Home » Eve Pearlman

Alameda’s Lesson 9: Teaching tolerance is not about sex

Submitted by on 1, October 23, 2009 – 6:00 am10 Comments

Photo by Jan Watten

One of the most heartfelt points of opposition to Lesson 9, the curriculum crafted by an Alameda Unified School District committee to teach tolerance toward gay and lesbian families and students, is that grade school is too early to be teaching about sex and sexuality. Along with this idea comes a corollary—that it is parents, not teachers, who should talk to their children about such intimate subjects.

But talking about families is not the same as talking about sex. And we do talk about families all the time in schools without talking about sex—and we do this despite the fact that most male-female couples are, in fact, founded on desire and sex and love.

Put it this way: In most of our minds, there’s nothing at all sex-related in a child’s picture of a mom, a dad, siblings, and the family pet—sun in the sky, tree next to the house. We adults know that mom and dad joined forces, created a family, because of the sexual desire that is at the core of their bond. Yet we are quite able to talk about them, read stories with heterosexual parents—all without contemplating the couple’s sex life.

One of the reasons kids don’t ‘go there’ when they think about same-gender couples is that many elementary school kids don’t even know about the mechanics of straight sex. But adults do, and that’s why, for many adults, the mention or presence of same-gender couples give rise to sexual speculation: How’d they get the baby? How did they do ‘it’? But these are adult questions—not ones that rise in preadolescent minds.

Last Friday I had the good luck to see the film, Anyone and Everyone, at a screening sponsored by the Alameda Multicultural Community Center, the Community Alliance Resource for Education and the city’s Social Service Human Relations Board. In the film, parents and their gay or lesbian children talking how each child’s ‘coming out’ impacted the family. Most of the parents who were interviewed were religious, and were struggling to reconcile their beliefs with the challenge to them presented by their beloved children. Most had no framework for understanding.

“I never heard of Asian gay people,” said one Southern California mom about learning her daughter was a lesbian. “I thought she was reading too much.” One particularly articulate mom, a committed Mormon from Utah, reflected that sex is inherently odd. She told the story—probably familiar to many of us—about how, as a child, when her mother told her about sex between a man and woman she was repulsed. But then she grew up, fell in love, got married, and sexual intimacy became a normal extension of her love. She likened her reaction as a child to adult sex to many straight people’s reaction to gay sex. It’s unfamiliar and odd-seeming. “People get all caught up with the sex and not the love,” she said. “But the world is a better place when we can allow ourselves to love well.”

So if your grade school child is taught that a woman who builds a family with another woman is called a “lesbian” your child’s imagination is not going to immediately jump to their most intimate personal expressions of affection. That’s where ‘adult’ minds go—which is precisely why adults can convince themselves that a book about two male penguins caring for an egg is about sex, when it’s really just about families and love. Penguins’ egg-minding is no more about sex then a first grader talking about the little baby her mother is expecting. Which is to say that it is about sex—her mother had to get pregnant somehow—but in the grade school context, the grade school student’s mind, it is not about sex at all. They don’t ‘go there.’ Some adults do.

In sum, straight families are about sex as much as gay families are, which is to say, completely and also not at all, particularly in the context of picture books and children’s drawings and grade school learning. So, not to worry, parents, schools are not talking about sex when concepts like dad or baby or mom or gay or marriage are taught. You may think so, but your children do not.


  • Allan Mann says:

    Well said, Eve. The irony is that opposite-gender parents make babies the old fashioned way while same-gender parents don't (with each other, that is). So a discussion about which type is family is more likely to involve a reference to sex?

  • elizabeth says:

    This is a GREAT article.

  • Laura Rose says:

    Bravo Eve! Thank you for your articulate reflections that help us to see Lesson Nine's age-appropriate lessons through the eyes of children. Your point that adults opposed to these lessons are reading them through theiradult eyes and not from a child's point of view is a truth that needs to be repeated again and again. To be able to see the world from the point of view of our children, to guide them in becoming people who see every human being and every healthy family as a gift from our Creator. This seems to me to be the best lesson that we can teach our children and what Lesson 9 and all AUSD curriculum is all about. Thank you.

