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Op-ed: Teaching Kids About Gender Shouldn't Be Controversial

Op-ed: Teaching Kids About Gender Shouldn't Be Controversial


All parents have a responsibility to teach their children tolerance and respect, instead of hiding from the world's diversity.

Tonight, I am uncomfortable.

It's so difficult to be uncomfortable, and simply let ourselves remain uncomfortable, isn't it?

The more living I do on this planet, the more I realize that escaping our discomfort is responsible for no less than the fall of mankind. Too often it feels easier to find an excuse to be quiet, or to be a clown, or to be bossy and indignant. In fact, the hardest thing any human being can do might simply be to sit in the murky cesspool of discomfort long enough to actually feel it, without numbing our senses in fear. I challenge myself tonight to calmly, and with thoughtful intention, do the next right thing.

Recently, I wrote a letter (see it on the next page) to the director of Elementary Education and superintendent of Cape Henlopen School District in Rehoboth, Delaware. I wanted to be an advocate for a parent and student in crisis, and express my disappointment in the school for allowing parents to opt out of their first-grade childrens' participation in a lesson on acceptance and diversity.

The proposed -- and apparently controversial -- lesson included accepting those who deviate from gender norms. The school's letter home read:


In response to my complaint, I received a call back from one of the recipients of my letter.

Personally, my natural tendency is to avoid conflict. My survival as a child was rooted in the art of avoidance, for fear I'd otherwise get excluded or ignored.

This is essential to explain for context, because I know myself well enough by now to be sure that I can only rock the boat with confidence if I'm being truthful and communicate with integrity, and that includes letting you know that this type of conflict makes me totally freaking uncomfortable.

Having said that, conflict in this case feels much more true to myself than laying down, which only lets fear and ignorance win.

The woman I spoke with could not have been more polite or kind. She thanked me for my letter, and expressed her concerns about keeping children safe and dedicating district efforts to create some kind of curriculum around acceptance and diversity. As I expressed in my letter, I've really had tremendous respect for our district in the past, and have had no reason to quarrel with decisions they've made regarding my children.

But, the district has spoken: Administrators will not be retracting their decision to let children be pulled from the classroom by their parents, should they want to shield kids from stories on accepting others who might not conform to traditional gender roles.

Here's the rub: My children are not involved this time, but far more vulnerable children are. And I know these kids, well.

During the 1999-2000 school year in the cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul, I spent many months in the Youth Homeless Shelters of the area. Not just any homeless shelters -- LGBT homeless shelters. Why the need for such a distinction? Because some queer children originally placed in inclusive shelters were almost beaten to death. Their heads were shoved in toilets. Their hair was cut in their sleep; their eyebrows shaved off while being held down by strangers. Girls were raped for not liking boys. Boys were tortured for being too feminine. God forbid you identified as transgender.

I wrote my Master's thesis on homeless gay kids. Why were they homeless? Because their families had banished them. These kids were some of the kindest, sweetest people I'd ever met, yet they were suffering. I've never been so moved as to know them, and hear their stories.

I was young, 27 years old. Life had been challenging for me, but I had never tasted adversity of this flavor. The kind of battered humanity that lived within the walls of these shelters was ripe with pain, but also with strength. Some as young as 15 years old, these children were beacons of hope as they navigated life without familial support or financial stability. We have much to learn from their struggles.

The district's view of this issue is kind, but it is lacking. When I asked this school official if she would consider the fact that without stepping out of our comfort zones, we probably would never have achieved racial desegregation, rights for the handicapped, or women's suffrage, she listened, but still upheld her policy. When she asked me to kindly pull my letter from Facebook and other social networking sites, I upheld my belief as well. I pondered aloud that if the district was proud to offer up this letter with its integrity intact, then it would have to own it. I am prepared to own mine.

I have two children in middle school who have shared with me the treacherous ground upon which (even suspected) LGBT kids have to tread every day. I'm sure that our district is not unique in this; perhaps it's better than most, but that is not good enough if children are still being shamed, abused, and left to contemplate suicide.

