Near Philadelphia’s gayborhood, elementary school children are discussing the concept of homosexuality in their classrooms.
Last year, the principal introduced LGBTQ-inclusive education at the elementary and middle school levels.
“Having an inclusive classroom, where they will be discussing LGBTQ issues or issues of race or class, provides a window and mirror,” said Principal Lauren Overton, 33, of William M. Meredith Elementary School.
When she took the job last year, Overton, who is a lesbian, immediately put LGBTQ issues on the school’s agenda.
“To me, it is a safety issue,” she said, “to let the students feel part of the community, feel safe and welcomed.”
Overton’s own experiences as a student made her realize the importance of discussing gender identity in school. She had felt out of step within her own family as well as in school.
“My stepfather was black. My mom was a single mom,” said Overton, who came out when she was 13. “There wasn’t an example that looked like my family in the literature class.”
Overton decided to introduce gender education to allow her students to see different types of identities in their textbooks.
Teachers in grades one through six that include LGBTQ children must provide lessons that introduce same-sex families. The middle school level’s social health class, a mandatory addition to the curriculum, discusses race, class and gender on a weekly basis. LGBTQ issues are not included in the public school curriculum, so Meredith School addresses these issues in social studies and English classes.
This winter, Overton will also launch a 10-week program on “LGBTQ-friendly safe-sex education,” but enrollment would require parents’ permission. The program was approved by the School District of Philadelphia as LGBTQ-inclusive and is part of a partnership with the Mazzoni Center, a community organization that provides for the health and wellness needs of the LGBTQ community.
When eighth-grade teacher Rob Hamm ran his first social health class last year, one of his students came out as transgender. This prompted a heated discussion on identity among his students. When the class revisited the issue at the end of the year, students had changed some of their self-identification, he said, “and they were writing more in-depth about that.”
This inclusive curriculum runs counter to the conservative politics of the state of Pennsylvania. The Human Rights Campaign’s 2016 State Equality Index shows that Pennsylvania lacks any provision for LGBTQ-inclusive sex education. The state also lacks protection from discrimination against LGBT people.
Valley Youth House has run a housing program for LGBTQ youths in Philadelphia since 2009. In a 2016 report, they noted that 40 percent of homeless youths identified as LGBTQ. “I think it is challenging,” Overton said. “Many LGBTQ youths are homeless in Philadelphia. There is a correlation that could be made to the students’ experiences at school.”
The new curriculum has not been without its critics. Some parents were concerned that their children would be exposed to LGBT concepts at an early age. One parent complained to Overton that a teacher mentioned his boyfriend in front of the child. “I think what made them uncomfortable was the nature of fact that the teachers have same-sex partnerships,” she said.
Other schools anticipated parental concern by advising them of their inclusive curriculum in advance.
Germantown Friends School — a private Quaker school for K-12 students on West Coulter Street — sent families a note during the admissions process explaining the need to provide a welcoming and safe community for LGBTQ families. The school has included a sexuality education program for decades because its status as a private school provides more freedom in implementing their own curriculum, said Maryanne Rawlings, head of the school’s department of health education.
Meredith took a different approach. It provided their teachers with guidelines in LGBT terminology, and they learned to be more conscious of their language and behavior.
When Overton joined the school, rainbow signs and slogans were hung around classrooms, the gymnasium and the principal’s office.
“The school’s climate has changed,” said Alex Piazza, a mathematics teacher. He even has the Human Rights Campaign symbol tattooed on his right arm.
“Kids ask me what does [the tattoo] mean,” Piazza said. “I tell them … human rights is something that is important to me.”
“Small changes that support students can help make the school into a family,” Overton said. “But generally speaking, it is not about having a rainbow flag. It is about the action that we have taken for students and the way that we support them.”
About the Author
Crystal Wong is a multimedia journalist from Hong Kong with a B.S.S degree in journalism and communication at The Chinese University of Hong Kong. Learn more about her here.