Of Ducks and Penguins

Bay Windows(Originally published in Bay Windows, September 6, 2007. Also check out “Back to School,” an interview of Jennifer Chrisler, executive director of the Family Pride Coalition, by Bay Window’s Laura Kiritsy, and “Recipe for a successful school year? Listen to your kids,” an interview of Beth Teper, executive director of Children of Lesbians and Gays Everywhere (COLAGE), by Ethan Jacobs in the same publication.)

My son is starting preschool this week. I view this time of year as do many LGBT parents, with a sense of wonder that my child has reached his current age, panic that we won’t find new sneakers in his size before the first day, and fear of all that could harm him physically or emotionally. My partner and I will be meeting with his teachers, as LGBT parenting experts recommend, to make sure they are prepared to address questions and situations that arise because of his family structure.

It was with this in the back of my head that I took my son to two famous Boston destinations last week. We ventured first to the Public Garden to see the Make Way for Ducklings statues and ride the Swan Boats featured in that book. My parents had read Robert McCloskey’s classic to me when I was a child, and it was one of the first stories I read to my own son. Mr. and Mrs. Mallard are in many ways, however, the epitome of a traditional opposite-sex couple. Mrs. Mallard handles childcare duties while Mr. Mallard goes off to scout the area. Still, the book remains beloved even in this ostensibly more liberated era.

I couldn’t help but think of another book about a bird family, And Tango Makes Three, the tale (based on a true story) of two male penguins who adopt an egg together. Literary and artistic merits aside (Tango is very good, but arguably not up to Duckling’s Caldecott-winning standards), I doubt any city (with the possible exception of Provincetown) will build a statue of the two penguin dads and their chick anytime soon. Tango tops the American Library Association’s list of “10 Most Challenged Books of 2006,” a “challenge” meaning that someone filed a written complaint with a library or school requesting that the book be removed.

I had penguins on my mind the next day as well, when my son and I journeyed to the New England Aquarium. Perhaps we’d get a glimpse of another same-sex pair. Alas, no, or if so, they weren’t telling. In the world of natural-history education, it is hard to escape the references to opposite-sex mating, even when the details are kept fuzzy for the young ones. Not that I want to bend reality and deny that most creatures pair with the opposite sex. It’s just that a mention or two of possible variation would be nice. Coupled with the straight ducks of the previous day, I was feeling a bit left out. I wanted a place for our family among the iconic books and destinations of childhood. I wondered, too, what effect this exclusion would have as my son seeks to find his place in school.

Certain parents are in fact moving to forbid any discussion of same-sex families — human or otherwise — in classrooms. Two couples in Lexington recently announced they are appealing a U.S. District Court judgment that said their constitutional rights are not violated if schools teach their children about same-sex families. World Net Daily reported last month that the plaintiffs claim their goal is merely to be notified when schools teach “such controversial topics.” Even if we hypothetically grant that notification is warranted (against the judge’s argument in Parker v. Hurley that teaching about different types of families, same-sex ones included, helps prepare students for citizenship), it is ridiculous to imagine notifying parents every time a child from an LGBT family wants to share family photos during show and tell or write an essay about going on an R Family cruise. Should the plaintiffs win their appeal, though (and it is unclear how likely this is), teachers may hesitate to permit such pictures and writings, whether subtly or overtly. What message is that sending to our children about their self-worth?

Lexington is not an isolated case. A week after the Lexington news, the Evesham Township School District in New Jersey said the film That’s a Family! could not be reinstated as part of its elementary health curriculum. The Board had eliminated the documentary in early February after some parents protested its inclusion of same-sex families. Last Thursday they rejected a special review committee’s recommendation to permit it.

What can we do to halt such actions? It boils down to the old saw of visibility, at once simple and fiendishly difficult. Visibility for the childfree is tough enough when one can be fired for being LGBT and may face harassment or violence as well. When it is our children at risk, even the most out individuals may hesitate. There are also those, no matter how strong and willing, who must keep their family details hidden or risk losing the means to support them, say, if one or both parents is in the military. Those of us who can be open must do so for both ourselves and them. Being visible as an LGBT family goes hand in hand with teaching our children self-confidence, making allies within the broad community, and sharing constructive resources such as Tango and That’s a Family!

It is a tall order, and I know this first week of preschool is only the start of a journey that will take us across the next 14 years. We can turn to tuxedoed avians yet again, though, and recall a lesson from the film March of the Penguins: It may be a long, hard trip, but it’s for the good of our family—and ultimately our society.