Gender Neutrality or Enforcement?

This is an extract from the ABC’s full article ran on 24th March 2015

Gender is back in news, thanks to the controversy surrounding the Safe Schools program.

This program attempts to educate Australian children on gender and sexual diversity, exploring topics like “OMG my friend’s queer.”

While the anti-bullying message that motivates Safe Schools is certainly a worthy one, some of its educational ideas – like teaching pansexuality, how to bind breasts or be genderqueer – raise more questions than they address.

Those who criticise Safe Schools‘s presentation of gender diversity are readily dismissed as old fashioned or conservative, but there are good grounds for asking hard questions – not least because the research is far from conclusive.

Purportedly, the more education around gender, sexuality and identity, the more progressive and safer society will be when it comes to managing diversity.

As a result, gender has become an increasingly prominent issue, especially in the media – from the widely publicised No Gender December and genderbread kits, to the news that Angelina Jolie’s daughter had decided to take the name “John.”

Without doubt, acceptance and belonging are critical to mental health, and supporting sexual diversity has a key role to play. But is the focus on gender really helping children? While ending discrimination is an important factor for their health, there is no consensus when it comes to children and gender nonconformity from the mental health profession.

In decades gone by, there was less worry over the concept of gender. Even basic products like toys were less gendered in the past. In fact, the very term “gender” was largely absent from public debate until recent decades – and when it did rear its head, it was largely confined to discussions within the social sciences.

So why does this intense focus on gender now belong in primary schools?

Those who subscribe to queer theory would argue that this simply represents progress. From this perspective, gender is inherently fluid and exists in multiple permutations. Queer theory has now gone mainstream, ushered in from the fringes of the academic world to the core of the childhood education system.

For example, Safe Schools utilises definitions like this: “sex is your physical aspects (i.e. your wibbly wobbly bits) and gender is how you feel in your mind in terms of masculine and feminine.” Quite apart from the incorrect description of genitals – one that is advised against by health professionals – the idea that gender is a feeling is highly questionable. In fact, the idea of feminine or masculine thinking has long been disputed in the research.

Other topics to which children will be inducted through Safe Schools materials include the use of plastic surgery and hormone treatments to change gendered appearance, as well as how girls should bind their breasts if they aren’t comfortable about them. Not only does this promote dangerous practices, but it also has the potential to normalise body dissatisfaction within an already vulnerable demographic – all in the guise of “progress.”

Far from being progressive, such campaigns seem somewhat counter-productive. If gender neutrality really is progress, why the focus on classifying gender? How can such programs neutralise gender and yet simultaneously name, categorise and even medicalise it?

Credit: ABC
Increasing rather than neutralising gender categories Credit: ABC

Gender itself is a sociological category, a concept designed to examine broad trends between the sexes. Yet it is now erroneously applied to children who are expected to understand and embody a theory usually only the purview of researchers. Suddenly we must scrutinise, analyse and even pathologise natural child behaviour as “gendered.”

While this focus on gender appears to be celebrating diversity, it may actually be doing the opposite.

Read the full article on ABC here


6 thoughts on “Gender Neutrality or Enforcement?

  1. Having come across this article in a certain context it was immediately dismissed as being TERF/second wave propaganda passing itself off as neutral and I found myself the lone voice defending it.

    Am I wrong to conclude that what you are arguing against is pushing adult theories around gender onto children rather than letting them make the discovery of who they are themselves… Its about removing the pressure to conform to a particular framework rather than replacing the traditional binary one with the new heinz 51?

    1. ‘Terf/ second wave’ lol oh dear.
      What I’m arguing against is the program being founded around queer theory, while queer theory is just one theory of gender and certainly not the most empirically validated. Yet, the program is promoted as evidence based. Perhaps some parts are, the queer theory component certainly isn’t.
      And secondly, you’re quite right, I argue there are a lot of unanswered questions as to the impacts of imposing this theory and the new speculative gender categories upon children.

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