Kim and her partner Robin live in Southern Wisconsin in a university town of about 15,000 people. They have two children, Sanibel age 7 and Brennan age 10.
Family Equality Council: We understand that you both have some experience with creating safe & inclusive schools. Can you tell us about your experience?
Kim: When our children started attending public schools it became very clear to us that it was important those places and spaces be a spot where they felt they were welcomed and they belonged and that families like ours were welcomed. So that’s when I really kicked in high gear with this work, Robin on the other hand has been doing this work for years and so I’ll let her tell you a little bit about that.
Robin: So my professional background is that I am an Early Childhood Educator, currently not teaching in Early Childhood but I am an administrator at a university at the College of Education and so I’ve been working on helping the schools to be welcoming of all children. After we had our children it was really important that we made sure that our children’s schools were welcoming to families like ours. We are like many families and we have multiple identities, we are a two mom family with children who are racially diverse. They’re not racially diverse because they simply are who they are, but they are not white like we are and they’re adopted. So we take into consideration all of those identities as we’re thinking of how to make the schools more welcoming for ours kids.
Kim: We’ve been really lucky because the school that our children attended has been really open to learning in terms of what they can do. When we work with this school and as part of my job, I get to work with a lot of other schools, school districts, and administrators, and there’s really four main areas that we tend to focus on in terms of creating inclusive places and spaces for families like ours.
The first is environment. What does the room look like? If you have pictures on the wall, do you have pictures that represent all families or do you only have a picture that has a mom and a dad? All of these sorts of things are really important not just for our family, but for families that have single parents or kids that are being raised by grandparents. There’s very few families that fit that traditional definition of what we use to think about as a family. So environment is key.
The second is language. How do the adults and the children talk in the classroom? Do they use words that are inclusive? Do they say alright boys and girls come on we are going to line up? Well what about the kid that is gender fluid or gender creative or already knows the he or she is transgender. Do they say alright when you go home tell your mom and dad to be sure to sign that form? Things like that. So language is really important.
Another area is the collected works. Do books that you have in the classroom, do they represent all sorts of families or are they just the usual books. For the younger kids in classrooms when they have a toy area or a play area, if they have dolls do they have enough dolls for kids to make families that have two moms or two dads, or do they just have one boy doll? How is that going to work for a kid who has two dads? So language, forms, collected work, and environment are all huge. What we found in most of our experiences is people want to do the right thing, it’s just often they don’t know what that right thing is. It’s hard to know what you don’t know and so you can’t sometimes do that until someone brings it to your attention.
Robin: I think that you mentioned four things and the one that you didn’t explain was forms. I did a dissertation on forms if you could believe it, and how forms make people feel included or excluded, how very quickly families like ours can feel like a school doesn’t understand our lived experience simply by the enrollment form that they have us fill out. So if nothing else, we would encourage all school personal to look at their forms and to change those forms. It shouldn’t read mother and father, and not just for our family as Kim mentioned, but for so many families that don’t fit that old stereotype of what a family is and I am not sure if that stereotype was ever realistic. For generations and generations we’ve had multiple family types raising children. So forms are critical, as Kim and I often say, LGBT folks are the best hunters in the world and we can see a rainbow from a mile away. We know when someone is trying to be welcoming and inclusive. So every single form we give for every single purpose we scrutinize we look at and when we see a form that is inclusive we are always very careful to call whoever developed that form and let them know that it made us feel like we were included and it probably made other people feel like they were included.
I want to go back to one more thing that Kim said about the materials in the classroom. We had an experience, not in our children’s school, but in another school type setting. There were books that had two moms or two dads as characters in the books, and I spent significant time in the classroom, never once did a teacher pick up those books and read them. So in that situation it would’ve been better not to have the books because when I asked our daughter, has anyone read that book or those books, her response was no. Nobody ever read those books but they had read all the other books that were on the book shelf. So that’s also a clear message to our children.
Family Equality Council: Did you ever address that with the teacher or the lead person?
Robin: Yes, it was addressed with the teacher. It was actually addressed with an administrator of the school. The administrator said that she would take care of it – that something would be done – and we never saw anything change.
