My husband and I love being the fun “gay uncles” to our nieces and nephews. When we got married our oldest niece was too young to travel to the ceremony, but our family has always been loving, accepting and honest about her married gay uncles.

Growing up in this environment, we were surprised when she would sometimes laugh or exclaim “only boys and girls get married” when we referred to each other as “husband.” We would gently explain that sometimes two boys or two girls who love each other get married too.

Privately, we were concerned. Was she hearing homophobic messages at her elementary school?

Unfortunately, that is more likely than you may think. Disturbing results from a new survey from the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network (GLSEN) found that the use of the word “gay” in a negative way, as in “that’s so gay,” was one of the most common forms of bias language heard regularly by nearly 50% of elementary school students and teachers. Over 25% of elementary school students and teachers also reported regularly hearing homophobic remarks like “fag” or “lesbo.”

Yes, in elementary schools.

The anti-LGBT crusaders at Focus on the Family, the $120 million per year organization supporting America’s culture wars, helped perfect the “what about the children?” message of fear used to prevent policies that would address bullying and enable kids like our niece to learn age-appropriate information about LGBT people in their school’s library and curricula.

A recent video message from Focus on the Family attacked “Uncle Bobby’s Wedding,” a children’s book about a young girl whose uncle marries his boyfriend. It also demonized “Ready, Set, Respect!,” a curricular resource from GLSEN created in collaboration with the National Association of Elementary School Principles that includes lesson plans addressing name-calling and bullying.

GLSEN’s survey shows that anti-LGBT bullying begins at much younger ages. Children can learn homophobia from their families, friends, political leaders, and faith communities, and even though their personal understanding of sexual orientation and gender identity may be years away, they often target peers at school who are different or do not conform to gender stereotypes.

Anti-bullying programs need to begin in elementary school to protect children experiencing verbal and physical abuse that can lead to low grades, truancy, higher rates of drug abuse and risky sex when they are teenagers, and even suicide.

There is hope. A study of data from the Preventing School Harassment survey in California found that students in schools with LGBT-inclusive curricula felt safer and were less likely to report anti-LGBT bullying.

This is why we need to stand our ground when extremist groups like Focus on the Family rant about “homosexuals recruiting school children.” This ridiculous scare tactic, used to prevent anti-bullying laws or ban books like “Uncle Bobby’s Wedding,” is actually their Achilles Heel.

Support for protecting all youth, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity, is not just empirical, it’s moral.

Anyone who stands in the way, regardless of the “family values” they claim to represent, is at least enabling if not contributing to the physical and mental abuse of children in schools across the country.

“What about the children?” is not their winning argument. It is ours.

An elementary school teacher empowered to intervene when students use the word “gay” in a disparaging way can save lives. The availability of a book at the school library like “Uncle Bobby’s Wedding” enables children to learn about same-sex couple families, including perhaps their own.

Like “uncle Bobby,” my husband and I love our niece and were relieved to find out the real reason why she reacted strangely to our marriage at such a young age.

During a trip in the car she insisted on repeatedly listening to one of her Disney Princesses CDs. Obsessed with these fairy-tale girls who always marry a prince, we realized that we were her only example of a married, same-sex couple.

Laughing at the simplicity of the issue and our own insecurities, we drove away happily ever after. All of America’s school children deserve the same.

[Editor's Note: Jason Cianciotto is the co-author with Sean Cahill of the new book LGBT Youth in America's Schools. You can reach Cianciotto at Twitter @JasonCianciotto.]

Copyright 2012 Jason Cianciotto