As about 30 sixth graders filed into a classroom at PS/IS89 in lower Manhattan yesterday, my new friend Kalima, who just graduated from college on Thursday, drew a capital P on the chalkboard. Underneath it, one at a time, she added four more letters to read:
Next to each letter she wrote out the name of the organization that she, Susan and I were there representing: Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbian and Gay, Bisexual and Transgender People. Next to that she added another acronym: LGBTQ, for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer/questioning.
This was my first PFLAG NYC “Safe Schools” presentation, so I was there as an observer. It was foreign for me to see the terms of gender identity and sexual orientation on a classroom chalkboard. That never would have happened when I was in middle school in the sixties. I’d never even heard those words at that age. And I wished there had been volunteers like Kalima and Susan available to speak at my son’s middle school in Milwaukee in 2001. I marveled at the progress of public education.
The desks in the room had been pushed back in a semi-circle around a large area rug so many of the kids were sitting comfortably on the floor when Kalima turned to face them. She introduced herself and asked for a volunteer to read what was on the board. She explained that PFLAG was an organization that comes to schools so that a parent or family member of someone’s who’s gay, or a gay person, can tell his or her personal story. “How many of you have had a conversation about anything regarding this topic before?” Kalima asked. Most hands went up. But when she asked if the subject had ever been discussed at school, some hands went down.
“This is a space where we can talk about these topics, because it’s not really talked about in some homes or in a lot of schools. Here it’s okay.”
She told them she wanted to define the terms that were going to be used in her story and in Susan’s story as a PFLAG mom. And she asked for volunteers to explain each of the words. A lot of hands went up. The kids were smart, and Kalima helped them zero in on keys words for the exact definitions. For example, a lesbian is a woman who’s “attracted” to another woman. After Kalima replied, “That’s right” to the girl who defined transgender, several voices popped up with “What?” or “What was that?” And I heard one ask, “Plastic surgery?”
Kalima repeated the girl’s answer: A transgender person is someone who is born one gender but in your mind and your heart you feel like you’re the opposite gender. “Some may choose to have surgery to make their outside match how they feel on the inside,” she said. “Or they may choose not to have surgery and just dress a certain way.”
Susan then told her story as a mom of two boys, the youngest of whom grew up to identify as gay. She engaged the kids with questions about going to Toys R Us to illustrate society’s unfair labeling of “girl toys” and “boy toys.” She led them through the hurtfulness of name-calling and teasing and the sadness that resulted. They learned her youngest son had come out to her at age 14 and to his school at age 15.
Their faces lit when she told them her son and his boyfriend were the first gay couple at the school’s prom, and that all the kids and the parents who attended had applauded them.
Kalima shared what she described as a sheltered childhood, where she was taught that women married men and vice versa. She didn’t know anyone who was gay growing up; she didn’t even know what it meant. She did know she didn’t have the same feelings about boys as her girlfriends, and she was confused by feelings she had for her best girlfriend. It wasn’t before she’d withdrawn at school and wished she were invisible that Kalima realized she was gay. The first person she told was her best friend, who said she already kind of knew and it didn’t matter; they were still best friends.
The kids’ questions afterwards were great. They wanted to know if Kalima had a girlfriend. And they asked what Susan’s youngest son was doing now. After each of two of the presentations, a boy came up to Kalima and asked if there was someone a friend could email with a question. “It’s not me,” both of them said.
I left the school energized and optimistic about this next generation of kids. They’re the ones who will continue to shape the evolution of society’s openness, understanding and acceptance of the LGBTQ community to be who they are and love who they love. And I was happy, too, with the addition of another descriptor for myself: PFLAG mom.