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As more children of openly homosexual parents reach school age, educators are awakening to the issues facing these young people, who say they are no different from their peers.

Outside Nevada City, Calif.

On the banks of Lake Vera, children stand around a crackling campfire, arms outstretched as they roast marshmallows on sticks. The deep croak of a bullfrog resonates across the lake. A crisp nighttime breeze circulates through the majestic, decades-old ponderosa pines. Stars sparkle in the cobalt-blue sky.

"See," says 12-year-old Lizzy Seaburg as she lifts her stick from the fire and approaches a visitor. "The children of gay people are just like other children. We eat marshmallows just like other kids." Gesturing as she speaks, Lizzy pokes a friend in the arm with the skewer. "We have accidents, too."

Lizzy, who lives in California with her two mothers, is one of 37 youths here at Camp Lavender Hill, the nation's first summer camp for the children of gay and lesbian parents. Set on 82 acres in the Sierra Nevada foothills, the weeklong camp has drawn children as young as 7 since its inception in 1994.

Because all the campers have at least one homosexual parent and all the counselors are either homosexual or come from families with a gay parent, Camp Lavender Hill is a refuge, a place where the children don't worry about what their classmates, friends, teachers, neighbors, or other relatives think of their families.

Helping Hands

Some advocacy groups have been successful in bringing into schools and communities programs and other efforts to help the children of gay and lesbian parents:

  • San Francisco's Lesbian and Gay Parents Association has produced a 10-minute videotape of young children with homosexual parents talking about their families, how their teachers discuss family issues, and what it's like to hear anti-gay slurs on the playground. "Both My Moms' Names Are Judy" and "It's Elementary"--a feature-length documentary from last year by Academy Award-winning director Debra Chasnoff that explores how six schools successfully incorporate gay issues, including gay families, into the classroom--are used as training tools. About 1,200 copies of the videotape have been purchased by schools, churches, and other community groups.
  • Bonnie Tinker, a lesbian and the founder of Love Makes a Family, a gay families' group, hosts a two-hour radio program each week in Portland, Ore., to discuss issues relating to sexual-minority families. She is also a member of a Portland public schools advisory group on alternative families.
  • The Family Diversity Project in Amherst, Mass., distributes a traveling photo exhibit of families headed by gay and lesbian parents. Since 1995, nearly 50 schools have shown the controversial exhibit.
  • The Center Kids family program of the Lesbian and Gay Community Services Center in New York City includes 2,200 parents who work with local schools so that gay and lesbian issues, including households with homosexual parents, are not ignored.

"It's the most glorious place I've ever been," says Leonard Simp, 17, who lives with his brother and lesbian mother. "I can come here and be totally, completely open. Gay people don't necessarily make better parents; there are plenty of crappy children here. But at least you can be open with them."

Lizzy and Leonard are part of a trend: More and more people who are openly homosexual are raising children. Gay parenting is most evident in large cities where the concentration of gay men and lesbians is high, but experts say school officials across the country--as well as Little League coaches, Girl Scout leaders, and Sunday school instructors--should no longer assume that all children under their watch come from families with heterosexual mothers and fathers.

"It's very new," says Ben Stilp, the communications director for the Lesbian and Gay Community Center in New York City. "Gay parenting is a new concept. 'Coming out' has been around for a couple of decades, but gay parenting has surfaced only in the past few years. And that prompts the question of what to do with the children."

Some school districts have begun addressing the issue by enacting "safe schools" policies that prohibit anti-gay harassment, providing teacher training on alternative family structures, and incorporating information on diverse families into their school curricula. Where districtwide policies have not been implemented, gay parent-advocates have sought to make sure that schools acknowledge different kinds of families in the classroom and provide a safe environment for their children.

"This is going to happen at a different pace all around the country, in different cities and districts, depending upon the demographics," says Charlotte Patterson, a developmental psychologist at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville who has studied the children of gay parents. "There is strength in numbers, and in cities where more parents feel comfortable coming out, schools will move quicker."

Conservative groups, meanwhile, are beginning to mobilize against the acknowledgment in classrooms of gay-led families. In a fund-raising letter distributed this summer, Beverly LaHaye, the head of the Washington-based Concerned Women for America, said her group had "uncovered an aggressive new national campaign to put an extremely dangerous pro-homosexual video in every school in America."

What she referred to was the documentary "It's Elementary," which explores how schools discuss gay issues and gay families in the classroom.

Throughout history, homosexual men and women have raised children in traditional heterosexual marriages. But with the emergence of the gay-rights movement in the 1970s, many married homosexuals "came out of the closet" and began living openly gay lives. Those with families often divorced but maintained relationships with their children.

Conservative groups, meanwhile, are beginning to mobilize against the acknowledgement in classrooms of gay-led families.

In the mid-1980s, however, some homosexuals, particularly lesbians, began adopting children or conceiving them through artificial insemination in what has become known in the gay community as the "gaybee boom." Today, there are an estimated 1 million to 5 million lesbian mothers, 1 million to 3 million gay fathers, and 6 million to 14 million children in the United States with at least one homosexual parent, according to an article published in Pediatric Review in 1994, the latest study of its kind.

Not surprisingly, schools in San Francisco--the home of one of the world's largest and most visible gay communities--have been at the forefront in addressing the phenomenon of gay parents.

"There are more and more children of gay parents in schools. A lot of these kids are in 3rd and 4th grade and below, and more are on the way," says Kevin R. Gogin, the director of support services for gay and lesbian youths for the San Francisco school district. "A lot of schools are working as we did, first supporting the kids who are coming out themselves. As we deal with them, these questions about families keep coming up." After first working with gay students, he said, "the next logical step is the children of gay and lesbian parents."

In 1990, the San Francisco district created Gogin's office to provide support services for homosexual youths. In addition to offering direct services, such as counseling, the office conducts teacher training on family diversity and produces lessons on homophobia.

The office's resource and curriculum guide for teachers and administrators includes, for example, a lesson that asks students to draw pictures of their families and paste their own photograph on the drawing. The guide recommends that students be taught that diversity means "many differences" and that a family is "a unit of two or more persons, related either by birth or by choice, who may or may not live together, who try to meet each other's needs and share common goals and interests."

Then last year, the school board expanded the scope of its activities, calling for issues related to homosexuality to be integrated "across disciplines, specifically social studies, language arts, and science."

Elsewhere in California, the San Diego school district requires all its employees to undergo a two-hour workshop on sexual-orientation discrimination, focusing largely on families headed by homosexuals.

So far, teachers at 85 of San Diego's 165 schools have gone through the training. The session includes a presentation by a gay or lesbian parent, a discussion about anti-gay slurs, and the presentation of research about children growing up in gay households.

"The children of gay people are just like other children."

Lizzy Seaburg

"After the training session, we always ask the teachers to fill out a form asking what they learned, and almost all of the elementary school teachers said it never occurred to them that some of their students are the children of gay or lesbian parents," says Jan Garbosky, San Diego's testing-unit program manager, who's involved with the training.

Neither San Diego nor San Francisco offers specific services for the children of gay and lesbian parents. But parents and gay-rights advocates say what is important for the children is recognition of their families in the classroom and sensitivity by teachers to alternative family structures. How teachers use their training and instructional materials differs by teacher and school.

But recognition of gay families is far from widespread. Representatives of the National Education Association, the American Federation of Teachers, the National PTA, and the National Association of Elementary School Principals, for example, say the matter has not surfaced in their organizations on a national level.

That, of course, is the very notion behind Camp Lavender Hill, where many of the campers are from the San Francisco Bay area, though some come from other parts of California and as far away as Seattle.

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