All Promo Homo: discussing sexuality in school

“Faggot…Faggot. I really like that word.” Stacy says thoughtfully as the class leaves for lunch. I nearly drop my notebook.

“Why do you like that word?” I ask quickly.

“I don’t know… I heard it in a YouTube video and I just really liked the way it sounded.” She pushes her things into her desk and turns to me.

“Do you know what that word means?”

“No. I just really like the way it sounds. Fag—”

“It’s a very offensive term for gay people,” I interrupt. “Remember in the story we read today, when the main character was called it?” She nods. “Well, it is a very hurtful word. You shouldn’t say it.” We continue to talk for a moment about the word, and why it’s offensive. Stacy soon bounds off to lunch, and I am left alone in the classroom, dazed. This interaction makes it clear that I have been correct in thinking that the class will need to talk about queerness for one of the identity lessons. When outlining the unit, I had originally planned on discussing queer identity on the gender day, but as the curriculum developed, it became apparent that devoting only one lesson to both gender and sexuality would do neither justice.

Talking about sexual orientation in an elementary school proved much more complex than any other issue. Many states have laws banning “the promotion of homosexuality” in schools. These so called “No Promo Homo” laws have been variously interpreted as banning anything from explicit discussions of non-normative sexualities, to having books which feature gay characters in the classroom. While Massachusetts has no laws explicitly banning the topic of sexual orientation in schools, it does have one mandating that parents are notified prior to the implementation of a curriculum involving sexuality and given the option to exempt their child. While I initially think that the principal is being puritanical when he asks to approve a copy of my lesson plan, it turns out he is protecting Miller’s Hill from potential lawsuits.

“This all seems great,” He says one afternoon, handing the lesson plan back to me without reading it. “Do me a favor, would ya? Write this up in a letter and send it home to parents before you do the lesson. You should also give me a copy, okay?” He gives Naomi and I a breezy smile before sweeping out the door.

Naomi soon fills me in on another regulation I will be required to follow when broaching the topic of sexuality: I am not allowed to ask students to speak to their own sexuality, or any experiences relating to it. “I’m required by law to report anything – absolutely anything – students mention involving sexuality and themselves,” she tells me. This means the sexuality workshop will be a single day endeavor; no writing day will follow.

When I enter the class the following Monday, I am pleased to see that no parents have kept their child home today. “When I say ‘sexuality’ or ‘sexual orientation,’ what do I mean?” I ask the class by way of introducing the lesson.

Silence.

The usually loud, enthusiastic class is suddenly still, sheepish. I guess it’s not too surprising, given the topic. After I offer them a definition, I tell them that until about thirty-five years ago, doctors thought homosexuality was an illness. “Even though doctors no longer think this, stereotypes about gay people being somehow ill still exist.”    Continue reading

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Boy Legs

He is wearing a white lab coat. It’s funny, I think, that doctors really wear those. His name is Doctor Tancretti and he smells like Florida. Or maybe like old people. I can’t tell. Ever since we visited my family in Tampa the two kinda run together. He has short dark hair, and very tan skin like my grandpa, which also makes me think Florida and old people. His eyes seem permanently squinty. His nurse is a tall woman called Vicki who sneaks me extra stickers when the other nurses aren’t looking. She comes in now and gives a folder to the Doctor and then smiles at me. She will remember me every time I come back for the next fifteen years.

Vicki comes over to the exam table and says she is going to do a simple check up while Doctor Tancretti talks with my mom. She takes my temperature and blood pressure, and pokes at my stomach for a while. “I’m going to check your reflexes now, okay?” she tells me, holding up a small metal rod with a rubber tip shaped like a triangle. “You’re going to have to roll up your pants so I can get to your knees.” When I have done so, Vicki swings the rod into my kneecap. I smile as my leg jerks forward and slams back into the side of the exam table with a satisfying “thud.” She does the same thing to my other knee, and then begins to roll my pants back down. “Oh my!” She stops, examining my shins. You’re so bruised!” she asks if I play outside a lot, and tells me to be careful. Mom overhears.

