Shawn Hollenbach and I first met in Atlanta at the…
In order for someone to self-actualize, he or she needs to have the basic needs met first. After physiological and safety needs are achieved, that person needs to feel love, a sense of belonging and have self-esteem. This is standard theory, and part of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.
I would argue that it is really tough to move from the stage of love and belonging to self-esteem when someone is constantly tormented and bullied. Bullying has gained more visibility in the media and pop culture in recent years, after many tragic incidents. It is often targeted at those who are seen as different and it is still very prevalent today. This subject is one that is very close to my heart. Anytime I hear about someone taking action and making a positive difference in this space, it gives me hope.
Recently, I connected with someone who is making a huge difference in education and opening the minds of children and parents by incorporating LGBT-themed literature into his curriculum. Meet Gabriel Flores, EdD, EdS; he is an educator, author and LGBT advocate.
What do you do professionally, and what inspires you to do it?
For the past 16.5 years I have been an elementary educator in the LA city school system. I love to mold minds of children to become tolerant, accepting and competent contributors of the future. My continued education has allowed me to grow professionally and create these minds more meaningfully. By 2020, the United States will have a student minority population of 48% (Milner, 2003, p. 197) and therefore my instruction becomes even more critical. Students need to learn about and appreciate diversity.
I understand that there were many reasons that you decided to use gay-themed literature in your classroom. Are there any experiences from your own life that also helped influence that decision?
One day I walked into my school’s office and found a memo in my mailbox from the district celebrating June as Gay and Lesbian Awareness Month; that memo was the catalyst for my change where I knew it was time to become a positive social change agent. Gay and lesbian individuals are largely invisible in our curriculum. Two recent resolutions passed by our school district [LAUSD] reaffirming June as Pride Month and opposed [opposition to] Proposition 8. These resolutions specifically included text directing schools to teach GLBTQ material. (J. Chiasson, personal communication, November 6, 2008)
If you had to choose a gay-themed children’s book that teaches the most powerful lesson, what would that be and why?
I can’t just choose one so I will do two books that I have enjoyed with my students.
- The Harvey Milk Story by Kari Krakow- This is a biography of gay civil rights leader Harvey Milk. This book is powerful because it humanizes a gay man and creates empathy. It makes children see how a gay man too can be a strong civil rights leader. Some students have mentioned he was the gay peoples’ Martin Luther King.
- Jack and Jim by Kitty Crowther- This book carries two messages, racism and gay themes. It is about a black and white bird who are best friends and love each other, hence the gay undertones. The town ostracizes the black bird. Very powerful book. I created a lesson for this book and it won an award at the Welcoming Schools organization. WelcomingSchools.Org
How have parents reacted to the gay-themed literature in the classroom? What can we do to better educate parents who might be close-minded about LGBT issues?
I have rarely had any problems with parents, perhaps because I am a male and a PhD. I have, however, had my ally female teacher colleagues have problems. Some have been called “fulfilling their personal agenda” or “lesbians.” Others have been yelled at and some parents have demanded their children pulled from class. These are all rare situations but they have occurred. Nevertheless, we always have had the support from the District, administrators, and now State legislation (SB48). When parents have complained in my classroom (about 3-4 times over the ten years), I have sent home two pieces of information, the memorandum from the District from 1999 and my own letter created with facts about policy/legislation, hate crimes, intolerance and purpose for gay themes in classroom. So, one may ask what is the purpose for gay-themed children’s literature in the elementary classroom:
- Teachers/parents may be told about the prevalent suicides, bullying, and hate crimes associated with intolerance and the invisibility in curriculum. Research has suggested that if students see themselves reflected in curriculum, then they will thrive in the classroom and their future endeavors.
- Gay-themed children’s literature focuses on discussions about issues associated with being gay and gay communities and culture, including the themes of love, families, respect, struggles, civil rights, and relationships
- The purpose of including gay-themed children’s literature is two-fold; to teach diversity, tolerance, and acceptance of homosexuals, and to provide a safer- learning environment for all students, including gay youth and future gay youth.
When I was growing up, I was bullied heavily at times in elementary school. For me, this was the worst in third and fourth grade. Do you see bullying in schools today, and at what point does it occur?
