This issue is personal to me and my answer will reflect that. When it comes to teaching minors about sexuality and gender we have these four options: 1) teach them nothing, 2) teach them only about cisness and straightness, 3) teach them only about queerness, or 4) teach them about cis-ness / straight-ness and queerness.
Some may want to teach them nothing. But that is impossible. As soon as children enter the world, they receive an education on gender and sexuality. In kindergarten, my closest friend was male (and I, female). One day, when my mom came to pick me up from school, my teacher pulled her aside to let her know that said friend and I were cuddling during storytime and she had concerns. As a 5-year-old, my mixed gender friendship was sexualized. That is an education in gender and sexuality. I cannot recall a boy ever wearing a dress to school and I know why. No parent would want their child bullied, or simply seen as other, at such a young age. It doesn’t matter if dresses are fun to wear or cooler in a hot North Carolina summer. That is an education in gender and sexuality.
The first time I remember being asked which boy I liked was at a playdate in first grade. In third grade, I was thrilled to hear about a soccer teammate’s first kiss. These are educations in gender and sexuality. Not to mention the ways our world is steeped in these social constructs. We separate girls and boys bathrooms from a young age. Most children go home to two people with genders living in a sexual relationship. You cannot raise a child without them knowing of the existence of sexuality and gender.
Our world in its current form simply educates on this subject the way a dog may learn of the location of a newly installed electric fence: by receiving a shock anytime they dare cross a border they didn’t know existed until they learn to stay firmly within the bounds. I think children left to their own devices would be far more queer than we imagine. Think of all the possible ways of being that kids could find if given no instructions. Given the ubiquity of queerness across time and culture we are naive to believe kids would innately know our particular rules of cis-hetness.
I have yet to hear we should teach kids about queerness until they hit puberty, so I’ll focus on the binary, straight world because that is the world being proposed. This approach aims not to shield kids from ideas of sex and gender but shield them from ideas of queerness. Three reasons given in support of all cis-hetero education are:
- We don’t want to influence (corrupt) the young people
- Parents should get to decide when their kids learn about queerness
- It’s too complicated and confusing
These reasons provide a flimsy shield for a brutal truth: queer is other and therefore wrong (or perhaps queer is wrong and therefore other). How does learning about trans people or non binary attraction corrupt? Why, by informing a young person this sort of life is possible. So the danger posed is that a young person might think they are gay or trans? Yet it is not dangerous for a young person to think they are straight or cis. We return to the same place: queerness is other and bad.
Parents should decide when kids learn about sex (although most educations happen on the playground or the internet). But conflating queerness and sex is false. We can learn that queer people exist without hearing about gay sex. To deny queerness is to deny myself and millions of others exist. A parent does not get to erase me from their child’s world. Why would they want to? How could I forget: Queerness is wrong.
This is all confusing. The tale of my high school years is one of queer confusion. When you learn that the way you are told all people exist is not, in fact, how all people exist—is not how you exist—it is confusing. But those using the confusion argument have it backwards. What is confusing is trying to take an experience or body that you know to be true and then contort it to fit into the box you’re told it must fit into. Queerness is only more confusing when, you guessed it, queerness is wrong or other.
When we drill into the arguments we see: queerness is still scary, still dangerous, still transgressive, still something that we can’t tell grandma. But we have it wrong. The danger flows the other way. It is not the queers who threaten the non queers, it is the non queers who threaten the queers. If we want to protect our children and all the incredible diversity of humans that live within them, we have one choice:
Bring them all up in a queer world.
Queer people are not safe in this world. Violence visits them. I could bring you the stories of our newspapers but I think Atlantic readers know those already. So I will bring you the stories of my short life. Of all the queer people I am lucky to love, more than half are mentally ill. I cannot count how many have self harmed once, or more commonly, always. All are still alive, joyfully, despite two suicide attempts that rocked our community. A number stand to lose homes if and when their parents find out.
I’m a lucky one. I am not mentally ill, at least not primarily because of queerness. I have not taken knife to flesh. And yet, I spent years and years trying to believe I would find a place for my whole self, even coming from a progressive community. Despite a loving home, a loving community, and even more importantly, a loving queer community, the chorus of “Other! wrong! Bath! Shame! change!” found its way into me anyway. Why must it be this way? Children are incredibly susceptible. Telling them there is only one correct way to be human, or simply lying through omission, is a dangerous education.
I found a large queer community in my high school. We tried on genders and sexuality like clothes—and sometimes they were just clothes. We formed a secret club and met in the back of the theater (we all embraced the cliche). We held movie screenings and hosted elaborate dinner parties and some days just lay on the floor. We built a world where queerness was allowed—not judged better or worse, neither forced nor denied, simply a fact of the world. We became more wholly ourselves, even when each identity was impermanent. There were dark days, but only when we left that room. The harm came from the intolerance outside.
So it is clear: the only way to educate our young people is on the truth of the whole world. And how lucky we are to get to include such beautiful and imaginative lives in our classrooms. Whenever the chance arises, invite queerness in. Include queerness when parents discuss marriage or the significant others of older siblings or eventually have the dreaded sex talk. Include queerness in God’s love for all. Include queerness in your history and your science class, in your books and movies. As for age appropriateness, just do whatever you do for that boring, black and white, straight world. There is nothing shameful about queer sexuality or queer sex. Gender is as confusing as it’s always going to be. There is no reason to obscure queerness to a late in life problem—my own experience attests to the impossibility of that. Queer lives resist timelines.
I wrote many words. I believe them all to be true. Still, I am open to any and all pushback. I welcome questions openly. I am grateful for your gift of time and attention.