I celebrate the opportunity to be a queer educator

We need an early childhood LGBTQIA+ support program

AS OUR PRESCHOOL year comes to a close this August, the children are taking turns leading their peer group during project time.  One child orchestrated a Beyoncé dance party, another taught their peers about ventriloquism with our fuzzy animal puppets, and yet another opted to lead a walk through our neighborhood.  They chose the route, checked to make sure that their peers were holding hands while crossing the street, and called out “water break!” for a rest in the shade.

Young children can lead us to some incredible places if we are simply willing to follow, and I do not take these small opportunities at connection for granted. A child’s invitation to witness their active world-building is truly a gift. And that is really what the core work of early childhood is: world-building through self-reflection and trusting relationships. I am doubly fortunate in that I am trusted by my students and by my school community, where all parts of my identity are not just tolerated or accepted, but embraced.

I am queer, and this is not an easy time to be a queer educator in the US. The past few years have seen a steep rise in hateful rhetoric by a small but vocal and increasingly organized minority. The epithet “groomer,” a new slur based on a tired and very old stereotype, is being tossed at any adult who supports LGBTQ+ rights, but is especially damaging when directed at those of us who work with children.  There are those who insist that talking about LGBTQ+ identities radicalizes children, when all of the data tells us that the true risk lies in denying children access to information and support that validates their full sense of self and belonging.

I barely survived that risk. I spent years of my life feeling like I was performing some misshapen version of gender that never felt valid or real, leading to feelings of isolation, clinical depression, anxiety, and even suicidal thoughts. I had some incredible teachers, but I never once had a queer teacher who was out, nor came across any curriculum that represented LGBTQIA+ identities in a positive light. I was surrounded by unchallenged anti-LGBTQIA+ sentiment from peers and school staff daily, so it is no wonder that it took me so long to understand and accept myself. What an incredible gift it is to be able to spare my students that same struggle, and to offer daily representation of gender expansiveness in a school that has been welcoming and embracing queer identities and families since it opened over a decade ago.

Across the country, openly queer educators are facing even greater professional and personal risks as anti-LGBTQIA+ activists disrupt school board meetings and seek to oust literature, art, and actual teachers from our classrooms as if our very presence in children’s lives is corruptive. Not all teachers and students are as lucky as we are at our school. I teach in one of the most liberal parts of Massachusetts, yet even here queer colleagues with young children were recently doxxed and harassed online and at their home.

In this openly hostile climate, doing nothing is not an option. Massachusetts already has some great programs in place to support LGBTQIA+ students and teachers in grades K-12, but we also need an early childhood equivalent from birth-5 years old. Queer families have newborn babies in care, and gender-identity development happens between the ages of 3-5 years old.

Just as the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary education partnered with the Massachusetts Commission on LGBTQ Youth to create The Safe Schools Program, the Department of Early Education and Care must create a similar initiative in collaboration with the same commission.  This new initiative can serve as a model for similar programs nationwide.   It is vitally important that early childhood professionals have access to adequate professional development opportunities and supports in order to engage families and young children in inclusive ways.

Our preschool has marched in our city’s pride parade for many years. Students create signs based on the prompt, “What should we tell people about love?” With bold lettering and splashes and spills of bright colors, the kids lead us straight through downtown carrying their messages: “Everyone can come join,” ”You can be anything you want,” “I love you,” “All families need love,” “YES.”

Every day at my school, I celebrate the opportunity to be a queer educator in a place where I can be my full self. My students and I will keep marching, painting, planting, and actively building the kind of world in which more queer children, families, and educators can find the kind of school community we all need and deserve. I challenge our policymakers to do the same.

Suzanne Stillinger is an early childhood teacher leader and accessibility coordinator at New Village Preschool in Northampton. She is a 2023-2024 Teach Plus Senior Writing Fellow.