Oakland school kids learn a rare lesson

By Meredith May, San Francisco Chronicle Staff Writer

Oakland -- The students at Park Day School in Oakland are probably the
elementary school kids in America whose spelling lists contain words
as "homosexual," "lesbian" and "transgender."

At a time when high schools around the country are battling over
bringing gay
studies and gay student clubs to campus, the private Park Day School is
skipping the controversy and being straight with little kids about gay

Last week, the kindergarten through sixth grade school hosted 45
a list of Bay Area's gay movers and shakers, including KFOG disc jockey
Dave Morey and East Bay chocolatier John Scharffenberger. A lesbian
couple spoke, as did a lesbian animal caretaker and a lesbian Baptist
minister. A male therapist who was once female talked to the

None of the speakers had ever been invited to talk about their personal
to schoolchildren before, and the exercise brought some of the adults
to tears.

Students wanted to know when the guests first knew they were gay, how
came out to their families and whether the speakers ever
The youngest children had few questions about homosexuality,preferring
instead to talk about the puppies or chocolate bars involved in the

The San Francisco Gay Men's Chorus, which had never been invited to
perform at any school in its 24-year history, treated the children to
songs aboutself-
pride, an ode to Armistead Maupin's "Tales of the City," and the Sesame
Street Ernie classic, "Rubber Ducky."

Former San Francisco Supervisor Harry Britt talked to them about growing
a lonely gay child at Robert E. Lee Elementary in Texas to a
supervisor who carried on the legacy of tolerance after the shooting
of Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk, who was gay.

"The idea," said Park Day Director Tom Little, "is that if they ever
homophobia, their association will be that lots and lots of wonderful
people they have met have been hurt by that."

Not one parent complained, Little said. In fact, several came to the
to thank him for broaching a sensitive subject and making it easier to
discuss gay topics at home. That may be because Park Day School
was founded in 1976 by progressive parents who wanted their students to
study social
justice and diversity. Every year, the school hosts Care Week to study
a disenfranchised segment of society.

Last year it was the disabled. This year it was the Gay, Lesbian,
Bisexual and
Transgender group -- or "GLBT" group, according to the students'
list. Teachers posted the new vocabulary words in hallways, on
fences and on doors to help students study.

"Prejudice is learned, and this is the right age to get to them, before
starts," said parent Beverly Burch.

Public schools have had a harder time bringing gay issues into the
classroom. A
parental uproar arose in Danville last year when some teachers and gay
activists at Charlotte Wood Middle School wanted to hold gay tolerance
in the wake of a student-created homophobic Web site directed at an
gay teacher. In a compromise, the teachers union held a voluntary class
for teachers only, which was sparsely attended.

On the flip side, school districts in San Francisco, Berkeley and
Oakland provide
offices and counselors for gay and questioning youth.

While their parents debate, students have taken up the mantle at several
districts, bolstered by a state law that went into effect in 2000
discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity
in California public schools. They have created more than
Student Alliances at schools in 46 states, despite resistance from
boards and parents in many cities, including Clovis and Orange

A bill to "prohibit the promotion of homosexuality in public
by Southern California Assemblyman Dennis Mountjoy, R-Monrovia, died in
committee this year.

"I think things are changing. Park Day is definitely not like my
elementary school was in Weaver, Ala.," said Gay Men's Chorus member
Carlton Lowe."It was
exhilarating to sing for them and see how engrossed they were in our

Students had homework, too. They wrote essays on famous gay people such
Michelangelo, interviewed a family member who was in the gay community
knew someone else who was, and wrote Dear Abby-style letters to
imaginary gay children who had been teased on the playground. They
their classrooms with rainbow flags and pictures of singer Melissa
Etheridge and her partner.

And in a move to stamp out anti-gay slurs, they wrote gay epithets using
on the playground, then kicked off their shoes and smudged them out.

For 11-year-old Ben Ruffman-Cohen, who has two moms, last week was
"the best week of my life." He was part of the speakers circuit, and
talked to the
first-graders about his family. He told them he does the same stuff at
home that they do with a mom and a dad. On the baseball form,he just
crosses out the box for "father" and writes "mother" over it.

"I told them to imagine how much they love their mom and then double
he said. "That's my life. A lot of schools don't have the opportunity to

do this, and if I even said the word 'gay' other places, there would be
a lot of flinching. Now all 225 of us here know how to be gay allies,"he

said, using another vocabulary word.

[E-mail Meredith May at]

©2002 San Francisco Chronicle

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