Call to study gay issues at preschool

The Australian, April 30, 2016

Preschoolers should be introduced to the concept of same-sex marriage, according to a leading early education academic who is advocating against the notion of “compulsory heterosexuality” in the classroom.

Melbourne University research fellow Kylie Smith, a contributor to the education curriculum in Victoria, has published a paper about the importance of political activism in the early childhood sector, focusing on the marriage equality debate and ideas around gender.

Echoing proponents of the controversial Safe Schools program, Dr Smith, who works in the university’s Youth Research Centre, laments the degree to which early education resources represent gender and sexuality as “fixed” rather than “fluid and changing”.

She refers to her experience teaching “Lydia”, who had said she wanted to grow up to be a boy. She had told the young girl that “it might not be easy but she can and people like doctors can help”. The paper, titled “And the princesses married and lived happily ever after: challenging compulsory heterosexuality in the early childhood classroom”, was published as part of a broader occasional paper released by the university in December.

Last month the federal government ordered an overhaul of the Safe Schools Coalition following a review that found ­elements to be inappropriate for younger students. Advocacy group Early Childhood Australia has courted controversy with its “start early” program, a resource for teaching about respectful ­relationships that touches on ­issues about sex, sexuality and crossdressing.

There are no specific references to same-sex marriage in the official national curriculum for preschools, while the topic of gender is canvassed broadly in the context of creating an inclusive environment. According to Dr Smith, more than 30 years of research into gender and sexual identity formation had left some educators with the view that children were too young or innocent to understand when they were speaking or acting in sexist or homo­phobic ways.

Her paper cites the work of the late Elizabeth Dau, an outspoken advocate of the principles of equity and respect for diversity in early childhood, who argued that children were influenced by society’s biases. “Families where there is a mum and a dad can choose to get married, but where a family has two mums or two dads, they are not allowed to get married in Australia,”

Dr Smith said. Education Minister Simon Birmingham declined to comment yesterday but has previously said “advocacy and activism” has no role in school-based programs. An Early Childhood Australia spokeswoman said individual educators would have their own views on same-sex marriage but “it’s not something that we’d comment on right now”.

Dr Smith did not respond to a request for comment yesterday.


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