Moralising commentaries about the Safe Schools Coalition are dangerously out of touch with the science of sex, the social research about gender and the realities of the ways that young people already understand their own sexual and gender identities.
In the past weeks and months, the Safe Schools Coalition, a national program that offers outreach and resources to schools to foster a safe environment for LGBTI young people, has come under increasing attack in a range of publications.
The outrage at its approach of going beyond tolerance, to celebration of sexual and gender diversity, has reached something of a crescendo in the last week.
Language in The Age, The Australian and the The Herald Sun has drawn on accusations of indoctrination and a gay agenda, suggested Safe Schools are “crackers” and base their programs on false science, and equated queerness with religious belief and lifestyle.
Such was the case with senator Bob Day of Family First, who on Monday called for a parental vote on whether government funding should be withdrawn from the Safe Schools initiative, which he described as a “gay lifestyle program”.
One method of attack has been to ridicule “crackers” ideas about biological sex and gender underpinning the program. James Campbell’s recent opinion piece in The Herald Sun drew on notions of common sense. On January 28 he wrote that:
if someone wants to believe something as obviously crackers as the idea that there is no such thing as a man or a woman, only what we each want to be, well, that is their business. The rest of us will still be free to go on thinking there are men and women, just as we always have.
The motivation for Campbell’s piece was an Age article in which Safe Schools Coalition Victoria co-founder Roz Ward outlined the group’s goal of promoting a better sense of inclusion for transgender young people in sports:
The common experience is that transgender and gender-diverse students stop taking part in sport because they feel too uncomfortable […]. We want schools to make it very clear that they can continue to be involved.
Campbell, from this, made a reductionist leap of reasoning to the hypothetical unfairness that could result from this aim:
[…] if there are only so-called male bodies and so-called female bodies, by what objective criteria do we have male and female sports at all? Everyone should be able to compete against each other all the time.
This wilfully naïve jump of logic is an uninformed scare tactic, akin to the “boys will pretend to be girls to peek at girls' boobs in the changing room” logic that Liberal MP Peter Abetz, speaking on the ABC, seemed to be levelling at Safe Schools last year:
I would put it to you that none of the parents out there listening would want their teenage daughter changing or using a toilet at high school and having a boy who says that he identifies as feminine using that toilet or being there when their daughters are getting changed for sport.
Kevin Donnelly, writing in The Age last week, suggested that the Safe Schools program is premised on a “belief” about the number of LGBTI people in the population, as well as beliefs about the nature of bullying and the best ways to tackle this.
Such so-called beliefs are in fact conclusions, based on careful and extensive international peer-reviewed research about the health and wellbeing of LGBTI youth.
Gender and biological sex diversity has been established in historical and contemporary sociology, and in the biological sciences. The variability of biological sex is established to the extent that, last year, Nature Journal, one of the most influential peer-reviewed scientific journals in the world, had a cover story declaring the “redefining” of two, fixed biological sexes. By scientists. Not politically-correct and “crackers” queers.
Meanwhile, religious critics have taken the opportunity to use increased fear of this “radical” incorporation of gender and sexuality education in schools by equating diversity-training and raising awareness about the existing LGBTI student population with indoctrination into ethical and lifestyle choices.
Other arguments have focused specifically on the topic of gender. Laura McNally, writing for the ABC in the early days of this debate last year, questioned the assumptions underlying queer theory and the evidence base for bringing multiple gender categories out of sociological theory and into school books:
Indoctrinating children into these new “gender” categories is not going to resolve stereotypes. In fact, this may merely create a more exhaustive range of gender classifications within which the stereotypes continue to exist. This is not gender neutrality, but gender enforcement.
Such a view completely disregards the conclusions, long established in gender research, that children are subject to stereotypical gender assumptions from birth and throughout their lives.
It is widely-known that the parents of intersex infants are strongly encouraged by medical professionals to choose one of the two accepted genders for their children, and consent to “corrective” surgery in order to fit the child’s biology to this.
There is ample research that concludes that, for both boys and girls, the imposition of social (not natural) dualistic gender norms holds negative consequences both socially and psychologically.
Boys, girls, and gender diverse young people find it almost impossible to resist the sometimes violently enforced gender norms they are expected to fit in to – and those who do not or cannot suffer the consequences.
Moreover, empirical research persistently concludes that one of the key sites of the violent enforcement of gender normativity is schools, where gender and sexual non-conformity bears hideous consequences.
Schools can be a nightmare for LGBTI youth. An afternoon with Safe Schools is hardly going to unravel the sexual identity of every straight student, but it may well make a more accepting and safe space for those children for whom heterosexuality and gender normativity has never fit.
Perhaps the most radical, and moralising, criticisms came last week from Donnelly in The Age, who suggested it was hypocritical to allow this awareness-training if teachers cannot actively promote religious beliefs, such as the Don’t Mess With Marriage letter from the Catholic Bishops of Australia, in schools.
The research shows that, to effectively tackle the exclusionary and normative ideas underpinning homophobia and transphobic bullying, it is indeed time to go beyond “tolerance” and liberal equal-opportunity approaches – beyond passively reinforcing the idea that everyone is straight, to radically challenge the ideas and awareness of the wider school population.
Actively promoting diverse sexualities and genders as valid choices among many in schools does not harm anyone, but actively denying their existence does.
_This article was first published at: theconversation.com and was updated on February 16, 2016 to better reflect the argument made by Laura McNally in the ABC article quoted in the piece. _
By Lucy Nicholas — Discipline coordinator and Lecturer in Sociology (gender and sexualities), Swinburne University of Technology.