Addressing the pink elephant in the classroom

Teaching respect and tolerance for each other’s choice is all it takes

Children were asked if it bothered them that they all pick different sweets; a simple way of explaining tolerance. Photograph: iStock

Children were asked if it bothered them that they all pick different sweets; a simple way of explaining tolerance. Photograph: iStock


How do you explain the LGBT community to children? This is the question that can unnerve parents. When issues we think are strictly adult and are being put to children, we can get anxious.

Why do kids need to know about all these things so early?

Is this the PC brigade gone mad?

Can’t we just let kids be kids?

Often, this concern isn’t driven by insensitivity or homophobia, but parents worrying that what they’ve heard or experienced of treatment of the LGBT community is not suitable for children.

The fact of the matter is that a school curriculum is only as effective as the society it reflects. Education should help children navigate the world around them and make sense of it all.

And the fact is the LGBT community make up part of that world.

Gay people are no longer works of fiction. We are pillars of many communities around the world. We are your TDs and your doctors, your teachers and your scientists, your plumbers and your shopkeepers.

We can be just as interesting and, admittedly, as boring as anyone else. What many people get heated up about the age-appropriateness of LGBT issues is the sole focus of sexuality. When in reality, one of the fundamental lessons to be learned about the LGBT community, is about respect. And respect is something that has no age requirement.

School experiences matter

I was 12 in primary school when I was first called gay. I remember it so strongly because of how annoyed and upset I was at hearing it.

I didn’t look back and say, well, actually now that you mention it, yes I am, because no one in class actually knew what it meant back then. The ’90s didn’t have the visibility we have now.

But from the context it was being thrown about in class, we assumed it fell somewhere between the lines of annoying, bad and absolutely terrible.

Rain on PE day? That was gay.

Surprise spelling tests were also gay.

Homework, we all agreed as a class, was super gay.

In secondary school, while the word stayed the same, the intent amplified. You were singled out for your difference. Gay was shouted at you before school, during class, on the way home from the bus, left unchallenged by teachers within earshot.

It was carved into your locker door and graffitied on your year book picture. It was used as a weapon against you.

Those three little letters were terrifying growing up.

When I eventually came out as gay much later in life, I had a profound realisation that I had grown up in a world, or rather a school environment, where gay was reinforced and unchallenged as something abhorrently awful.

Which, in turn, made me feel awful for a very long time.

Addressing the pink elephant in the room

So how do we approach this area in an appropriate way? Firstly, to address the most common cause of concern for parents around the LGBT community – will hearing about LGBT topics make my child gay?


Your child learning about the LGBT+ community will not make them any more or less gay, straight or otherwise, than they already are. These lessons do not make children gay no more than the current lessons make people straight.

It will, however, equip them with facts instead of growing up with assumptions, myths or stereotypes. It will allow them to know about different people in their community.

And lastly, if your child might happen to be gay, it will give them so much peace of mind knowing their place in the world is supported by their community.

Implicit teaching – modelling positive behaviour

A teaching lecturer of mine once shared with us a simple example of how to teach a second class about diversity.

She brought in a box of Celebration sweets, and let her class pick out their favourite, one by one. When everyone was done, she asked the class what they had noticed.

“We all picked our favourite sweets,” they answered.

“And?” she asked.

The class spent a long time trying to figure out where this was going. We did too. They were just sweets after all.

“Everyone picked different ones?” was the eventual conclusion.

“Great! Does that bother anyone that we all picked different sweets?”

The class laughed at how silly she sounded. We laughed in the lecture hall hearing it too. She did sound silly. But she asked it again.

“Why would it?” they answered.

Flash forward to the lecture hall, and we as trainee-teachers argued it can’t be that easy. Especially in Irish schools, where the Catholic ethos puzzled us on how we could teach about certain things which may or may not go against our contracts of employment.

Teaching diversity, she said, was not solely sexuality, but rather the importance of celebrating our differences. And that is a common goal everyone can get behind.

The first thing that helps children figure out difference and respect is realising everyone else’s choices has little to no impact on them. Using their own language, the children realised that everyone can still be friends at the end of the day.

Modelling the behaviour in something “so simple”, she said, lets them tease out the idea without adults getting too embarrassed or caught up in the appropriateness of what’s being talked about.

Sexuality wasn’t talked about. Respecting difference was. When the teacher moves on to more concrete examples, the children will know where to take the conversation.

Explicit explanations

I’m not advocating sweets as a remedy. But it’s a simple example of how children can, when given the opportunity, model positive behaviour without explicitly being told what they’re talking about.

As children grow up, they might need more clear explanations. Why does that family have two mammies? What does LGBTQIA actually stand for? What is Pride about? Do I know anyone who is gay?

The INTO’s LGBT Teacher Group has some great resources online under Different Families, Same Love.

Launched in 2015, its aim is to help support teachers to effectively implement the Anti-Bullying Procedures, with strategies to address homophobic and transphobic bullying.

One part which I particularly think would be useful for parents is a glossary of terms and class-appropriate explanations to use in explaining the LGBT community to children.

Additionally, there are lesson plans and questions to use at home, which covers the issues in an appropriate, open way.

Respect is a simple concept to forget

Many parents don’t realise they are already amazing allies to the LGBT community, promoting respect through their own behaviour. Parents who work with schools to create an inclusive environment for children, reflecting the truly diverse society Ireland has.

To those who feel it’s still inappropriate to teach this truth, they tend to forget there are children in the classrooms across the country who are still hearing that gay means terrible and it is unchallenged, when that’s simply not true.

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