*please note that all names have been changed in this post, for privacy of the children concerned. Also note that I’m not using “gay, queer” etc interchangeably, nor am I trying to define them.
Ally is eleven, and sidles up beside me. I’m sitting on the couch, making beaded bracelets with the girls (and one boy only, alas). We’re cosied up, chatting, reflecting on life as only a bunch of kids hanging out in OOSH care can. Justin Bieber is a hot topic, as is the fact that Joseph’s stylus for his DS is gone and we all know who stole it, don’t we. Hmmm.
We’re all stuck in this heat together – so why not craft and natter? These are my afternoons – conflict rich, delightful, learning heavy (on my behalf) and giving of an easily borne yoke of watching 70-odd growing bodies blossom with curiosity and dissent. I work in child care.
I’m also Queer.
Ally notices my bracelet. I made it yesterday at home. It says, in coloured letters, ‘Queer Femme’ and it stands out in an aesthetically provoking way on my wrist. Kinda pretty. Ally fingers it and asks “what does ‘queer’ mean?”
At first I’m surprised she doesn’t ask about the femme part, but I suppose the word must be so similarly spelt to ‘female’ that she doesn’t note it. Then I pause before answering. She’s the only child here who has said anything about it. I shrug, cock my head and say “it’s kind of like, when you feel different from most people. Queer is a word for all the different people.”
“Like who? What kind of different?” Ally asks me. She waits patiently. She’s a pretty cool kid, this one. Patient but hungry for answers and she thinks them over. I swear I can see my words going in like chunks of change, and while I’m not always sure what’ll vend, it’s usually intriguing and awesome.
“Well, like…like, some gay people like to call themselves Queer in a happy positive way, and some people who have boyfriends and girlfriends call themselves that and some people who get called a boy when they’re little but they grow up feeling like girls instead. And heaps of other things like that.”
“Oh. Ok, yeah. Cool. My mum has friends who are gay. And Violet has two Mums.” Ally nods towards Violet across the room, a curly-haired six year old playing with clay. She looks at my bracelet a while longer. “It’s really pretty. I like it.”
And then we go on in silence, smiling and collegial, no more said on the subject. I want to talk to her more about it – about how Queers own the word, about how to use it, about trans* folk in the community, about gender play, what ‘femme’ means and a million other things – but I don’t want to push, so I leave it, let it drop. I guess she’ll raise the topic when she wants to speak more on it and I’m ok with that.
You just need to plant the seed, not grow the whole damn tree yourself. Stick the seed in the ground, hang around for sprouting and hope to hell some other adults will come by with watering cans later.
The next day I posted a question to Facebook, curious to see what other queers and caregivers would think about talking to kids about Queerness, and all the manifestations of it in our community (though not everyone GLBTIQA identifies within the community or with the Q word).
There were a variety of reactions. The one I naively didn’t expect was from my father (and then my mother, who called me to argue at length on the point. I feel sorry for the people riding the 418 bus that morning. Sorry guys…). His point was that you should avoid the matter altogether.
My parents were, primarily, concerned that I keep my job. Fair enough, they’ve seen me in and out of work. I’m not that worried – I have two jobs and my childcare position is not the one that pays the bulk of my bills, so whoa there, worry horse.
My centre is also situated in the inner west, has many GL (gay and lesbian) staff who are openly out, and progressive(ish) management. A couple of our kids have same sex parents, and a range of backgrounds. We have one kid who is gender-fluid.
There’s no guarantee that I’m safe from a queerphobic kneejerk by a parent – but it is a calculated risk I gladly take as a form of honesty, decency in my role as an agent in childhood development and of course, activism.
Are they right though? Are carers and education providers at risk from public backlash if they speak to kids in an upfront way – hell, any perceivable way – about Queerness, or in a more focused example, gender and sexuality?
Yes. They really are. Move outside of the inner west of Sydney and your odds of being cast as an agent of diabolical political incision into the delicate consciousness of childhood is likely. Predictable even. For many, childhood is a precious, fixed, traditional state – which, by most adult renderings, is nothing like what kids actually experience.