Kim: You know I think to kind of piggy back on that a little, you talked about LGBTQ being good hunters, so are our children. They look for the same sorts of things that we do, so I would bet that our daughter went into the classroom every day to see if that book was moved, like maybe today is the day she’s going to read it kind of a thing. An example that I could give you with that which doesn’t pertain to a school but rather a hotel that we checked into one time in Downtown Chicago. We had to take an elevator to get to the lobby and as we get to the front desk, at that time she was probably four, our daughter said to the front desk worker, “You really like us here. Thank you.” I looked at her and thought what is she talking about and the front desk clerk just kind of looked at her and said you’re welcome. I said Sanibel, why did you just say that and she said because in the elevator there was a poster of a family that looked like ours. Now I hadn’t seen it but she saw it and she remembered that poster. Whether they meant it to be two moms or not is another story, but that’s how she perceived it and then shared that with the staff there because she knew that it was a place we were welcome. So it’s so important and so critical for the kids to feel like they’re in a place where they cannot just do their stuff, but that they can thrive and they can succeed.
Robin: So several years ago, probably three or four years ago, our older daughter and her two good friends came home with a flyer about the Princess Ball which was a ball for young girls and their fathers. The older children were able to read, they read through it and they proceeded to tear up the pieces of paper, stomp on them, throw them, and talk about how that didn’t include everybody. They were able at that point to articulate that it didn’t include our family because there wasn’t a dad in our family and they were also able to articulate that there were some girls who didn’t look like girls. They were girls on the inside, but appeared to be boys on the outside. They were able to articulate all that. So given that response from our kids, Kim took the lead along with our other straight allies to go to the school and really advocate for change about this long standing Princess Dance that had been happening in our schools for a very long time. It didn’t happen immediately.
Kim: It took two years
Robin: It took two years for the change and quite honestly we didn’t want to go to the ball to begin with, but after they changed it we felt like we had to. It was the most wonderful inclusive situation this past year and people that have been going for years said it was so lovely to see so many more kids out there dancing and enjoying themselves and having a great time. For us, that’s a win. That goes in the win column. It didn’t happen to me, and it took some time for people to understand what we were asking for. Again, it was because we had a whole bunch of allies who were working with us to make this change and the people who put it on made more money because they were more inclusive.
So I think tenacity is important if you are, if parents are in a place where they can be outspoken and feel safe being outspoken on behalf of their kids in the schools, then that’s our responsibility. Kim and I made this family. We have a responsibility to ensure that our kids our feeling welcomed and included in all activities. If that means we have to put ourselves out there a bit, that’s our responsibility to do so, not just for our kids but for all children.
Kim: And that was a great example of how this isn’t just an LGBTQ issue, it’s not just for the kids who are transgender or gender fluid, but for the boys who just wanted to dress up too and go out with their moms. There were single parents there and there were grandma’s there, it was just a really nice reflection of family and so that’s what it’s all about.
Family Equality Council: Who did you talk to about changing the policy? How did you feel seeing that change be implemented even though it took a while? How did your children feel?
Kim: In terms of how we went about getting that activity changed, we started with the group from the high school that put it on. We wrote to their advisor and asked if she would consider opening it up so that it was more inclusive and she said no. Thank you for your contact, but no we’re going to keep it the way it is. That was how I initiated that first contact and then after hearing such a quick no. Some of our ally friends who had gone the year before said well that’s not fair, and even their kids said things like, how come Brennan and Sanibel weren’t here. So then they’re parents wrote to the teacher and said we had such a great time at this event but we would really love if it can be open for everybody because it’s not very inclusive and the answer was pretty much no. So then I was really frustrated because it felt to me it was becoming more of a power struggle versus what’s in the best interest for the kids. That is what our main goal was, to have people feel welcomed and included. So I wrote to the principle of the school and said I tried starting with the advisor of this group, here’s why we think this important. I didn’t get anywhere, I didn’t even get a response. My third attempt at writing was to the district administrator and the entire school board. We received a response that said, “Thank you very much for your concerns. We are hopeful that this event will be able to be inclusive in the future.” Then a couple weeks later we got word that it was changed from the Princess Ball to the Royal Ball.
Robin: I think our children were pleased. Our Sanibel going to any kind of dance where she can shake her grove thing is just always exciting and for Brennan who is much more of an introvert, she had an incredible time. It was a really wonderful event where she felt like she was included because she looked around and there were families that maybe didn’t look like ours, but there was more diversity amongst the families and I think that made her feel very comfortable. We had decided that we would be leaving early because we had had enough, our kids didn’t want to leave so that’s just a great thing.
