Raising LGBTQ Allies – an interview with Chris Tompkins
After Chris Tompkins had been out of the closet for almost 15 years—and dedicated his life to LGBTQ advocacy work—his 6-year-old nephew, David, asked if the woman next to him at a family function was his girlfriend.
Chris wondered, how could he not know that I was gay? So, in 2015, he wrote his family a letter to address a conversation he realized they weren’t having.
Raising LGBTQ Allies, by Chris Tompkins, started as this letter, and that letter became an article first published on HuffPost titled “Messages From the Playground: Healing Homophobia Before it Begins and Preventing Bullying Before it Starts,” a TEDx talk, a workshop, and a presentation that led to Chris working at Los Angeles Central Juvenile Hall to help support LGBTQ incarcerated youth.
Q. Hi, Chris. I’m James, and I would love to be able to share some of your lessons around social-emotional learning. Could you touch on what that actually is?
A. Social-emotional learning helps young people learn how to identify their feelings. It also helps them discover their strengths and gives them awareness around where in their life they could use more support. We all need support, but for a lot of young people, they don’t know how to ask because of fear, shame, or stigma. We were all young once and can relate to the challenges we experienced while in school. Even if our school experience was a good one, there’s a lot of societal pressure for young people to not appear “weak.” Many of the youth I’ve worked with feel as though they need to have it figured out and if they don’t, then something must be wrong with them. For example, I’ll never forget the first class I taught where a young man shared that he lived in a motel room with his parents and five siblings. He told our class that being able to talk honestly about how difficult it was for him to even find enough privacy to do his homework helped him feel less stressed. Having social-emotional learning classes or curriculum alongside standard academic lessons allows students the ability to learn while teaching them self-regulating skills for when school, or life, gets challenging.
Q. Is this something that isn’t currently present in the education of most kids?
A. Similarly to LGBTQ-affirming school curriculum, each school, district, and state is different. It also depends on whether the school is private, public, a charter school, etc. The good news is that there has been an increase in the amount of schools interested in social-emotional learning curriculums over the years. One of the things that motivated me to write my book is that while social-emotional learning is more common now than it has been in the past, many of the learning plans are written from a heteronormative lens. After six years of teaching social-emotional learning and having to rewrite curriculum to incorporate LGBTQ-related classroom examples, I wrote a book that not only can help raise LGBTQ allies, but it does so using a social-emotional framework.
Q. As a parent, I’ve had many conversations with my daughter about how everyone can love everyone but is it that simple?
A. That’s really wonderful and I love that you said you’ve had “many conversations.” One of the things I invite parents and caregivers to consider is that this isn’t a “one time” or a “one-size-fits-all” conversation. It’s an ongoing conversation that will change and look different depending on the context and child’s age. And unfortunately, it’s not enough to tell children that everyone can love everyone. While I believe it’s true and it’s a value that I wish more parents and caregivers could instill in their children, we live in a homophobic and transphobic society. What’s more, heteronormativity (the attitude that heterosexuality is the only normal and natural expression of sexuality) is pervasive. It’s conscious and it’s unconscious. It’s in the water we drink and it’s in the air we breathe.
It’s not possible to be socialized in a dominant heteronormative culture and not pick up heteronormative, or homophobic and transphobic, beliefs. Even children who are raised in affirming households can internalize negative messages about gender and sexual identity differences.
What’s more, most parents and caregivers automatically, conscious or unconscious, assume children are heterosexual and cisgender (when a person’s gender identity matches the sex they were assigned at birth). And while the majority of the population is heterosexual and cisgender (statistically speaking), there is much to be said about the spectrum of gender and sexuality.
With regard to gender, I think it’s important for parents, caregivers, and teachers to pay attention to the ways in which we can unknowingly perpetuate gender stereotypes. I started having conversations with my nieces and nephews about gender differences when they were six and they understood. I also affirmed that it’s okay for them to like activities that not everyone else of the same gender does.
By having ongoing conversations we can help young people challenge heteronormativity. We also help instill a sense of autonomy in how children want to express themselves naturally. Not because of how they think they should be based on the dominant heteronormative and gendered messages they get every day.
