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California School Stirs Up Controversy With Lesson on Transgender Clownfish

By Meredith Carroll |


Finding Nemo...could be a girl?

A California school stirred the pot this week by presenting an introductory lesson on gender diversity to its kindergarten through fourth graders by featuring single-sex geckos and transgender clownfish. Not surprisingly, conservative critics are none too happy about it.

Also not surprising? Fox News somehow has their hands in the mess.

Students at Oakland’s Redwood Heights Elementary School learned about the topic at the beginning of this week from an outside anti-bullying educational group, Gender Spectrum, which was paid for by a grant from the California Teachers Union.

Joel Baum from Gender Spectrum asked the kindergarten kids to identify if a toy was a “girl toy” or a “boy toy” or both, and also asked which students liked the color pink. He let them know boys can like pink, too. In the fourth-grade class, Baum suggested, according to Fox News (who said they were invited to sit in on the lessons), that if someone was born with male private parts but identified more with being a girl, that he should still be accepted and respected.

Kids were also given cards with information on the aforementioned single-sex geckos and transgender clownfish to “illustrate the variations in nature that occur in humans, too.”

“Gender identity is one’s own sense of themselves. Do they know themselves to be a girl? Do they know themselves to be a boy? Do they know themselves to be a combination?” Baum said. “Gender identity is a spectrum where people can be girls, feel like girls, they feel like boys, they feel like both, or they can feel like neither.”

According to a school district spokesperson, the point of the lessons, which spanned a two-day period, was to promote a more welcoming and safer classroom environment and to emphasize to kids that it’s OK not to conform to gender norms and that they should be accepting of the differences in every kind of person.

Critics, however, cried the lesson doesn’t represent the values of their community. Three families chose to leave their kids home while the lessons were being taught. Those families have retained legal counsel.

“This instruction does not represent the values of the majority of families in Oakland,” attorney Kevin Snider of the Pacific Justice Institute said in a written statement to Fox News. “Though to many this may seem extreme, based upon some of the bills now pending in the Capitol, such as SB 48, this will be the new normal in California’s K-12 public schools.”

While I the applaud the lessons taught at this school and think every school should follow suit, the fact that Fox News was allowed (or invited to asked for permission) to “sit in” during the sessions leads me to believe someone intentionally stirred up the pot. If the idea was to draw attention to the lessons so that others would offer the same ones, I think that’s OK. But if Fox News was there to highlight the protests, I think that’s just icky. What is possibly wrong with kids learning about diversity?

It shouldn’t be controversial that gender diversity is being covered in schools, and it shouldn’t make news. Teaching respect and acceptance of every kind of person should be the status quo. How Fox News, or a parent or conservative group doesn’t see that is beyond me.

Do you think the transgender clownfish lesson is worthy of some kind of controversy?

Image: Creative Commons

Babble Quiz: Where does your child fit on the gender spectrum?

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About Meredith Carroll


Meredith Carroll

Meredith C. Carroll is an award-winning columnist and writer based in Aspen, Colorado. She can be found regularly on the Op-Ed page of The Denver Post. From 2005-2012 her other column, "Meredith Pro Tem" ran in several newspapers, as well as occasionally on The Huffington Post since 2009. Read more about her (or don’t, whatever) at her website. Read bio and latest posts → Read Meredith's latest posts →

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0 thoughts on “California School Stirs Up Controversy With Lesson on Transgender Clownfish

  1. Gagagolly says:

    I don’t think this needs to be taught to kindergartners…it’s ridiculous and I would have kept my kid out of this class at that age. They can’t even manage to teach reading and math and basic and they’re wasting time on things that really aren’t in the scope of what a school should be teaching.

  2. Angela says:

    I don’t understand why kindergarteners shouldn’t be taught to be respectful to everyone. No matter how you live or what you believe your children are bound to come across people who think differently. Even if you believe it’s wrong to allow a little boy to wear pink bows and sparkles your child may still have classmates who do just that. Or they may have parents who are transgendered or gay. Would you really prefer that those kids get tormented and bullied?

  3. Grace says:

    I agree that all children, no matter what age, should be taught to be respectful to everyone. What I find interesting is that the specific curriculum only included gender identity. Kids are bullied for many reasons, so why are they only addressing one?

  4. Gagagolly says:

    I think you just teach them generally that you don’t pick on people/bully them for ANYTHING. It doesn’t have to be so specific with the transgender stuff.

  5. bettywu says:

    They do teach them not to bully for other reasons. This is the only one that gets headlines and gets conservative’s knickers all knotted up.