In May of 2006, an article appeared in the Australian newspaper The Daily Telegraph – reknowned for being a conservative and right wing source of ‘news’. The article told of how Tillman’s Park Care Centre, based in Queer-heavy ‘burb Marrickville, had designed a curriculum that was friendly to gays, lesbians, bisexual, trangendered folk, and intersex people. Most notable was their use of ‘Learn To Include’ books.
Marrickville Mayor at the time, Sam Byrne, was not backward about coming forward in supporting the programme. Far from being a passive, ‘sunshine and puppies’ curriculum, it sought to take head-on already developed notions about GLBTI people and change them. The word ‘challenge’ was used.
“At Marrickville we believe in offering children and families an inclusive program based on social justice,” he told The Saturday Daily Telegraph.
Not only was he slammed, the centre was accused of ‘brainwashing’ children. Andrew Stoner, National Party leader at the time, said that the decision to teach the curriculum was ‘crazy’ and that children “that young have no concept of these issues of sexuality”.
“Whether it is heterosexual sex or homosexual sex, it is the choice for parents to talk about it with their children – not for an institution to start some political correct campaign.”
Wow, those words are sounding pretty familiar. Filter them a little, and they sound like the freaked out words of older educators and policy makers, inured to self-censorship and afraid to even begin to grasp the sides of their boat to rock it any more.
In Sweden we see a more recent example of a centre radically addressing the concept of gender. An article in the Sydney Morning Herald appeared in June telling of ‘Egalia’ childcare centre in Stockholm. Here, staff work overtime to obliterate traditional gender roles and equally value, or disrupt, genders.
Children have gender neutral dolls that display only emotions, are addressed in gender neutral pronouns – ‘hen’ rather than the Swedish ‘han’ or ‘hon’ for him and her – and are referred to as “friends” rather than boys or girls.
They cook together, construct together (and if you think those activities aren’t socially gendered anymore, stop and think which of those activities you associated quickly with ‘boy’ or ‘girl’ and if you even bothered to associate another gender with them. Yes, there’s more than two genders.)
The centre has received mostly a positive reception, but you can always rely on the worried psychologists and moral alarmists to interfere. In the article, we’re given this charming insight from Jay Belsky, a child psychologist at the University of California, Davis.
”The kind of things that boys like to do – run around and turn sticks into swords – will soon be disapproved of,” he said. ”So gender neutrality at its worst is emasculating maleness.”
Perhaps it was the snippet chosen by the paper, but I find it interesting that Belsky is more concerned about the emasculation of those assigned as boys than the possible ‘defeminisation’ of those assigned as girls. He doesn’t mention them.
Nice of him, though, to also re-inscribe the idea that boys are innately gendered, and in a hunter/aggressor way. Hey all you peacenik friends of mine who identify as male, please stand up. You’re not really a boy, so you better get yourself a sharp stick, quick.
So these two examples – one from Marrickville and one from Stockholm – show that even in the most conceivably progressive, Queer peopled districts, you can have opinion leaders upset and angered and ‘concerned’ by Queer programs. Interestingly, few parents were cited as angry in these articles.
Now try working a childcare centre in Tamworth and see how far you get with your conversation about how gay is ok, and actually awesome for many. Discussing trans issues? Forget about it, unless you like being othered and eyed with suspicion.
The problem with my parents argument that I’d best not talk to kids, is twofold, despite how correct they may be about what possibilities currently exist within the policy making, care-taking and teaching frameworks of education and care providers.
Firstly, in their submission to practical concerns (which I do not share) they failed to discuss directly whether we should talk to kids about queerness. Forget whether we can. Is there a moral imperative at work here – or two competing ones?
I believe so.
In the one instance where I was able to talk to kids in a non work environment (my four year old cousins), my mother reacted with the same amount of repressive force. In that instance she criticised my use of queer slang around my cousins, saying they were “too young” and that this was something their parents should talk to them about.
