Andrew HerrinMonday, February 13, 2023
Last April, Alabama Governor Kay Ivey signed Alabama’s version of the "Don’t Say Gay" bill into law. According to Alabama Legislature (state.al.us), this law prohibits kindergarten through fifth-grade public-school teachers from speaking of different gender identities or sexualities in class. I agree with Altamont teacher and Gender and Sexuality Alliance (GSA) sponsor Alesha Dawson that "the 'Don't Say Gay' law is harmful and dehumanizing.” Young queer students find it reassuring to learn their feelings are not wrong when they are told about differing gender identities and sexualities, and anything that stops these discussions does the exact opposite.
I am a transgender man. I realized I am a man when I was eleven and came out at twelve. It took me years to figure out my feelings, as I did not know being transgender was an option. For years, I thought I might have been a lesbian. Even though I am not attracted to women, I wanted to dress and act like a man. My only point of reference for non-traditional versions of masculinity and femininity was the little bit I got from TV. Not knowing about queerness made me feel isolated. This is not an uncommon occurrence. As Amanda Keller, Director of the Magic City Acceptance Center, puts it, “We know that developmentally, youth ages seven to twelve begin to form and express sexual attraction and interest in peers,” adding that it’s no coincidence that “the average age of coming out for LGBTQ youth is twelve years old. The issue that we often see is that ‘straight’ and ‘cisgender’ are presented as the norm which leaves LGBTQ youth feeling confused, hurt, and othered." Not talking about queerness has a damaging effect to the emotional well-being of young queer kids.
The Altamont School is a private institution, so it is not directly impacted by the law, but students across the state still are. Students come to Altamont during various grades and it is not uncommon for individuals to begin attending during high school. This means that if they have been a part of a public school system before, they will be uneducated and not understand the nuances involved in expressing one’s identity. Even if students join in the fifth grade, they would have almost a decade of the state telling them that queerness should not be discussed. Altamont's culture is very welcoming, but the curriculum could do more.
A junior in the GSA who wished to remain anonymous said, “Most teachers are pretty accepting of LGBTQ+ students, and will sometimes mention LGBTQ+ issues or history if it's directly related with the lesson plan, but otherwise, I don't think students at Altamont learn much about queer stories, history, culture, etc. I'm not really sure why they don't incorporate queer education into the curricula of Altamont's younger grades. As a younger queer student, I always felt that Altamont was lacking in its LGBTQ+ education, though I definitely appreciate the instances of queer representation that I have seen in my time here.”
Students come with a variety of understandings of gender identity and expression. Most of what the younger students know is from online. There is an understanding that queer people exist, but their knowledge does not go beyond that.
Eric Royer, the new life science and anatomy teacher, was teaching the seventh graders about miosis, the process of cells dividing in sexually reproducing organisms, in January. Since the topic of sexual reproduction came up, sex and gender also did. Royer said, “[Students] are definitely aware of those differing identities regarding gender and are comfortable in how they function in society. However, they may not know certain nuances such as the difference between biological sex and gender for example.” These nuances need to be known to create a safe learning environment.
“The school is making an effort though,” Dawson said. “There is the IDEA work led by Ms. [Joni] Wiley and others. Ms. Wiley does a great job working with admin and teachers to train our faculty and is planning larger-scale training and curriculum developments for the near future. I think we will be seeing more queer education seeping into classrooms in intentional ways over the next few years.”
Programs like these need to be supported. Again, Altamont is a private school, so it is both reliant on tuition from parents and funding from people outside the school. These people may not be supportive of teaching the younger grades on queerness, but Altamont needs to stand up for its Mission & Values . Altamont can improve the fabric of society by nurturing compassion. Altamont is a welcoming place, but it needs to be a welcoming place for young confused students who are trying to figure their identities out.
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