Terrance Heath

Abstaining from the Reality of Gay Familes

Filed By Terrance Heath | February 04, 2008 2:20 PM | comments

Filed in: Living, Marriage Equality, Media, Politics
Tags: child care, education policy, parenting

This Friday, I had something anyone who's ever lived through the first few months of parenting a newborn will understand is something to be treasured: a day off. The rest of the family left the house in the morning, and I went back to bed. But, of course, we never take a day off from being parents. Not that I want to, mind you, but those few extra hours of sleep Friday morning (I went back to bed. Surprised?) were sweet.

I'd taken the day off, because Parker's pre-school was having a special performance, and of course we were going to be there to see it. Parker had been talking about it for the past month. At first he decided he was going to dance, and after he picked a song I burned it to CD so that he could take it to school with him and practice. But I know my son. He's very stage shy. At home, with us as an audience, he sings, dances and puts on quite a show. But he generally prefers not to be in the spotlight and not to be the center a big audience's attention.

So I wasn't surprised when he announced that he'd volunteered (with one other child) for the job of handing out tickets. (Pieces of construction paper colored by Parkers class served as "tickets.") I told him, "That's a very important job. If nobody handed out tickets, there'd be no audience to see the show," and that Daddy and Papa would be there so he could give us our tickets. And he did, as well as handing tickets to other parents as they arrived. He even helped with some of the props for the other students performances.

We were very proud and we told him so.

Afterwards, we chatted with some of the other parents, many of whom have known our family for the past five years as Parker and their kids grew up together one class after another. They congratulated us on Dylan's addition to the family, and especially Parker as he proudly introduced them to his little brother. We'd see some of those parents again over the weekend, since Parker was invited to yet another birthday party.

They know our family. They've seen our family. Their kids know our family, and have seen our family because we've come to so many events, come to pick Parker up together, come to parent-teacher meetings, parent association meetings, and chaperoned on field trips. To their kids we are Parker's Daddy and Parker's Papa. They know gay families exist, because they know a gay family.

I guess I should be glad, and grateful, that my kids don't go to school with the children of David Parker, the Massachusetts father who went off the deep end when his child received a book about diverse families, which included same-sex parents in a discussion single parents, multi-racial families, and all kinds of other families. David Parker wanted to put the kibosh on any discussions about gay families or homosexuality, and refused to budge on the issue.

There are two main issues in this controversy, which are being debated far beyond the Estabrook school: Is teaching kids about gays and lesbians tolerance or propaganda? And how much control do parents have over what their children are taught?

In several conversations by phone, mail and e-mail, Parker asked teachers and officials at the school to notify him any time the subject of homosexuality was discussed in class.

"When affirmation and normalization of these lifestyles come up, parents want to know about [it] and have the option to opt out," he said.

Dr. Paul Ash, superintendent of Lexington Public Schools, said the school tried to be accommodating.

"The school department said, 'Look, we'll work with you, but we cannot assure you what a child is going to say and that we can immediately stop a discussion that you find objectionable,'" said Ash. "One of the central units in kindergarten is the discussion of families and we show families of all different types." Ash says the discussions "ended up in an irreconcilable difference."

After one meeting in April, Parker refused to leave the school without that assurance. He was arrested and, after refusing to post the $40 bail, he spent the night in jail.

The school board then obtained a restraining order to keep him off school property.

Timothy, over at Box Turtle Bulletin, reports that—after filing a lawsuit that was eventually dismissed and spreading a lie about a schoolyard shuffle—Parker has lost his appeal.

In a ruling Thursday, the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals agreed with a judge who ruled in February 2007 that parents’ rights to exercise their religious beliefs are not violated when their children are exposed to contrary ideas in school.

"Public schools are not obliged to shield individual students from ideas which potentially are religiously offensive, particularly when the school imposes no requirement that the student agree with or affirm those ideas, or even participate in discussions about them," the court said in its ruling.

And Dana shares an important passage from the circuit court's opinion.

The mere fact that a child is exposed on occasion in public school to a concept offensive to a parent’s religious belief does not inhibit the parent from instructing the child differently. A parent whose ‘child is exposed to sensitive topics or information [at school] remains free to discuss these matters and to place them in the family’s moral or religious context, or to supplement the information with more appropriate materials.’ . . . There is no free exercise right to be free from any reference in public elementary schools to the existence of families in which the parents are of different gender combinations.

If David Parker's kid was in Parker's pre-school class, I wonder how he would have reacted to the hubby and I coming to the performance on Friday, sitting together and beaming at Parker. How would he have reacted when Parker sat in my lap and even planted a kiss on my cheek? How would he have reacted to our family walking down the hall on our way to the car afterwards, and being stopped by parents and teachers who congratulated us and took a minute to admire Dylan and compliment Parker?

How would David Parker have reacted over the years, if his child was in Parker's class, to us being introduced to his child as Parker's Daddy and Papa? How would he react to the school and the teachers recognizing us as a family and treating us like any other family? How would he react to seeing our family at the birthday parties of the kids in Parker's class? How would he react to us taking turns going along on class field trips?

On Mondays, during circle time, the kids in Parker's class share their "weekend news," in which they say what they did during the weekend. Their stories inevitably involve some activities with their families, and Parker is no different. His weekend news might be "I helped Papa make a blueberry pie," or "Daddy took me out to ride my bike," or "I went to IHOP with Daddy, Papa, and Dylan."