  6. Gagagolly says:

    It’s this, if it really happened, that I really don’t think kids this age need to get into “if someone was born with male private parts but identified more with being a girl”…Of course this person should still be accepted, and perhaps respected, as much as any person deserves basic respect because they’re human, but I think kindergarten is too young and it’s too confusing. Do they even know what it means to “identify” as something. For the vast majority of people, you are what you are and that is linked, yes, to your biological gender. Perhaps a better emphasis would need to be on not associating the OBJECTS, colors, toys, etc. with either gender in the first place, rather than having some hacks at a school try to talk to kindergartners about their private parts and how they “Identify”…that stuff is up to mom and dad. I think it’s good if there are counselors available to older kids and that kids be encouraged to seek them out if they need to talk (in case they have parents that are oppressive or not on board) BUT, they don’t need to be indoctrinating little kids with all these details. They’re too young and there are too many other things they could (should) be doing during school time. It’s for academics, not morals.

  7. Ashley says:

    I love the curriculum. Even at kindergarten age, kids can certainly differentiate between the genders and learn about why it’s wrong to bully someone because they have a different gener identity. Yes, we should talk to kids about why it’s wrong to bully others for ANY reason, but gender identity and sexual orientation too often get left out of the conversation. We live in a country where prejudice against the LGBT community runs rampant. Currently, it is completely legal to discriminate against gays, lesbians, and transgender people in 29 states because they have no legal protections in place. I think the sooner this type of curriculum is introduced, the better.

  8. ChiLaura says:

    @Ashely, what do you mean when you say that “prejudice against the LGBT community runs rampant”? Do you mean that people just don’t like this lifestyle choice? Are you talking about active discrimination in hiring/firing/housing, etc.? And what about your statement that “it is completely legal to discriminate against gays, lesbians, and transgender people in 29 states because they have no legal protections in place”? Are you talking about within private organizations (like private adoption agencies not allowing gays to adopt children)? You’ve made some pretty broad statements, and I’m curious as to what exactly you mean.

  9. Bunnytwenty says:

    Chilaura, I think you’re aware that there are plenty of laws that discriminate against LGBT people – don’t play dumb. And of course prejudice runs rampant as well. In any case, teaching kids that gender is flexible from a young age is a good idea, since they’re hammered every day with the erroneous idea that being a girl means a certain thing and being a boy means a certain thing. And they certainly are capable of understanding and pondering the idea. If they can grasp the idea that boys-do-one-thing-girls-do-another then they can certainly grasp the opposite.

  10. Lee says:

    I agree with a previous poster that these schools have no business involving themselves any sort of social exercise until they are capable of teaching children basic reading, writing and arithmetic with any measureable success.

  11. Gagagolly says:

    But, actually, gender is NOT flexible…it’s just that society happens to attribute certain qualities and aesthetics to genders. Sexual preference is not (should not be) really relevant in the world of 5 year olds. The message of being kind to everybody would suffice until at least 10, then when they start doing more health/sex-ed type things they can deal with this. Five is just too young.

  12. LogicalMama says:

    I’m all for this type of education in the classroom, especially at an early age. Let’s face it, anything away from the “norm” is both blatantly and passively discouraged by children and adults alike.
    I have been teaching this type of tolerance to my child since he was making friends and I love the fact that they are doing this in school b/c more kids do need to learn tolerance, acceptance and individuality! Just b/c I teach it to my son doesn’t mean that his 29 other classmates are getting it at home and honestly, parents that have an issue with this lesson, have issues themselves with intolerance, fear of indoctrination (which this isn’t about indoctrination!!), discrimination, etc….. look at all the hype around Shilo Jolie-Pitt, for crying out loud! She’s a tomboy, whatever… but already, before she turned five people are speculating on whether she’s transgender or lesbian, as if it matters!

  13. Gagagolly says:

    No…I have issues with non-parent/non-medical not in the presence of a parent discussing “private parts” with five year olds.

  14. LogicalMama says:

    @Gagagolly– obviously b/c parents were given the opportunity to opt out, there was clear communication between the parents and the school on the lesson content prior to the discussions. I have no doubt that this school (which has a fairly good reputation) allowed for parents to review the cirricullum and maybe even give input. And they didn’t get into details about the privates with the kindys, it was just about seeing what they identified as boy or girl and discussing that variations from the normal likes were okay too!
    In this day and age, with the state of the education system, let’s face it, teachers that aren’t educated in Phys. Ed. are teaching PE. Physicians aren’t asked to volunteer time to teach sexual education, the teachers do it. Because math concepts are taught earlier, general elementary certified teachers are teaching math principles that used to be taught by teachers specifically certified in mathematics– and they may not have been good at math themselves but they are teaching our children! Science is often not taught by science teachers anymore… So to expect that medical specialists would come in to teach children tolerance and acceptance of differences is not realistic.