Again it didn’t happen over night. Kim stuck with it as did our friends who felt strongly about the dance. Change is hard, we understand that, and to change something that has seemed to be successful is challenging. So we appreciated that the school really pushed to make the difference too.
Family Equality Council: Has the school been more inclusive? Have your children experienced any bullying or discrimination because of your family dynamic?
Kim: We’ve been very lucky. I think it was three years ago, I met with the principal of our children’s school and told them that I would like to volunteer to come in to do training for staff on creating an inclusive environment in the school. I think at the time that principal is no longer in that position, but giving the nicer answer he said oh that would be great let me do some checking and let you know. Weeks went by and months went by and then it was, well I need to check and get permission from our District Administrator. So then a little bit more time went by, then the District Administrator wanted to meet with me to understand exactly what it was I was going to be doing training on. So you know I provided an outline and talked about the things that were important, especially as it relates to families like ours. What I was hoping for them to understand is that although we’re a fairly small town in comparison, in our school, which is one of three elementary schools in our community and then there is a middle school and a high school, I would probably estimate that I know maybe twenty or twenty five percent of the families who attend just our one school. I said it takes both hands for me to count families that have some sort of LGBTQ diversity within them. So if that’s just twenty percent of one of your five schools, this is really something I would expect you would want all of your teachers and administrators to be well versed on. So we met, had a great meeting and then again it was one of those things that didn’t happen over night, but last year I provided three different trainings and of the five principles, four of them were in attendance. It was just really positive for me. We had a number of teachers who were in attendance, some of the other staff within the school who have professional roles and work with the children were also in attendance. It was really a good experience and subsequently I had a number of follow up requests.
Robin: So, regarding any sort of discrimination that we or our children have encountered because of the fact that we are an LGBT family, I really can’t pinpoint anything. Again, we live in a small community, we both lived here for a long time before we had children. We are both very involved in the schools, whether the schools want us there or not, we’re there. So I think that in part makes a difference. I go into the children’s classrooms and volunteer or just show up to read you know. It’s nothing for me to be reading a book and then for a child to raise they’re hand and say, “how can Sanibel have two moms.” I’ll say she does and your family is this and I know this family is this way, the make up over here, you know and then the next questions is do you like peanut butter. So it’s that idea of it simply is. We don’t need people to approve of it or disapprove of it the same way you don’t have to disapprove or approve that I like peanut butter. In some ways just us being very present in the school I think makes it less likely that kids use hurtful words against our children, but we are not naive enough to believe that it won’t happen.
As our daughter moves into middle school, that’s a very different time right, having two moms in elementary school is cool, like our kids are kind of cool because they have two moms because they think moms are cool. So when Brennan moves on to middle school that will change. She will be engaged with kids from two other elementary schools who haven’t known her her whole life and haven’t known us. The kids are figuring out all kinds of things about themselves and so often times it’s easy to pick on the kid who’s got something different, whether it be having two moms or wearing the wrong shoes. So again, we are not naive to believe that it won’t happen but we have tried to help our kids to have tools to negotiate that kind of thing. So you know a question like somebody asking Brennan why do you have two moms, you could use humor and say why don’t you have two moms. Giving her some tools so when it does happen, and it will happen, she can handle it in a way that feels most comfortable to her.
Kim: And I think sometimes as adults we overthink things, an example of that was when Brennan was in second grade. I brought pizzas in her class to celebrate her birthday and she couldn’t really care less that I was there but a lot of her friends were excited to be sitting around me. There was this one little girl who I didn’t know sitting across the table from me and she’s looking at me, and she says after a few minutes of starring me up and down, she says “Who are you?” I say, “I am Brennan’s mom.” She said, “No you’re not Brennan’s mom, I know Brennan’s mom.” I said, “Oh you know Brennan’s other mom but Brennan has two moms.” She said, “What?” I said, “Brennan has two moms and she said what about a dad?” I said “No, no dad, in our family our kids have two moms.” She said “Alright two moms, but where is Brennan’s dad,” and I said “Not all families have a dad and our family doesn’t, it has two moms,” and I went through this whole explanation, like some families have a mom and a dad, some families have two dads, some kids our raised by grandma or grandpa, you know I’m going through this whole long list. And one of Brennan’s friends who has been to our house a number of times said, ugh “They’re gay! I should know, I’ve had sleepover’s there.” And I was like mortified and all she said was “oh okay.” So like if I had just said that from the beginning I wouldn’t have to make my long drawn out explanation about families. And then we moved on to can you pass the pepperoni pizza or something, so I think that’s an important thing for us to remember we sometimes over think things. We bring in some of our own perhaps homophobia or heteronormativity into what we do with our kids when we’re in a setting that isn’t our home or aren’t our comfort zone like public schools.
