TEACHING THE REALITY
OF GAY LIFE
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
elementary school kids in America whose spelling lists contain
as "homosexual," "lesbian" and "transgender."
At a time when high schools around the country are battling
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
a list of Bay Area's gay movers and shakers, including KFOG
Dave Morey and East Bay chocolatier John Scharffenberger.
couple spoke, as did a lesbian animal caretaker and a lesbian
minister. A male therapist who was once female talked to
None of the speakers had ever been invited to talk about
to schoolchildren before, and the exercise brought some
of the adults
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
The San Francisco Gay Men's Chorus, which had never been
perform at any school in its 24-year history, treated the
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
a lonely gay child at Robert E. Lee Elementary in Texas
supervisor who carried on the legacy of tolerance after
of Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk, who
"The idea," said Park Day Director Tom Little,
"is that if they ever
homophobia, their association will be that lots and lots
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
was founded in 1976 by progressive parents who wanted their
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,
Transgender group -- or "GLBT" group, according
to the students'
list. Teachers posted the new vocabulary words in hallways,
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
parental uproar arose in Danville last year when some teachers
activists at Charlotte Wood Middle School wanted to hold
in the wake of a student-created homophobic Web site directed
gay teacher. In a compromise, the teachers union held a
for teachers only, which was sparsely attended.
On the flip side, school districts in San Francisco, Berkeley
offices and counselors for gay and questioning youth.
While their parents debate, students have taken up the mantle
districts, bolstered by a state law that went into effect
discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender
in California public schools. They have created more than
Student Alliances at schools in 46 states, despite resistance
boards and parents in many cities, including Clovis and
A bill to "prohibit the promotion of homosexuality
by Southern California Assemblyman Dennis Mountjoy, R-Monrovia,
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
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
knew someone else who was, and wrote Dear Abby-style letters
imaginary gay children who had been teased on the playground.
their classrooms with rainbow flags and pictures of singer
Etheridge and her partner.
And in a move to stamp out anti-gay slurs, they wrote gay
on the playground, then kicked off their shoes and smudged
For 11-year-old Ben Ruffman-Cohen, who has two moms, last
"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
crosses out the box for "father" and writes "mother"
"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
said, using another vocabulary word.
[E-mail Meredith May at firstname.lastname@example.org.]
©2002 San Francisco Chronicle
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