“You’ve notice his legs?” she laughs. “I call them boy legs. Mical’s very active. He’s always running around and bangin into stuff. They’re constantly like that.” She sighs. “Boy legs.” We all have a good laugh at my habit of getting hurt, a habit that will soon put me on crutches six different times in as many years. Continue reading

Something Between Us

“And of course I am afraid, because the transformation of silence into language and action is an act of self-revelation, and that always seems fraught with danger.”

Audre Lorde


A picture of Mount Hood hung in the dining room overlooking the table. It was three pictures, really – a panorama of a snow covered peak swathed in the soft orange of sunset, fragmented across three frames. You could see the mountain, start to finish; the foothills, awkward bulges dense with trees rising into the base, a uniform mass of lush green reaching for the summit in uneven tendrils until the tree line, where the impenetrable hue was suddenly replaced by gray crags abruptly rising from the white-orange snow. The three photos cut the mountain into perfect thirds, the peak poised between two gentle, tree-lined slopes – mirror images of each other but for the streaks of color across the right hand frame. “What’s the point of this? Why are there three?” I asked my mother. She slumped the bag of groceries onto the kitchen counter and glanced at the photos. She shrugged, and through a puzzled smirk said, “Art?”

We shared a look before she turned walked out the front door, calling back as soon as she was out of sight, “Mical, come out here and help Adam with the rest of the groceries!” I pulled my gaze from the mountain and took in the rest of the place. The Sun River brochure had modestly referred to it as a “cabin” but it was about as far from the rustic connotations of that word as you could get. A row of soundless fans hung from the high ceilings, presiding over a crimson, L-shaped sofa in the living room. Dark, polished wood lined the floors and trimmed the stucco walls, and the kitchen’s center island (an entirely novel concept to me) contained a built in gas stove. The vastness of the space allowed the living room, dining room, and kitchen to open into one another, sharing an eastern wall made almost entirely of glass, offering a constant view of that picturesque line of pines and the glimmering water beyond. It was by far, the most modern, opulent looking structure my ten-year-old eyes had ever seen, and even then, I knew my family could not afford a vacation like this. It had been explained to me that the place was what was called a “time-share,” though what that meant I was never quite sure. The important thing was that it belonged to my mothers’ boss, who had given us a discount since he couldn’t use it himself.

“Mical!” my mother’s voice was less congenial now. I temporarily suspended my awe and stepped out the front door into the fading July light. As on most family trips, I had been allowed to bring a friend along. This year’s lucky candidate was Adam Krakauer. I’d gone to school with him since kindergarten, but we had only really started hanging out in the last year or so. He was a stout boy, chubby but strong, with a perpetually scrunched face and round glasses that made him look like far more of a nerd than he really was. I found him standing beside our maroon ’88 voyager, my mother handing him a brown bag of groceries through the sliding door of the minivan. My father was rummaging around somewhere in the trunk, grumbling to no one in particular about how we had forgotten this Very Important Item. Continue reading

The Doll

He never told me outright, but I knew my father was uncomfortable with the doll. I had picked her as a reward for something – I’m not sure what at this point – but my mom had taken me to the store to pick out a toy. I was five years old, and she was one of the few African-American Barbies in the store, with long dark hair and a deep purple dress made of something like velvet. Maybe that was why I picked her; she stood out from the uniform mass of white plastic lining the shelves. She was different.

Even then, at five years old, I knew the doll was an unusual pick. Certainly, my male friends would not have made the same selection. But I was bored with my Star Wars action figures and Hot Wheels cars. I wanted something new.

My mother didn’t remark on the doll directly. “Are you sure?” was all she asked as I brought the box to the checkout counter.

When I got home, I spent hours playing with her alongside my other toys. She had a handbag to match her dress, both of that same deep purple that looked as soft as it felt. The dress was fastened at the back with a strip of Velcro which would peel off with a satisfying “C-h-h-r-r-i-i-i-i-i-p” if I ever wanted to change her clothes.

Neither of my parents spoke to me about it, but I was aware of the stir I had caused. The first night I had the doll, the floorboards of my second floor bedroom trembled with raised voices. Though I couldn’t make out most of it, the phrase “For Christ’s sake Jim, it’s a doll!” was unmistakable.