As a queer Black and Latinx woman, I had the privilege of doing my queer coming of age in my twenties, in Queer People Of Color and radical queer spaces in New York City. I was welcomed and mentored by QPOC who were patient and kind, who allowed me to figure myself out, while modeling queerness and Blackness wrapped up in their activism and revolutionary love for each other and their communities. I am forever indebted and grateful to the folks who put up with me as a baby queer.
As a queer teacher, the explicit affirmation of queerness by the Black Lives Matter Movement speaks to me in its support of me personally, but, more importantly, its support of my students and their families. I teach young children, and they come from a variety of families, with grownups who identify in many ways. I need to be able to talk about families without making heteronormative assumptions about family structure, and I need my schools to support me when I talk to children about their “grown ups,” instead of their “mommies and daddies.” I – and all teachers – need my schools to support my children: as very young children, and as they grow up and begin to do the work of identifying themselves and their desires.
Young children love to play at being grown ups. They spend hours playing “family,” and their play often mirrors the world they see around them. When a child who has two dads (or two moms!) wants to have two dads (or moms) in their game, other children may be confused, at first. My job is to support their understanding of the idea of family as being expansive. “Some families have two dads, or two moms, or one dad, or one mom, or a grandparent, or an aunt or uncle,” I often say. “If you both want to be the dad, that can work out.” Children have limited experience in the world, and look to the adults they trust for information, and to validate their lived experience. If I’m not supported by my school in an expansive definition of family, then the children whose families don’t fit the supposed “norm” can feel erased. This is the antithesis our work as educators: we need to offer our children mirrors of their lived experiences, as well as windows into the experiences of others. When I support a child’s family structure, I am offering that child a valuable mirror, while simultaneously offering a window to other children; together, these experiences form the building blocks of empathy.
I have been fortunate enough to always work in schools where, even if the administration did not explicitly support an expansive definition of family, I knew I would not get in trouble for explaining that people love all different kinds of people, and that boys often love boys, and girls often love girls. Ideally, with supports like the kind the BLM movement would like to see in our schools, all teachers would have the support to explain to their children that who you love doesn’t have to be based on gender, and certainly doesn’t have to be someone whose gender is different from yours.
Another way children like to play at being grownups is by declaring, “I’m going to marry you!” to their friends. I always take care to explain to children that getting married is a grownup decision that they will make (or not make) when they are grownups. We have lovely conversations about how to more precisely explain your feelings for your classmates; I also navigate questions like, “Can boys marry boys?” Though this question has declined precipitously in the past five years, it still comes up; children are not always exposed to images of queer families.
Queer families often look different from the images of families children are shown on television or see in books.
A queer family might have two moms, or two dads.
Maybe there were once two moms who lived in one home together with their children, but now each home has one mom, and the kids have two homes.
Maybe there were once two dads for a child and her sibling, but now there are three. Perhaps there was a mom and a dad, but now dad is a mom, so there are two moms.
Maybe there is a mom and a dad, and a special uncle or titi.
Maybe there are lots of grownups, who have different names and honorifics, who are all part of the family, who live in the same home, or come to family dinner, or pick kids up at school.
These are all possibilities, and each time I mention a different kind of family, all the children in my class get a window into another person’s lived experience. If I’m lucky, I’m providing at least one child with a mirror, an acknowledgement that they are not alone, that their family isn’t weird, that there are others of us out there. I might be the only person providing these windows and mirrors, and there is no shortage of research suggesting that it is a critical job of educators and literature to provide children with both mirrors and windows.
Intersectionality is at the heart of my lived experience, whether in or out of the classroom. I benefit from both a loving birth family and chosen family, and I speak about my experiences in both in my classroom. The thirteen principles of the BLM movement are ideals which, when I am allowed to work in places that support them, uplift my teaching. Feeling safe in my queerness, knowing that my sexuality is protected and celebrated by my workplace, allows me to be the best possible teacher for my students. I have the privilege of experiencing this in my day-to-day life; the BLM movement envisions a time when all teachers are allowed this privilege.
Laleña Garcia is a queer kindergarten teacher hailing from Brooklyn. She began teaching in NYC in 2000, and has worked with threes through eight-year-olds, though she loves kindergarten best. When she’s not giving young children the tools they need to resolve conflicts and smash patriarchy, she enjoys knitting, surfing, and hanging upside down doing aerial yoga. An activist both in and out of the classroom, you can find Laleña surfing at the Rockaways, zooming around Brooklyn on her beloved bicycle, and helping wrangle children at protests with the Rude Mechanical Orchestra.