  • Jon Spangler says:

    This is a great post. Thanks very much.

    Even those of us who marry but do not have kids think about each other (and our straight, gay, bi, and trans friends, be they in a relationship or not) without thinking about s-e-x all of the time. Just like kids, we think about other things as couples (like who's fixing dinner, washing the dishes, taking out the garbage, or paying the bills) besides physically satisfying intimacy.

  • Dave Kirwin says:

    Thanks for your post. I have nothing but agreement in that teaching includes examples from real life, and that not all examples should reflect WASP nuclear families. The examples used in our schools – in books, pictures, films, streaming web content etc, should at best, reflect the schools community.

    Where I have difficulty is that I have never heard K-3 teachers using the term heterosexual in reference to any image or example used for teaching in the classroom. In those early grades, most students have seen a parent of some or most of their classmates, but it seems it would be rare, if it happens at all that students would be familiar with both parents of their classmates. Usually it is a routine that one parent has the opportunity for getting the little ones to school, or volunteers in the classroom. So, show the two mommy families, two daddy families, extended families, single parent families, families of all races, and religions and ethnicities, talk about the handicapped family members and whatnot, – but the point many repeatedly tried to make was exactly leave the “sexual” out of the classroom for K-4. Don’t discuss heterosexual, bisexual, homosexual, gay or lesbian. Why, (and this is a real question) Why is it now necessary to use these terms that have no bearing on the education little kids need to be thinking about in school?

    For me the most drastic problem of lesson 9 was the absolute perversion of the “public” method of assembling a committee to formulate the lesson 9 curriculum.

    One set of gay parents was allowed to get it going, and he only used LGBTQ advocate specialists and AUSD staff who were personally self-motivated enough to volunteer to work on the committee. This was not a random or balanced group of individuals. PTA presidents, PTA council presidents, parents with other religious or cultural conflicts were not allowed to participate; in fact NO ONE was allowed to participate without approval of the LGBTQ advocates, — NOT ONE parent-at-large was able to participate. As a result the committee was able to do things like intentionally select the #1 most opposed “gay student lesson” book in the entire country. Yes the group was allowed to abuse their position and just thumb their nose at any who did not approve of their selection and formulation of lessons.

    It was/is a huge issue, and while I think it went too far, I met with some of the objecting parents who had brought books they did not object to that showed the gay families without needing to create such an outcry. Even the Mormon moms I met did not seem to object to the topic or in showing the different style families and had books about gay families they brought to Ardella. AUSD was used as a battle zone by these very well organized groups on both sides, and instead of finding the appropriate middle ground, three members of the BOE gave all the power to one side, even disregarding the amendments or changes AUSD staff was agreeing to prior to the vote on the night of that meeting.

    Shortly after the BOE’s poor decision to approve the curriculum without adjustment, AUSD decide they will replace the lesson completely, as they will look for a new curriculum to replace the whole Caring School Curriculum. At least one of those 3 BOE members should come to the same conclusion, learn from their mistake, and focus on the new curriculum.

    Why the ham-handed BOE decision was made, or why it hasn’t been reconsidered now that the Superintendant is going to replace it, is beyond reason. Each of the 3 BOE members has the authority to make a motion to reconsider, but instead they each are willing to force the District to pay extensive legal fees and to defend a lesson which is going to be discontinued anyway.

    That is why I am in full support of the recall. We cannot afford to have the waste of AUSD revenue because stubborn pig-headed egos refuse to do the wise thing and delay the LGBTQ lessons until the new curriculum is selected.

    AUSD did learn from this, and we have a wider pool of opinion working on a recommendation for a new curriculum. If our elected representatives can’t also learn from this, they need to be replaced. If this is an example of their attitude – that their opinion is right even if the majority of constituents disagree, even when the District has also decided to move in a whole new direction, they refuse to check their ego and do the wise thing. Why would we want them to continue to vote for us with such poor judgment? How poor will be the result of other decisions where they refuse to seek middle ground?

