We like heteronormativity and we don’t want you to smash it
by Belinda Brown | September 17, 2019
Earlier this year Muslim parents took to the streets to protest against a programme called “No Outsiders”, which, pre-empting the government’s new Sex and Relationships Guidance, informs children from reception upwards about LGBT relationships. The parents felt that what the children were learning clashed with their moral and family values, but the argument was quickly framed as Muslim intolerance and homophobia versus liberal love and acceptance.
While the Muslims have been listened to, they have not been taken seriously. In this and following articles I explore their concerns. My reading of No Outsiders has thrown up profound questions about how it relates to the vision we have for our society and our children’s future. My research suggests that British parents may find they have more in common with the Muslim parents than with the academics shaping our children’s educational resources.
Equality, diversity or a Trojan Horse?
No Outsiders started life as a half-million pound Economic and Social Research Council funded project entitled, “Researching Approaches to Sexualities Equality in Primary Schools”. It took in the work of 26 practitioner researchers spread out over 16 schools. They started out with four objectives but most relevant to my argument are the first two: “to add to the understanding of the operation of heteronormativity within primary school contexts” and “to develop effective means of challenging this heteronormativity”. (Atkinson et al. 2009).
In 2008 the No Outsiders team ran a university seminar called “Queering the Body: Queering Primary Education”. Despite obfuscation of their intent to “challenge heteronormativity”, this provoked some negative publicity and a parental backlash, as demonstrated here (Annex 3).
The reaction caused teachers to further censor what they shared with parents. Elizabeth, one of the practitioners who reported from her classroom activity about “gay penguins”, said:
“I noticed myself not taking photos of the less artistically mature pictures…first because they were less obviously penguins (or that’s what I told myself) but then, underlying this, because I imagined the newspapers saying ‘Look at how they are getting hold of children who aren’t even old enough to draw or paint properly and brainwashing them’… And I did the same with the writing – avoiding taking photos of the children’s tiny hands doing the writing because it made them seem so innocent; hesitating before photographing anything that might seem as though they’d been indoctrinated into PC gay-loving-ness.” (DePalma & Atkinson, 2009; p.102).
The other incident which influenced the path this project took occurred when one of the teachers, Andrew Moffat, lost his job as a result of introducing to his classes a resource he had written called Challenging Homophobia in Schools (CHIPS). As Moffat explained:
“It’s a lesson to be learned, because I didn’t get governor approval, I didn’t get parental engagement, and it wasn’t whole school – I just did it myself, with a couple of cool friends in Year 5 and 6, who dropped lessons in here and there.”
When CHIPS failed, Moffat re-wrote it, using the name No Outsiders and framing the programme as part of an equalities agenda, as he explains here and here. This was a strategy which had been worked out by the academics who ran the original research project:
“We found that colleagues’, parents’ and governor’s concerns….were addressed most effectively where homophobia and heternormativity were challenged as cultural phenomena (like racism) that should be addressed as social justice issues (DePalma & Jennett, 2007) and that this process was facilitated by ensuring that LGBT equalities work was not confined to the SRE (Sex and Relationship Education) curriculum” (Atkinson 2008; p.27)
Moffat insists that his aim is to promote the equalities agenda. Others have described No Outsiders as a Trojan Horse.
Moving goalposts; from challenging homophobia to challenging heternormativity
Much of the anxiety surrounding the teaching of No Outsiders arises from the possibility that it could create an awareness in very young children of sexual activity, particularly homosexual activity. After all, being gay or lesbian is defined by sexual feeling, so how can children be learning about LGBT without some reference to sex?
The authors dismiss this concern, at least at primary school level:
“Contrary to the assumptions of the popular press, a queer pedagogy would not be concerned with the minutiae of gay sex: its aim might be the far more disruptive one of upsetting the authority of these pairings [male/female; gay/straight; mind/body]”. (Nixon, 2009; p.58)
What they mean by “the authority of these pairings” is “heteronormativity”, which they desire not only to challenge, but, as Barnes and Carlile more robustly put it, “smash”. (Barnes and Carlile 2018; p. 66 )
In their handbook on how to transform your school into an LGBT friendly place, Barnes and Carlile describe heteronormativity as:
“the assumption that everyone is heterosexual. For the purposes of this book, we use the term to also include the assumption that everyone is male or female.” (p.66)
No Outsiders adds, in typical queer academic lingo:
“The concept of heteronormativity also proved useful in examining how the positioning of binary sex/gender privileges legitimises heterosexual desire and gender above all other gendered and sexualised identities.” (De Palma and Atkinson; 2009, p.18)
Counteracting the heteronormative “assumption” that everyone is male of female is already an established part of pedagogy. Our primary schools now have books like “William’s Doll”, which is aimed at upsetting stereotypes, “Princess Boy” with its rather eerie faceless characters, and “Ten Thousand Dresses” – a story about a child, who we are told is a boy, but who is referred to also as he, she and a girl. “Are you a boy or are you a girl?” is used to teach children how to use gender pronouns.
The consequences are with us in the huge surge of children suffering from gender dysphoria and all the associated risks. If one’s gender identity is in part culturally constructed, the destruction of stereotypes, or markers of sexual identity and ways of expressing gender, and the devaluation of our sex differences will have these predictable and intended results.
However, it is the other aspects of the effort to smash heternormativity that I would like to look at here.
Heteronormativity is understood to be a hegemonic socio-cultural system which creates sex differences and heterosexual desire and expression. The belief is that, being male and female, our desire for the opposite sex and all that follows from it are socio-culturally constructed (DePalma 2013). This is comforting for gays and lesbians who may feel excluded by the constant portrayal of heterosexuality in the mainstream media. If sex and gender are socially and culturally constructed then they can be re-constructed in a way which includes them too.
These theories have practical implications for the world as we have inherited it. If you don’t believe in male and female, then, as Barnes and Carlile insist (2018; p.39), mothers and fathers should be reduced to ”Parent 1” and ”Parent 2”. If you don’t associate parenthood with sexual reproduction, what happens to the symbolic, psychological and ultimately biological loading of the words “mother’ and ‘father”? If it is “wrong” to associate gender with reproduction, what happens to the family founded on procreative sex?
Those who think this way are unlikely to be supportive of heterosexual relationships, or marriage, or monogamous relationships, or reproduction of children within a heterosexual family. And that’s exactly what an examination of the No Outsiders research project seems to confirm.
However the authors of the project intentionally obscure these broader aims:
“…government policy and guidance tends to take an anti-homophobia – and more explicitly, anti-bullying – stance, … a discourse we all tend to appropriate when we communicate with government bodies or with the general public through the popular media. As project members, we have also discovered that the stances we take and the discourses we draw upon depend not only on the context and audience but also on our own fundamental understandings of what it means to go ‘beyond tolerance’ of LGBT people. [my italics](Atkinson and DePalma, 2009; pp838-839).
In other words, anti-bullying policy is amenable to our particular aims, and it goes down well with the public. This may be why there appears to be a disjunction between the No Outsiders programme and what actually goes on.
Belinda Brown is author of The Private Revolution: Women in the Polish Underground Movement and a number of well-cited academic papers. British, she also writes for The Daily Mail and The Conservative Woman. She has a particular interest in men’s issues and the damage caused by feminism.
Next: Smashing heteronormativity 101