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When the Forms Don’t Fit Your Family

Palin contacted the principal of the school, who said she had made a change at the district level within days of hearing about the issue. However, weeks later when Palin received follow-up school paperwork the envelope addressed her wife as “Mr.” What bothers Palin the most is wondering what would have happened if a school nurse or other staff member had glanced at that paperwork and asked her son about contacting his dad. “That would have thrown him off and made him feel like he has to explain himself, explain his family,” she said.

For Tiffany Muskrat, an artist, student and barista living in Lynnwood, Wash., every parent-teacher conference takes five minutes longer than expected because the teacher needs to go get a third set of papers and a third chair, never anticipating that a family might have more than two parents involved. Muskrat, a gender-fluid stepparent to four children who have five involved parental figures, “feels like a bother instead of a participant” when asked if a third line should be drawn so that they are able to sign their stepchild’s forms.

Brian Esser, who lives in Brooklyn, N.Y., is a lawyer who helps families with adoptions, a specialty he pursued after he and his husband became adoptive parents in 2011. He’s lost count of the times he’s crossed out “mother” to write in “father” on forms for his two sons. In January 2020, he received a phone call from someone conducting a survey for the Centers for Disease Control about children and the flu vaccine. The survey’s questions focused on the child’s mother and had no flexibility for families without one. Esser explained that his kids weren’t being raised by their birth mother, but ended up answering the questions as well as he could with what he knew about her.

“It felt like a deliberate attempt to exclude different types of families on the part of the federal government,” Esser said. “The more I thought about it the more upset I got, because this is bad research, this is bad science. Why are they spending money to develop data that’s basically going to be garbage?”

When Esser and his husband enrolled their older son in the local Park Slope public elementary school, they noticed the forms were not inclusive, but they didn’t say anything in an effort to not make waves. When they enrolled their younger son three years later and the forms were still not inclusive, they did complain, and even got local politicians involved, but found no resolution. Esser points out that in the end it’s not his “job as an individual parent to audit the Department of Education to be using proper forms.”

Sophia Arredondo of Queens, N.Y., is the Director of Education & Youth Programs at GLSEN, an advocacy organization for L.G.B.T.Q. K-12 students. She agrees that “the unfair burden is on us to tell educators about our family when documents don’t acknowledge that we exist,” adding that enrollment forms should have multiple options such as “caregiver” and “guardian” to encompass the many adults involved in children’s lives. Arredondo also notes that “changing paperwork is only one small step to creating fully inclusive and affirming schools.”

A resource produced by Family Equality, an advocacy organization for L.G.B.T.Q. families, suggests inclusive paperwork language as the top way a school can welcome our families, and also lists offering diverse books and imagery in classrooms. Schools should also be sensitive in preparing activities for Mother’s Day or Father’s Day, and avoid sponsoring gendered events such as a father-daughter dance.

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