Some femininities and masculinities celebrated or accepted in our community ignore or demean other ways of expressing gender. Homophobia is one possible outcome.
Children come to school from a variety of backgrounds and good teachers know how to meet individual needs by incorporating and reflecting this diversity.
The students we teach are challenged by peers, school structures and cultures, media and the wider community to get their gender “right”. Research shows us that even very young children are aware of the power of homophobia to harass and ostracise others (Cherry Collins et al Gender and School Education, Australian Council for Educational Research, Camberwell, 1996).
Dominant female and male characteristics are often celebrated and endorsed by families, popular culture and institutions such as schools but, when they exclude or ridicule others, they can be seriously damaging.
Some practical steps teachers can take to help are:
- read or include in your library books like Pink is just a colour and so is blue
- include in your library other books that depict people in non-traditional roles
- intervene when you hear comments like “that’s for girls” or “this game is just for boys” with questions like “how can a colour/toy/game be only be for girls/boys”?
- allow and encourage non-gender specific free play
- wear colours or clothes that don’t fit gender assumptions (eg pink if you identify as a man, trousers and business shirts if you identify as a woman)
- don’t assume a boy who likes “girls things”, or girl who likes “boy things” will be gay or transgender - they might, but so might any of your students, and it doesn’t really matter
- have a fabulous dress up box and make time for creative play.
Max meets the gender police
Max is a five year old boy who loves pink.
As a younger child he would wear skirts from the dress-up box, and go straight for ‘girls’ clothes in department stores because they were pink. His parents gave him the freedom to express his preferences in dress and play. They tried to deconstruct traditional gender roles and taught him that pink was a colour like any other.
Max started pre-school this year and was confronted by gender policing from other children for the first time. He came home saying friends had told him that they didn’t want to play with him because he wore pink and it was a girls’ colour.
His parents approached pre-school staff who responded positively and talked, in general terms during group time, about colours not necessarily belonging to a particular gender and tried to keep an eye on future interactions.
Max’s parents talked with him about responses he could use when he was told he shouldn’t wear pink or ride a pink bike. While things have improved, Max’s parents report children will still approach him and ask why he has a girl's bike.
Max starts primary school next year. How will his experiences be different from those of more gender-conforming peers?
Children like Max have the right to express their identities and preferences. In fact, they help us challenge our own beliefs and expressions of gender.
Mel Smith is the Officer attached to the GLBT Restricted Committee. This is a true story but Max's name has been changed for privacy reasons.