Bullying can start very early. I have seen it at all grade levels. Unfortunately, the NCLB act has lessened meaningful education and we are losing character education and kids are losing empathy and kindness. The NCLB act has ruined our once great American school system. This too is the reason I do my lessons because our students are losing out in today’s schools. They are no longer receiving a well-rounded education.
Who are the main targets of bullying?
The weak, the lonely, the gender non-conformative. I too was bullied as a child because I was effeminate and loved playing with girls.
What can schools do to best help?
Read more children’s literature that deals with the topics. Books can be a teacher’s best friend when it comes to difficult topics. In addition, bring more character education in classrooms; many of which are missing it today. Build empathy in children early and build stronger intrinsic motivation.
Has technology and social media played a part in bullying?
In the early grades I have not seen technology play a role; however, in the upper grades I see that computers/technology give bullies a curtain to hide behind and more power, so to speak.
Do you believe gay-themed education can help reduce bullying in schools? How?
Oh yes by building empathy and putting the Contact Theory Hypothesis (CTH) into practice. The more you know about a topic or culture, the more comfortable you feel and this eventually builds empathy. Here are the basics of the CTH: Research has suggested that increased contact with gays and positive exposure, reinforcement, and representation of gays can help alleviate negative attitudes toward gays (Bassett et al., 2005; Overby & Barth, 2002; Wood & Bartkowski, 2004), thus suggesting the contact theory hypothesis and positive role models as important elements in successful multicultural education programs. Therefore, positive exposure (through literature, for example) is helpful for changing preconceptions held by teachers and students.
Prop 8 eliminated gay marriage in California back in 2008. I remember that one of the commercials from the opponents of gay marriage featured a young girl handing a children’s book to her mother. The little girl said, “Mommy, today I learned in school that a prince can marry a prince and I can marry a princess.” The ad went on to say that if we don’t stop gay marriage, schools will start teaching kids about it. With many victories in gay marriage over the last few years, do you believe that parents have become more open to multicultural education, including themes like gay marriage?
This was simply a scare tactic that is fading away. It worked in 2008 but not anymore. Here in California, however, we now have legislation SB48 which mandates a more inclusive curriculum that includes gay themes. So teachers have more power to implement. Yet, many are scared because they lack training and professional development.
How do you feel that inclusive multicultural education contributes to children growing up to be more tolerant and accepting of others?
This simply goes back to the CTH: Research has suggested that increased contact with gays and positive exposure, reinforcement, and representation of gays can help alleviate negative attitudes toward gays (Bassett et al., 2005; Overby & Barth, 2002; Wood & Bartkowski, 2004), thus suggesting the contact theory hypothesis and positive role models as important elements in successful multicultural education programs. Therefore, positive exposure (through literature, for example) is helpful for changing preconceptions held by teachers and students. In addition, through building empathy and lessening the stigma, children become more tolerant and accepting of gay and lesbian people.
What are your current and future ambitions?
So far, I have been publishing on the topic in magazines and academic journals. I would love to create curriculum and show teachers how to implement this type of curriculum, successfully. Because I have been doing this for over ten years now in my own classroom, I would love to go around the nation and give professional development on the topic.
I absolutely hope that you give professional development on the topic around the country, because the work you are doing changes lives. (Distributing information products and content could also help get your message across, globally!). How do you plan to accomplish this and what obstacles do you foresee?
I let no obstacles stop me because I have many strong organizations to back me up. I have the LAUSD District policy. I have California State Law SB48 The FAIR Act, and great organizations like WelcomingSchools.org, Tolerance.org, and GLSEN.org to help me along the way. The only way to change people’s minds is through exposure and trust. If people are willing to meet me half way by listening with an open mind, then that is all I ask for. In addition, I am a member of many organizations, such as the National Association for Multicultural Education, and annually I will apply to present at their international conferences to present on my very topic. I have been very happy to see teachers attend from around the world fascinated and interested in my topic and ready to do the same in their classroom, school, and or university. This has been very rewarding. Finally, I have been lucky to publish articles in books and academic journals. This allows for many more people to access my knowledge on the topic and read about what I have been doing in the classroom for the past 10 years. I should publish another 2-3 articles this year. Besides intolerance as an obstacle, there is the obstacle of time and technology. I know there is only 24 hours in a day, but I have my whole life time to pursue my passion. And I am not up- to-date in all aspects of technology, but again in due time.