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Coming Out in Class: When Teachers Tell Students "I'm Gay"

Teacher Talks with First-Graders
It began as a classroom discussion about families. First-graders at the Burr Elementary School in Newton, Massachusetts, asked teacher David Gaita whom he lives with. According to press accounts of the exchange, Gaita told the children that he is gay, and that he lives with a partner, "someone you love the way your mom and dad love each other."

When a student asked if he liked being gay, Gaita responded that it was a hard question to answer, but that he was proud of who he was. That afternoon, students carried home a note from Gaita, informing parents that the discussion had taken place.

Newton's school superintendent and many parents have thrown their support behind the teacher, commending him for the way he handled the situation.

"Had he divulged details of the intimate affairs of his life, it would have been inappropriate, as it would have been if a heterosexual teacher had done that," Newton School Superintendent Jeff Young told The Boston Globe. "My point is, the same standards of discretion should be applied for homosexual and heterosexual teachers, and therefore the same standard of tolerance and respect should be applied."

Still, some wonder: How young is too young to talk with kids about sexual orientation? Is the classroom the best place for such a dialogue to occur?

"I personally don't think the classroom is the place to discuss sexual preference and personal issues, no matter what the students' age," says Susan Y., mother of five and an evangelical Christian. "Children should not be put in the middle of a highly charged controversy where their parents might takes sides against their teacher -- their only other authority figure."

On the other hand, some parents believe such classroom discussions are an opportunity to teach young children the value of diversity.

"I think it promotes tolerance," says Jean M., mother of a second-grader. "My daughter's only seven but we already talk about same-sex relationships. I tell her it's a different kind of love."

A Tough Call For Teachers
For gay and lesbian teachers, the decision to talk with kids about their sexual orientation is seldom an easy one. Joyce B., an elementary-school music teacher in the San Francisco Bay Area, thinks it's "wonderful" that David Gaita answered his students with such honesty and directness, but would hesitate to do so herself.

"My experience is that there's horrible reactions (when teachers come out to students)," she observes. "It's not worth the hassle. I don't lead a closeted life, but I just don't want some irate father to be out there waiting for me in the school parking lot."

On the other hand, this teacher believes, it is entirely appropriate for young children to learn what the words "gay and lesbian" mean. The key, educators agree, is assessing school culture and the reaction of parents before such classroom discussions occur.

At the Atrium School in Watertown, Massachusetts, the domestic partner of a first/second-grade teacher is expecting a baby. Headmaster Rich Perry says the school's up-front policy of "openness and inclusion" has meant that the pregnancy is not seen as a controversy, but a cause for celebration.

"(The teacher) has said something to students like, 'I'm really excited that we're going to have a baby,'" Perry says, adding that the children have not asked any questions about how the teacher's partner became pregnant.

"What Does Gay Mean?" Tips for Talking with Young Kids
It's ironic: While parents are usually more concerned about younger children's exposure to homosexuality, little kids are less likely to grasp what it means than older students are. Some suggestions for parents from Eleanora Villegas-Reimers, associate professor of human development at Wheelock College in Boston:

  • DO initiate a conversation with children if you know they've had classroom discussions about what it means to be gay. Ignoring the issue sends children the message that homosexuality is something that shouldn't be discussed.

  • DON'T forget that young children (preschool-grade 3) are concrete thinkers. They can't understand an abstract concept like sex unless, of course, sex has been explained to them in detail. They can understand that sometimes men love other men or women love other women, or that "some kids have two moms or two dads."

  • DO talk about "different kinds of families," and include gay and lesbian families with a mention of divorced and single-parent families, multicultural families, etc. "Even if you don't embrace the homosexual lifestyle, these families do exist," says Villegas-Reimers. Talking about differences is a way to encourage children to be tolerant of others, while still giving parents room to express their own values.
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