The imperative in my mother’s case was very much based in the concept that parents own children, their experiences until they graduate the home, and their moral/social education.
However, if we look at this idea for even a moment, we can see how completely ridiculous it is. Children are instructed directly at school, in youth groups, in churches, in sporting groups and clubs. Most of these institutions take on some of the job of rearing childrens. With perhaps the exception of home-schooled kids, moral and social education is happening everywhere, all the time, and often without the consent of children or parents.
So we can teach kids direct positive messages about race, bodies, food, culture, ethnicity from toddler-dom in care centres and again in schools, but I shouldn’t talk to my family members about an aspect of my identity – or even reference it in passing?
If I said something that referenced my ethnicity or my disability or my gender, I wouldn’t have been taken on. But saying the word “lez” – that’s somehow extreme, right? Riiiiight.
Personally, I think if we dug at the scab of that for long enough, the blood of implicit homophobia would come oozing through. Queerness is a taboo topic, but we don’t want to say that out loud.
We’d just like the pesky Queers to respect parental rights to educate.
But what of the moral imperative to educate? That segues innately with the second flaw of their argument.
The second wobble is that it completely obliterates the role of the Queer community in education as both clients, carers and parents and fails to conceptualise of why their concerns and the need for not just an anti-phobic but a Queer positive environment may be vital.
The fact is, Queers have been parenting for a long time, and will keep on doing so. We people childcare centres with our kids, pay fees and have a right to expect safe places for our children. I shudder to think of what will happen for my little ones when they need group-based supervision – I hope somehow I’m in the position to offer them more than centre care like ABC or my mother’s vision of a political vacuum.
Our kids deserve more than putting up with kids heckling each other with the word ‘gay’ and being tiredly corrected in an “oh this is so PC, but I’ll do it anyway” manner by staff. We deserve more than tolerance. We deserve celebration.
Children are resilient, yes, but they learn how to mould to their worlds and what to expect of it from a ridiculously young age. Cordelia Fine’s recent bestselling book ‘Delusions of Gender’ illustrates in an alarming fashion how children are relentlessly gendered from the smallest of ages, and how this deeply carves ruts of expectation and trajectory into their tiny existences despite our tokenistic efforts at providing (half hearted) gender neutral parenting.
So too are they impacted if we decided to just not raise the whole Queer thing. If we pause awkwardly when the topic arises, they notice. If we say Queerness is sinful, they notice. If we shuffle from foot to foot when we see two men kiss, they notice. If we tell them not to stare at a trans woman – for our comfort and speedy moving on, not the comfort of the trans woman – they notice. Are you getting it? They NOTICE EVERYTHING.
From that they draw their own conclusions, and if their modeling of implicit messages around gender are anything to go by, they aren’t good. An awkward backhander of acknowledgment in seventh grade PE is too little, too late.
If, as adults, we fail them in this most important of regards, then we are responsible for who they grow into.
Many of my queer friends spent some of their teens homeless, in dire mental health, in conflict with their families, in conflict with their peers. Not all, but too many. Suicide statistics in teen gay youth and trans youth are alarming, and the high incidence of violence queers experience is some damn huge fallout – a direct result of our failure to promote radical positivity around queerness.
I’ve been street harassed for holding hands with a female partner. I’ve been called a dyke and a lezzo in a menacing fashion. I’ve had my sexuality held up for amusement, titillation and disdain. I’ve been teased for having short hair, hairy armpits, been vilified for loving multiple people. I’ve had shithead Christians “pray for me”. None of this had to happen if adults had over time, made an effort to change the world for me and celebrate difference.
All kids want to belong and feel ok. How can we do that without mentioning all kids, all families, all kinds of people?
Here’s the thing: we can do it differently, we can start, we can try. If we all just accept that yes, it will be hard, we may have to alienate some people and risk our jobs and crappy interactions with DOCS and faculty heads and family members with agendas – if we accept this, and just move forward with the business of speaking an honest, cheerful, embracing truth…
We can change things. One Ally at a time, and for my kids. Stars in the sky though they are.