing sexual orientation or gender identity with younger students.

The Florida Senate passed a bill March 8, 2022 that would prohibit “classroom discussion about sexual orientation or gender identity” in the state’s primary schools. The measure, dubbed the “Don’t Say Gay” bill by its opponents, was passed by the state House last month and now heads to Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis, who has previously expressed support for it. 

The House version of the “Parental Rights in Education” bill, HB 1557, bars educators from teaching LGBTQ-related topics within a curriculum to students in kindergarten through third grade

Under the legislation, dubbed “Don’t Say Gay” by opponents, parents would have a green light to sue school districts violating the bill for injunctive relief, which would require districts to fall in line with the legislation. It also would allow parents to sue for their own damages, attorney fees and court costs. 

“The bill is designed to keep school districts from talking about these topics before kids are ready to process them,” said Florida Rep. Joe Harding, co-sponsor of the bill, in a video. Harding said restrictions on discussing sexual orientation and gender identity would apply to students in grades K-3. 

Florida Representative Joe Harding

Critics of the legislation, however, say the bill — and others similar to it — aim to censor schools and curriculum.

White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki also commented on other similar legislation in a press conference. 

“Make no mistake, this is not an isolated action in Florida,” Psaki said. “Across the country we’re seeing Republican leaders taking action to regulate what students can or cannot read, what they can or cannot learn, and — most troubling — who they can and cannot be.”


White House Press Secretary Jenn Psaki

According to legal experts and advocates, Florida’s bill and others could violate Title IX, in addition to other civil rights protections like the First and 14th Amendments.

“A student who is heterosexual can learn about the history of people like them, but homosexual students cannot,” said Jackie Wernz, a partner at Thompson & Horton, a law firm that represents public schools, and a former lawyer for the Office of Civil Rights, in an email. 

U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona has also said all students “deserve the opportunity to learn and thrive in schools that are free from discrimination.”  

While the legislation has the support of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and has passed the first of three Senate committees before moving to the House, it could run afoul of a host of civil rights protections, including Title IX, advocates and lawyers warn. 

Educators jobs is to welcome students’ perspectives into the classroom. But they can also dismantle ways of thinking that reinforce the gender dichotomy and heteronormativity, and they must create safe spaces for children’s safety to explore their identities and empathize with those who are different from them.

Despite widespread opposition across Florida and controversy regarding the “Don’t Say Gay” bills Ron DeSantis’ spokesperson Christina Pushaw,  tweeting accusations that opponents of the bill are “groomers”, a reference to pedophiles.

“The bill that liberals inaccurately call ‘Don’t Say Gay’ would be more accurately described as Anti-Grooming Bill,” said Pushaw. She followed that up with: “If you’re against the anti-Grooming bill, you are probably a groomer, or at least you don’t denounce the grooming of 4- to 8-year-old children.”

In case you didn’t catch that, the mouthpiece of the governor overseeing the third largest state in the country just called all opponents of a highly controversial and homophobic bill a bunch of pedophiles and faced no consequences for it. Despite outrage and condemnation from LGBTQ organizations, lawmakers, and advocates, Pushaw only doubled down on her comments by claiming that a “hit dog will holler”

“They’re saying we’re all pedophiles. It’s unhinged, unreal,” said Democrat Rep. Anna Eskamani of Orlando. “And coming out of the Governor’s Office, it’s so ridiculous.”

Education Secretary Miguel Cardona condemned the bill in a statement Tuesday March 8, 2022. He said that parents are looking to national, state and district leaders to support students and help them recover from the pandemic by providing academic and mental health support.

“Instead, leaders in Florida are prioritizing hateful bills that hurt some of the students most in need,” Cardona said. “The Department of Education has made clear that all schools receiving federal funding must follow federal civil rights law, including Title IX’s protections against discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. We stand with our LGBTQ+ students in Florida and across the country, and urge Florida leaders to make sure all their students are protected and supported.”

A rift between Walt Disney Co. and Florida’s Republican leaders escalated on Friday, March 11, 2022 when the California-based entertainment giant pledged to stop donating to political campaigns in the state over the controversial legislation branded the “Don’t Say Gay” bill.

The move, announced in a company-wide email from CEO Bob Chapek, marks the most substantial pushback Florida has faced over the bill, officially called “Parental Rights in Education,” and comes a day after Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis publicly trashed Disney for being a “woke” corporation by opposing the legislation.

“Our employees see the power of this great company as an opportunity to do good. I agree,” Chapek wrote in a memo that Disney provided to POLITICO. “Yes, we need to use our influence to promote that good by telling inclusive stories, but also by standing up for the rights of all.”

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