    No need to remind anyone that some of these 3 are the same ones who put together the troubled Measure H, while refusing to listen to the public stakeholders. It is a citizen’s mistake to not learn our lesson about who we selected to represent us. We need to have a BOE whose decisions don’t keep sending us to court.

    I also want to continue to emphasize the real need for much more thorough and compassionate tolerance training in middle and high school, which is where the focus on these sexually charges issues, should have started. It is disappointing that the new committee the District staff has selected is only allowed to consider K-5 curriculum.

  • Mark Irons says:

    Thanks Eve for stating the case in such clear and simple terms. David Kirwin, only you could take such a statement and twist it into such a lengthy convoluted mess. Your next to last paragraph begins "No need to remind anyone…", precisely. No need to read your long posts if one has ever read one previously. All that mental energy and you still haven't succeeded in turning the issue into what it is not.

  • Jan says:

    Yes, this is an excellent time to recall school board members over ideology (soft-pedaled as "cultural conflicts" that allow people to discriminate against some of the few people our "culture" allows us to continue to discriminate against). Just the right time to lose the cohesion of the board (such as it is) as it tackles questions about the most basic values of our school system, such as class size, neighborhood schools, magnet schools, charters, compliance with federal NCLB rules of questionable value, the imminent loss of a huge chunk of the budget from state cuts as well as timed-out local parcel taxes. Yes, this is just what our children need, and just what the schools need to hold onto the families who will soon seek anyplace else to send their kids when our district slides into economic oblivion. Great, thanks. This is an example of how skewed our public discourse has become when something this small, but which punches one of the hot buttons of cultural warriors, is allowed to overwhelm an essential human and community need…in this case, education. It's pretty sad. People need to take a breath and get some perspective.

  • Michael Williams says:

    Well said Jan.

    And I think people are taking a breath, specifically through the Community Advisory Committee convened by the District to work on criteria for a new safe schools curriculum. And it is helping with perspective, with the school administration being frank about needing to devote time to the Master Plan and budget issues and the committee being understanding about last-minute emails, etc., because of that.

    I'm on the Committee, but out of respect for our person-to-person process and the District's prerogative to communicate the group's outcomes, won't share a lot of the content here. As far as process goes, we are sending some draft criteria to a teacher committee, who will use these to filter curricula and send them back to the CAC for recommendation to the Board in late November or early December.

    I will say that the range of perspectives from the Lesson 9 controversy is present. Folks who were anti- and pro-Lesson 9 should know that some of your most vocal advocates are participating, as well as thoughtful individuals somewhere in the middle. And we've achieved an amazingly high level of consensus so far. I think it's worth a slight breach of confidentiality to note that even a certain verbose commenter on this page (I hope you won't mind me saying so David) is a positive and constructive contributor.

    I agree with Jan that building some unity in the face of all of the momentous challenges facing our schools is the best focus for energy. I also hope that those wasting energy on the lawsuit and recall will realize this too.

  • whatsgoingonhere says:

    Teaching tolerance extends to disabled persons, ya know. See you tube video “Teaching Next Generation to Know Autism” An excellent example of how we can teach children how to embrace and help citizens among us who are vulnerable to discrimination, neglect or apathy. Keep in mind the disabled who are NON verbal, are one of the most vulnerable of special populations. They can’t speak for themselves. They can’t even tell us they’re bullied. At least a gay person with a voice can speak up, if trained to defend himself/herself. So, let’s think about this. Let’s include the most fragile among us in the let’s tolerate and embrace differences group. Last week, the mother in this video was told by a woman in public that “you shouldn’t bring people like this out in public.” (I know this from private message to her on youtube). This is probably why she is so assertive in defending her son and bringing awareness to his cause. I can’t even imagine how many times she’s experienced this. It must be hard. Yet, in combing the tolerance and diverstiy sites I see little to NOTHING about disabled persons. And the need to speak up for their rights.

    • Hi whats,

      The school district actually undertook a comprehensive process after Lesson 9 was approved in order to address the very issue you are talking about. They ultimately approved a book list to replace Lesson 9 that includes books addressing gender, sexual orientation, race, ethnicity and disability.

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