Q. Here in Vancouver, we’re fortunate to be surrounded by a wide variety of cultures, genders, and orientations, which has led to many learning opportunities. From how it’s important to be the person you feel you really are, to love who you want, to celebrating different religions, holidays, and observances. For some, starting that kind of conversation can feel uncomfortable, do you have any advice?
A. Vancouver sounds like a wonderful place to live! It’s definitely on my list of cities to visit. I really appreciate this question because having open and honest conversations with young people can feel really scary sometimes…for many reasons. Sometimes it’s because we don’t know what to say. Other times it’s because we don’t want to get it wrong or say something that could be offensive. The world is changing at a rapid pace and it can feel overwhelming, especially as parents, to keep up with everything. One of the best pieces of advice I ever received when it comes to having conversations with young people is to stay focused on keeping open, not on keeping up. Be willing to have conversations. I find in my own life that when I tell myself I’m willing to do something, it somehow becomes easier to begin. I also recommend books. Encouraging young people to read is its own gift, but gifting LGBTQ-related books is one of my favorite gifts to give. Especially when it comes to helping families navigate conversations around gender and sexuality. In Chapter 10 of my book I share LGBTQ children’s books by age range. A few of my favorites are: I Am Jazz, Red: A Crayon’s Story, Not Every Princess, Jacob’s New Dress, the Different Dragon (even though the title includes the word, “different”), And Tango Makes Three.
Q. The old ‘where do babies come from?’ question can be one that people tend to avoid. When do you think this should be answered and in how much detail? What about when it comes to LGBTQ+ relationships?
A. A good measure of when to answer the “where do babies come from” question is when children ask. I often tell parents and caregivers that if children are asking the questions, they are old enough to learn the answers. There are, of course, age-appropriate ways of answering, but a child’s curiosity is usually a good indication that they’re ready. Being able to discuss gender and sexuality with our children at a young age is a sort of modern mea culpa for the years we’ve forced LGBTQ youth to develop in the closet. It helps to remove societal, cultural, familial, and religious shame, as well as transform misguided beliefs about people who are LGBTQ.
A common misconception from parents is that talking to children at a young age about gender and sexuality will result in experimentation—which research shows is untrue. Having conversations with children at a young age helps them to see gender and sexuality as sacred. It teaches them to respect, honor, and value their gender and sexuality. Regardless of our beliefs or opinions on the matter, each and every human being on the planet has a gender and sexual identity. By talking about them, we take away the shame each of us carries about gender and sexuality—gay, straight, asexual, transgender, male, female, or non-binary.
Q. Schoolyard bullying is, sadly still very common. Do you have any advice for someone who is either a bully and making fun of another child? Or for the child who is being bullied?
A. You’re right, bullying, unfortunately, is still very common. It’s also one of the reasons I wrote my book—to prevent bullying before it begins. In fact, I have an entire section in Chapter 6 of my book dedicated to bully prevention. It was inspired by one of the social-emotional learning classes I’ve taught over the past six years. Whenever I talk to youth about bullying, I always tell them that no one wakes up in the morning and says, “I feel so happy today that I want to make someone else feel bad about themselves.” If someone is a bully, it’s because they’re in pain themselves. This isn’t to condone poor behavior, it’s to help shed a light on how parents and caregivers can help prevent their children from bullying. In the twelve steps of Alcoholics Anonymous, step 9 includes making amends. Sometimes we aren’t able to personally make amends with the people we’ve wronged from our past. But I believe we still can. If there’s a young person out there who has ever been the bully, I would invite them to write a letter of apology to the person or situation. After they write the letter, they can either give it to the person or they can dispose of it entirely. Sometimes saying sorry could do more harm than good. The important thing is to energetically make amends. I would also invite them to write a letter of forgiveness to themselves. Acts of forgiveness are impactful in more ways than we can ever know. If there’s a young person getting bullied, I would recommend for them to tell someone and get help. Ultimately, having systems in place at home, in schools, and on playgrounds will help us to not only empower youth but also prevent bullying. It also prevents the negative effects of shame from continuing to cause harm in the lives of young people.
Q. Any last lessons you’d like to share?
A. Ultimately, my message is simple: do the work yourself and always keep an open and honest dialogue going with your children. We teach through our demonstration, so don’t let the fear of what to say prevent you from saying anything at all. If you don’t know, ask for guidance and follow your heart—by even having conversations we’re changing the stories future generations will tell.