I bring this up to make a very simple point: The only way to safeguard against this type of bullying in older grades is to start young. First-graders have very little God-given malice. My daughter, having been raised in a two-mom household and exposed to the concepts that spawned books like I Am Jazz and Jacob's New Dress, wouldn't blink twice if a boy she knew wore a pink sweater, or purple knee socks. Maybe she would think it odd if a child she knew to be a boy showed up in a dress, but all the more reason to let her know that it's OK. I will certainly be making an effort to do so more, now that I'm reminded.

I'm not sure what will come of all this, and I'm a little scared of making people mad. But I am reminded of the ageless quote by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich: "Well behaved women seldom make history," and I am comforted that in conceiving of such she conjured the lives of Rosa Parks, Christine de Pizan, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Harriet Tubman, and Virginia Woolf. Shall we sit quietly while others suffer? I think not. Shall I move past my own discomfort to confront a polite society that chooses to sidestep people's toes in order to proceed down the path of least resistance?

For me, today, the answer is Yes.

NICOLE J. SACHS, LCSW, is a psychotherapist in private practice on the Eastern Shore of Delaware. Her practice and her book focus on nurturing and guiding people on their journeys of self-discovery. Find out more about her work at

Read Sachs's letter to the school district on the next page.

Nicole Sachs' letter to the school district:

My name is Nicole Sachs, LCSW and I have 5 children in the Cape Henlopen School District, among them 3 at Rehoboth Elementary and 2 at Beacon Middle who once went there. I have been very pleased with the education and services they have all received in our district. As a psychotherapist in private practice and a former school social worker, I am keenly aware of the challenges and joys of working within a public school system, and with few exceptions I have been impressed with the way sensitive issues have been handled by your staff regarding my children and others I have known. I've also been an Art Docent for 4 years, so I've had quite an opportunity to observe the workings of the school first hand, and my son Oliver has been in special education services since he entered in Kindergarten and is doing incredibly well as he rounds out 4th grade.

Having said all of this, I am shocked and quite honestly appalled with a letter (attached) I had the opportunity to read yesterday that was sent home to one of the 1st grade classes at RES. It was penned by Dr. Person, and was regarding an initiative (brought by a concerned parent whose child is being ruthlessly bullied) to improve the environment in our classrooms around gender differences and sensitivity to the needs of potentially transgender kids. In the letter, Dr. Person explains that the school social worker will be entering the classroom in March to read several books about respecting diversity, and not excluding or deriding those who are different. The last paragraph of the letter offers parents the choice to OPT OUT OF THIS EXPERIENCE for their children if they choose, based on, "...respect for the diversity of viewpoints held by our students' families."

I couldn't believe my eyes.

Would it be appropriate for parents to ask that their children be removed from class during the lessons about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.? Would it be our district's position to excuse children from class if they feel uncomfortable around kids who have same-sex parents, and want to discuss their families during show and tell? My daughter Charlotte (also in first grade) brought a family photo album to share with the class when she was the "star of the week." She proudly showed her whole class pictures of her two Moms, and her 4 siblings whom she adores. She also talked about her awesome Daddy, Grandparents, and all of the joys in her life. She spoke of her "family." Char reported to me that it was one of her happiest moments in school, as all of the kids loved seeing her photos so much. I wonder if this is something the Cape District would have preferred to warn parents about, had they known in advance?

Transgender kids are not playing dress-up. They are born that way, in the same way that we all (should and often do) embrace our ethnicities, religions and sexual identities. The mental health and survival of LGBT children is dependent upon being openly understood and embraced by the people with whom we entrust every day to educate them.

I hope that the district will take immediate and serious action in the direction of Diversity Education regarding both the children, teachers AND parents of our district, as clearly there is a lack in all areas as stated by Dr. Person herself. Allowing parents to opt out of this type of education promotes ignorance, and allows otherwise kind people to turn a blind eye to the potential suffering of others. It is my sincere hope that you, as the district with whom I entrust the 5 most cherished things in my life, will ensure that every child is valued and respected.

I look forward to hearing back from you on the steps the district plans to take, in all schools and grades, to rectify this situation, and hopefully save the lives of LGBT children who want simply to be accepted for the skin in which they were born.
Sincerely yours,

Nicole J. Sachs, LCSW

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