Article written by David Minerva Clover
Published on August 29
We all know how stressful back-to-school season can be. In addition to acquiring supplies, dealing with school clothing drama, and meeting teachers, there’s the task of helping nervous or reluctant kids manage their feelings about a new school year and all the changes ahead.
But members of LGBTQ+ families, whether they are children or adults, face particular challenges when entering the educational system. That means back-to-school time is especially loaded and especially stressful.
As a visibly queer and transgender parent myself, when we began to look into schooling for our 4-year-old, I found myself overcome with anxiety. Parents in same-sex partnerships often have to deal with outdated forms and administrations that assume all children have a mother and a father. Transgender children may be concerned about bathroom access and whether they’ll get to use their correct name and pronouns in the classroom. And LGBTQ+ families are often concerned about bullying and the fact that even if the rules are on your side, other parents may still be against your family.
I’ve found that interacting with school administrators has included a lot of emails to explain my family’s names, pronouns and relationships, and I’ve had to staple extra sheets to documents when our information doesn’t fit on the provided forms, making me feel like an outsider before the year even begins.
My family is not alone.
After moving from Oakland, Calif., to Pittsburgh, Andrea Cipriani, a lesbian mother, had to cross out the word “father” and write in “mother” on her son’s kindergarten enrollment paperwork. The paperwork issues make her “question how much the district accepts same-sex parents and makes me wonder what issues will come up in the future,” she said. And while she doesn’t want to assume the school won’t be welcoming, she is worried about that possibility.
Robyn Park, a marriage and family therapist who specializes in adoption issues and LGBTQ+ families at the Center for Connection in Pasadena, Calif., says the added stressors weigh on families. They “experience greater vigilance” in trying to make sure their children are safe, she said. “LGBTQ+ parents ... oftentimes have to work harder than other parents to ensure safe and effective learning environments for their children."
So what’s a parent to do? “We were just very mindful from the beginning,” said Amber Leventry, a queer and non-binary writer and advocate and staff writer for the website Scary Mommy. Leventry, who uses they/them pronouns and has three children, one of whom is transgender, emphasized the importance of surrounding their family with potential allies within school and daycare systems. Entering the schools as a volunteer, and an advocate for all kids, has helped, Leventry said. “I don’t want my family to be used as the example; it’s just too much emotional labor. But since you’re not doing it, let me come in as an advocate."
Leventry believes that doing this work has helped protect their kids from carrying the anxiety themselves. They also acknowledged that not every LGBTQ+ parent is up for that level of advocacy: “I understand that I’m good at it, I have the energy for it."
Park, the family therapist, said the key to helping children calm big emotions is to talk about it or, as she says, “name it to tame it... By helping children name different emotions ... you are able to help tame them.” She also added that parents should “remember safety is nonnegotiable. You have every right to speak up and to be heard."
Of course, parents aren’t the only ones responsible for making the school year a success for kids and families. Schools, administrators, and the teachers themselves, also have a lot of work to do. As more and more LGBTQ+ families enter the school system, it’s in everyone’s best interests for those schools to be prepared. “My whole thing is you might be accepting, but how inclusive are you? Throw a rainbow or trans flag in the pencil cup,” Leventry says. “I remember the first time I saw that upside-down pink triangle in my school. Kids are looking for that, and if they don’t see it, they think something is wrong with them.”
Pam Strong, an equity and inclusive education resource teacher with the Peel District School Board in Mississauga, Ontario, thinks that schools are often too gendered and heteronormative and that those norms, among others such as whiteness, are often “reinforced in our curriculum, the books we read, and the conversations that we have or don’t have.” She believes it is important for schools not to wait until they have a student or a family identify as LGBTQ+ before they prepare for them.
Such preparation requires teachers to make an ongoing commitment to learning and unlearning what they think they know about identity.
Strong suggests having educators walk through the school assuming a particular identity to see what problems they encounter. Her district also uses safe space stickers, and she advocates, much like Leventry, for putting up rainbow flags or other symbols that show kids they are welcome. “Comprehensive safe school policies are incredibly important and can help address bullying and harassment issues in school,” she says.
With steps like these, hopefully families like mine will feel more welcome and safe as they begin the school year.
David Minerva Clover is a queer and trans writer, covering everything from parenting to dinosaurs. He lives in Detroit with his partner, his child and an embarrassing amount of animals.