Robin: I think that’s a tricky balance, it’s the balance between not giving too much information and never having the discussion. Teachers have said to me, I don’t want to bring up the idea of a two mom family because the kids in my class have never talked about it or brought it up. My response is, I never asked anybody about Algebra but teachers thought that was important enough to talk to me about, so I think we have to have a balance. Just because children don’t ask questions in schools doesn’t mean they don’t have questions, especially if folks like us show up at a teacher’s classroom. Children will have questions, they may not feel comfortable enough to articulate them depending on how the teacher is embracing the family. If the teacher seems to not embrace the family and welcome them, then the children will be less likely to ask questions of that teacher and that’s when parents or somebody has to step in. You know we don’t want to make parents feel like they have to do a presentation on this is what a lesbian family looks like with a PowerPoint and a bunch of rainbow stickers, because that’s also not fair. We need to rely on our allies because sometimes it’s not safe or even comfortable to go in and talk to children about your family. That could be true for straight couples, or anybody, that’s just a hard thing to do so there are lots of people in the community who can do that kind of work. You can seek out people who this is their whole’s life work, changing the environment at schools. So parents shouldn’t be like they have to do all this work on their own, teachers shouldn’t feel like they have to do all this work on their own. It’s a group effort, but sometimes it takes one person to initiate that process. Family Equality Council: Have you had any other hurdles in regards to inclusivity at your children’s school?
Robin: I would say one thing that has been challenging is helping people to understand issues related to adoption, so children who have been adopted. Language is important and feeling included is important. Teachers and school folks need to know that they’re only privy to the information that families choose to share with the school personal. I think many of the families in the LGBT community have been formed through adoption, and I feel like a lot of the things that concern me have more to do with adoption than having two moms at least at this point. It’s also a challenge for people to understand that children who’ve been adopted might have different needs than children who were not adopted and every child has a different story on how they came into a family if it is through adoption. I look forward to schools and school personal having a better understanding about curriculum, language, forms, questions, and activities that could be hurtful or harmful to a child who has been adopted. Family Equality Council: Really briefly, let’s discuss marriage equality. Where were you on the day of the decision? How did you feel?
Kim: Oh, the day that the Supreme Court issued their ruling was a little bit ironic because we knew it was coming, Thursday, Friday, or Monday. Two years ago when DOMA was struck down, we knew it was coming and I was really excited. I was home with the kids, two years ago, and Robin was up in Minneapolis for a work conference and so we were not able to be together two years ago when the ruling came down. I celebrated with the kids and skyped with Robin that night.
Just a few weeks ago when nationwide marriage equality passes, Robin was home with the kids and I was up in the twin cities. So once again, we weren’t together to be able to hear that news as a family and be sort of in the moment throughout that whole thing as a family. For me personaly, that was really hard, there was nobody I wanted to be with more than Robin and the kids on that day. Having said that, I was in the twin cities for pride with a group of families like ours. So one of my dear friends quickly worked to put together a family party that night so we had about eighty folks show up at this park in Minneapolis. We gayed up that gazebo in no time and there were rainbow flags and all kinds of fun stuff for the kids. We had pizza and we celebrated so it was a great opportunity, if I couldn’t be with my family that was the great second best.
Robin: And I was at work when it happened and I work in a really wonderfully inclusive college of education and professional studies. When good things happen we ring a cow bell, because we’re in Wisconsin, and so the cow bells were ringing all up and down the hall of the administrative wing. My dean is a wonderfully supportive person who actually sued the state of Wisconsin for the right to marry her partner and so we both burst into tears, gave each other big hugs, and then she left because having been in a lawsuit here in Wisconsin she was about to do lots of interviews. That night I drove myself and the kids to see my parents, my parents were thrilled and excited. That night before we fell asleep Sanibel turned to me and she said so what this means is that everybody in the country can get married, so if there are two moms, or two dads, or a mom and a dad they get to get married. I said yes, and she fell asleep with a smile on her face.