  15. LogicalMama says:

    And by the way, these were trained professionals that put this on…

  16. Gagagolly says:

    I am not expecting that medical specialists talk to kids, sorry that sentence was confusing. I am saying that the only people who, really, should be discussing “private parts” with a 5 year old would be that child’s parents (“guardian” if we must) or a doctor in the presence of said guardian. As to the specific content of the class, I can only infer from the Babble post unless I choose to look more deeply into it (I do not). I guess maybe it was a mistake to build my argument on the Fox News assertion that the class taught “if someone was born with male private parts but identified more with being a girl.” I am progressive in terms of politics, just conservative in terms of what small children need to be exposed to. And, while I am fine with transgender folks and believe they should have equal rights, I also don’t think it is something that necessarily needs to be celebrated or encouraged with little children. To some extent, they should be left to figure these things out, but provide counseling and information if they so seek it at an older age.

  17. ChiLaura says:

    @Bunnytwenty: well, I’m not playing dumb, so maybe I just am dumb. What laws are you talking about specifically? LGBT people can sit anywhere on the bus that they want; they can eat at an restaurant; they have equal access to gov’t services; they have protections in place for hiring and firing in many cases. So what laws are you talking about that discriminate? Not having a right to marry? I would contend that in about 1/2 of the cases there’s simply the absence of that “right” (i.e. nothing on the books recognizes gay marriage, but many states don’t outright prohibit it), and a law that is not on the books cannot be discriminatory, because it doesn’t exist. Fine, those states that don’t recognize gay union are discriminating, but what else have ya got? You and Ashley make it sound like LGBT can’t walk down the street without fearing for their lives, or as if they’re required to wear yellow armbands or something. I mean, I’m genuinely curious as to her meaning.

    I support anti-bullying, I guess, in that I think that kids should be taught that you don’t pick on people just because they are different. But I too am uncomfortable with anyone besides me, my spouse or our doctor discussing genitalia with kids, or gender flexibility. I’m totally okay with a teacher saying, “hey, kids, chill out, boys can like pink and girls can like blue,” but I hate all this targeted crap that doesn’t belong in an academic setting. When I was a kid, I don’t remember attending special assemblies or class sessions in which I was told that it wasn’t okay to pick on someone in a wheelchair; my parents did that at home, and teachers reinforced that at school. I do think that an attitude of tolerance can be nurtured in children without special sessions by agenda-driven groups. Which are supported by tax dollars, incidentally, as the session in the above article seems to have been (union supported, paid for by teachers’ dues, whether the teachers like it or not, paid for by taxes).

  18. Gagagolly says:

    “I do think that an attitude of tolerance can be nurtured in children without special sessions by agenda-driven groups.” Totally…

  19. nikhil says:

    SEE trained watch it –

  20. Mary says:

    The fact that Fox news was invited makes me a lot more peeved than anything that was being discussed…it feels like someone was trying to start a media war, and the fact that a school would think it’s ok to do that is the most troubling thing about this whole affair.

    I think kindergarten is a perfect age to start teaching tolerance and respect, as well as introducing kids to the idea that gender is a spectrum. If the concept is introduced early, kids accept it as normal (which is great, because it IS normal). At my elementary school, we had an LGBT role model come and talk to my class in second grade, telling us about her life and her gf and answering questions that we had. My high school was similarly awesome and had a very active GSA. I’m straight, but 90% of my friends aren’t and they faced a lot of bullying (they went to different schools) – if their schools had had similar programs, it’s likely that their childhood and teen years would have been a lot less stressful for them.

  21. Jaelithe says:

    Some of you are not reading the post very carefully. Meredith said that the kindergarteners had a lesson where they were asked to identify toys as “boy toys” or “girl toys” and were then told that all children should be able to play with all toys and all children should be allowed to like blue or pink. Nowhere does it say that the kindergarteners had a lesson discussing the biology of gender in nature. That lesson happened in the FOURTH GRADE class. As far as I can tell from this article, no innocent kindergarteners were subjected to discussions of private parts. (Though, really — small children should certainly be taught the proper names and functions of those parts. Research has shown that children who are given basic education in this area are less likely to become victims of sexual predators.)

    Chilaura, if you truly don’t understand that discrimination against LGBT people is rampant, then I’m sorry — you need to get out more often and make friends with a wider variety of people. There are places in the U.S. where it absolutely IS unsafe for a gay couple to walk hand in hand down the street. And the lack of marriage rights is absolutely a big deal. What if your husband were in the hospital and you weren’t allowed to visit? What if you died and your spouse was not able to inherit your home, or keep custody of your children?

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