How would David Parker react to that? Would it, in his opinion count as "affirmation and normalization" of what he considers our "lifestyle"? What would he have the teachers do? Stop circle time and call him to make sure it was OK for my son to talk about his family? Tell my son not to talk about his family, or what terms he can use to talk about his family? Would he require advance warning that the hubby and I are coming to the class performance together, or that we're both picking Parker up from school? What would he have the school do?

If these seem like absurd questions, they're necessary because David Parker doesn't want his kid learning about gay families, or at least learning anything about gay families that contradicts David Parker's beliefs. If these questions seem absurd, consider this statement from one of David Parker's supporters.

"This is sort of lunacy to have same-sex partners discussed in a first grade or a kindergarten," said Brian Camenker, president of Article 8 Alliance, a group opposing same-sex marriage.

When the hubby and I are introduced to the class or a classmate as Parker's Daddy and Papa, is this having "same-sex partners discussed" or "affirming and normalizing" our family? When Parker talks about his family, during "weekend news" or every day banter and play with his classmates, does that count as having "same-sex partners discussed" or "affirming and normalizing" our family?

Inevitably, by our family's presence and Parker's attendance at his pre-school, his classmates have learned something about same-sex parents, if only that we exist. In the five years they've grown up with Parker, they've seen our family again and again. They've seen their parents welcome us into their homes. They've seen parents and teachers treat us as they do all the other parents and every other family. They know their parents and teachers trust us to keep an eye on the kids on class field trips. They've seen us both relate to Parker as parents, and they relate to us as Parker's parents and Parker's family.

Is that "affirmation and normalization"?

Children do think about these things, and work them out in their minds. A few years ago, one of Parker's classmates was trying to wrap his mind around the reality that Parker had a Daddy and Papa at home instead of a Mommy and Daddy. Clearly, at first, he couldn't imagine it any other way. At one point he said to Parker, "Parker, I have a mommy and a daddy." And Parker answered back, confidently, "Well, I have a daddy and a papa!" That was pretty much the end of it. That child is one of Parker's best friends, and was almost as excited about Parker getting a little brother as Parker himself was.

That's what people like David Parker fear; that their kids will see our families, see our families treated just like any other family, and end up being "fine" with it.

Is that "affirmation and normalization"?

If David Parker's kid were in our son's class, how would he make sure his son avoided it? What would he have the school officials do to "protect" his son from and enable in him abstaining from the reality of our family?

How would he have our family, and our sons, treated in order to avoid any offense to or contradiction of his religious beliefs?

Or would he simply rather we were not seen, acknowledged, referred to, or treated as a family, even by our son while he's at school? Would he simply rather we were invisible? Would he rather our families simply didn't exist? Because that's really the only way he or his child is likely never to hear anything about our existence.

I don't see any other way, since David Parker's kid wouldn't need a book to learn about gay families if he was in my kid's class. He'd have an opportunity to do so every day of the week, and on weekends if he went to enough birthday parties.

I'm pretty sure that the Supreme Court will refuse to hear David Parker's case. (Though I won't bet the farm on it.) But that won't mean we'll have heard the last of David Parker or others like him.

They won't disappear. Neither will our families. However much they'd like us to. Neither of us can entirely abstain from the reality of the other's existence. What will happen, and how it will touch our children, is a question that—naturally, as a parent—keeps me awake at night.

Crossposted from the Republic of T.

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I'm reading your piece and I'm starting to cry... Terrance, you will get to those places in those classrooms and there will be questions.

I live a couple towns away from Lexington. One of my neighbors works for the METCO program out there. She was horrified by the willingness of parents to make "little babies" carry their hateful message.

Her description, not mine.

How they were protesting in front of an ELEMENTARY school.

When my oldest son hit kindergarten and we left the comfort and safety of an amazing daycare/ preschool program, we had a major homophobe family in the class. the mother refused to even look me in the eye. the teacher was grilled about "family" week.


my son was 5 years old. for the first time, we didn't have a classroom full of kids who knew us. it was scary.

and hard. how do you explain why your son doesn't get invited- even though the rest of the class was- to a birthday party at P's house?

the one thing I do know, in my heart and in my gut, is those years of daycare/preschool where he was loved and accepted and cherished gave him solid ground to go out into the world with.

Remember, Brian Camenker's and his group has less than 100 people in it. David Parker lost his case.

If you lived next door to them? actually, if you really lived next door to Brian (who lived in auburndale about a half mile away from me) I can tell you there are two families on the same street that went to my daycare/preschool.

wonderful people. there's a great playground on the Charles River you could walk to easily, the baby in the stroller.

because ultimately? we are parents. just like everyone else.

and... there are some unique bumps in the road ahead.

They won't disappear. Neither will our families. However much they'd like us to.

I don't know, T. We've seen racism, sexism, and homophobia slowly diminish over the past few years. I think we should dream big. We may not be there yet, but we're slowly inching forward.

I wouldn't want to live without the hope that someday the racists, sexists, homophobes and all around haters would disappear.

Brynn Craffey Brynn Craffey | February 6, 2008 8:52 PM

Great post, Terrance!!!

As a queer FtM mother who parented an awesome daughter to adulthood with her gay father, I see red when the Religious Right attacks our familes and our right to parent or marry. More power to you to keep on showing up as a family despite the hateful messages of the David Parkers of the world!!