A one-hour elementary school lesson on gender diversity featuring all-girl geckos and transgender clownfish caused a stir in Oakland on Monday, with conservative legal defense organizations questioning the legitimacy of the topic and providing legal counsel to parents who opposed the instruction.
On Monday and today, Redwood Heights Elementary School students at every grade level were being introduced to the topic of gender diversity, with lesson plans tailored to each age group.
The lesson on gender differences was one small part of a much larger effort to offer what parents last year said they wanted at the school: a warm, welcoming, safe and caring environment for all children, said Principal Sara Stone.
The school also teaches students about the variety of families at the school and takes on the issue of bullying.
"If we don't have a safe, nurturing class environment, it's going to be hard to learn," she said. "Really, the message behind this curriculum is there are different ways to be boys. There are different ways to be girls."
So, fourth- and fifth-grade students learned about the crazy world of gender within the animal kingdom with lessons about single-sex Hawaiian geckos, fish that switch genders and boy snakes that act "girly."
"That's a lot of variation in nature," Gender Spectrum trainer, Joel Baum, told the students. "Evolution comes up with some pretty funny ways for animals to reproduce."
Animals and peopleAnd that same kind of diversity applies to people too, said Baum, the education director for the San Leandro nonprofit. For example, some boys can act like girls; some girls can have boy body parts; and some biological boys feel like a girl inside their hearts, he said.
"It turns out that there are not just two options," he said.
And that, said representatives from the conservative Pacific Justice Institute, was the problem.
These Oakland children will be told there are more than two genders, the organization advised the media in a press release last week.
"This instruction does not represent the values of the majority of families in Oakland," said attorney Kevin Snider in a statement.
Calls to the Pacific Justice Institute on Monday were not returned.
Stone said she was "very surprised" at how the gender diversity instruction drew national media attention. Fox News and USA Today were among the media to cover the event, district officials said.
Parents were advised of the lesson plan weeks ago, but the curriculum was not something their children could opt out of as they can with sex and AIDS education, district officials said.
Only a few parents said they planned to keep their children home for the program, district officials said.
The $1,500 cost of the training was covered by a California Teachers Association grant.
A requirementAll state schools are required to have a specific plan to address safety and other issues related to sexual orientation and gender identity.
"Gender harassment can start at very young ages, often before kindergarten, and it is not uncommon for children who step outside of narrow gender expectations, whether in their clothing, hair, toys or styles of play, to become the targets of mistreatment by other children," said district spokesman Troy Flint in an e-mail.
So on Monday, Redwood Heights fourth-graders listened intently to descriptions of biological gender, gender expression and identity.
Gender isn't something that's cut and dry, Baum said.
"Earrings used to be something only girls and pirates wore," Baum said to fourth-grade giggles.
And what's on the outside doesn't necessarily reflect what's on the inside, he said.
"People can feel like girls," he said. "They can feel like boys. They can feel like both, and they can feel like neither."
At the end of the lesson, fourth-grader Desmond Pare thought that was no big deal.
"I think it's about how it doesn't matter who you are," he said. "If you're a girl who likes girl stuff, or a boy who like boy stuff, it just matters if you're human."