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