Smashing heteronormativity 101: disrupting children’s sexual intuitions

The theoretical assumptions and practices of the No Outsiders project are outlined in numerous academic papers and reports.

Firstly, they explain that the forces which preserve heteronormativity can also disrupt it:

“These popular discourses comprise a web of perceptions and histories that serve to support heteronormativity, but which also hold the potential to disrupt it. It is this potential that we have tried to exploit in the most recent implementation phase of our research”. (DePalma and Atkinson, 2010; p.1672)

This is because heteronormativity is sustained by belief which requires constant reconstruction:

“….rather like a religious system, the heterosexual matrix is sustained by belief. We consider the notion … of the matrix as a ‘sacred order’ which is inherently unstable: it requires constant maintenance; the sacred order is constantly at risk of violation.” (p.17 here)

And “…it can’t exist once we withdraw consent.” (p.18 here)

They propose to disorganise consent through a process of “queering consensual heterornormativity”:

“In our current research, a collaborative action research project…, we have noticed the ways in which the introduction of unintelligible genders and sexualities in the form of, for example gay teachers and princes who are married (to each other) create crucial moments of degrounding. These momentary degroundings have the potential to disorganise consent…” (Atkinson & DePalma p.21)

They give many examples. A well-respected teacher comes out as gay and refuses to allow the child to normalise this, as in the well-known comedy sketch “the only gay in the village”.  Another teacher comes out as a lesbian while in the role of an alternative Cinderella, and so on. They see these “micro-incidents” as part of a process of transformation which leads to a new paradigm (Atkinson & DePalma pp .22-23).

However, when it comes to challenging heteronormativity I think they underestimate what they have achieved.

The fragmentation of parenthood, reproduction and sex

One of their key defences has been that they do not talk about sex:

“There’s nothing to do with sex in No Outsiders. There’s nothing about bedrooms, there’s nothing about how babies are made.”

However, it is precisely the absence of sex and reproduction when talking about parenting that is harmful in this context. Our understanding of parenthood is shaped by the capacity for reproduction, which adds sacred significance to sex. By highlighting gay and lesbian parenting, LGBT programmes play a vital role in severing the relationship between parenthood, reproduction and sex. This is reinforced by the new official guidance, which separates sex and relationships from each other; relationships lessons, in which children learn about same sex parenting, become compulsory, whereas sex education is reduced to physical processes and is not.

Disrupting parental authority

Disrupting parental authority is another way of upsetting the ”heteronormative matrix”. Parents are the most tangible source of sexual normality. They are the child’s first-hand evidence that a male and female working together have the capacity to produce children and create a family - even where this model remains only a potentiality because of single parenthood or divorce. Disrupting parental authority weakens one of heteronormativity’s supports.

The No Outsiders programme attempts this at two levels. Parents are often portrayed unsympathetically at the same time that these stories invert the traditional order. For example, in Prince Henry the father asks the son to forgive him, and tells the son that he has taught him something no one else has. This inversion is emphasized by an accompanying lesson plan where children decide which laws are to be kept and which are to be torn up.

Back in the real world these stories are occurring in a context where children are the ones who are expected to “educate” their parents. Andrew Moffat explains the importance of working with parents as they are the biggest influence on children’s upbringing and he doesn’t want the children to receive “mixed messages”. So, he develops lesson plans which

“…are focused on children working with parents to develop their [i.e. the parents] understanding and commitment to equalities. Rather than lesson plans for the classroom, these are lesson plans for child-parent workshops with homework, to reinforce the message outside the school gates.” (Moffat, 2017; p.10)

He goes on to explain how children invite parents to school workshops where “Children explain to their adult what No Outsiders is all about...” (Moffat, 2017; p.20). The school effectively gives children the authority to challenge their parents’ values, which is likely to create conflict in the home.

Hollowing out marriage, disrupting monogamy

The No Outsiders programme only talks about marriage in the context of same sex marriage. But same sex marriage has specific characteristics. Not only is the association with reproduction removed but sexual consummation and sexual fidelity are not required either. In Prince Henry the portrait given is of best friends marrying each other. What happens to the child’s understanding of marriage when they are taught it is a contract between best friends? And what happens to children’s understandings of their best friend relationships when these stories effectively tell them they are gay?

A critique of monogamy is central to disrupting the “heteronormative matrix” and this came out in the development of No Outsiders. On one hand they were keen to promote the image of safe gay families, as Andy, one of the teacher researchers, explained:

“…at this point in the children’s lives we should be promoting safe images of gay people and gay families, to redress the balance. We need to talk about gay people falling in love because that image has been hidden for so long. They can find out about saunas and gaydar when they come out in their teens!” (Atkinson & Moffat, 2009; p.102)

However, within the No Outsiders framework the discussion of safe, comfortable “gay families” brought up its own issues. Some researchers worried that by promoting the image of monogamous, married, gay families they were simply reinforcing the institution which they wanted to undermine. In fact, the story about the gay penguins raising a chick together, which was tinder to the recent Muslim protests, was seen by those developing the pedagogies as ultimately being too tame:

“I’m really concerned about the ways in which I find myself latching on to knowable safe images of gay daddies and lesbian mummies or at least gay and lesbian couples falling in love. I guess I’m partly led to this safe, middle of the road place by the project books which inscribe these notions of romantic, monogamous relationships…however, this essentialism, however strategic, runs the risk of reifying categories that a queer project seeks to disrupt (reinforcing, for example, the perceived superiority of the particular type of monogamous, child-centred family relationships embodied by the penguins).” (DePalma & Atkinson, 2009; p.9).

This critique of monogamy can be seen at a number of points in No Outsiders literature. (Nixon, 2009; p.61)

Non-consenting children

There are deeper issues at stake. The “heteronormative matrix” includes feelings, assumptions the children hold that one day they might have a relationship with, or get married to, or make children with, someone of the opposite sex. These are not beliefs or ideologies but ways of being which arise out of growing up in a family with a mother and a father (even if they live separately). Children may instinctively know that heterosexuality is the way that their own little world has been made.

Recognizing the depth of heterosexuality is vital to understanding the difficulties and pain of homosexuality. It also helps us to understand the extent to which we are on unknown territory when we start messing with these ideas in children’s minds.

In the research there are a number of points which indicate the children were clearly uncomfortable with having these assumptions challenged. An example is Laura’s gender-troubling maths worksheet:

“I drew a person that looked, I would say unmistakably if we’re talking in terms of what is conventional, like a girl. But I called the person James. The kids could not get their heads around it. [One child] asked if he could cross the name out and change it to a girl’s name. I asked why he wanted to do that. ‘Because it’s not a boy!’ he replied. ‘How do you know?’ I asked. ‘Because he is wearing a bow in his hair’. ‘But can’t boys wear bows in their hair? At this point the group of six children all laughed and told me no, boys can’t wear bows in their hair. Of course I asked ’Why not?’ [The child who wanted to change the name] told me ‘boys wear bows around their necks not on their heads’. I commented that I had never heard of anything like that and that I thought anyone could wear a bow wherever they liked!” (DePalma & Atkinson, 2009; p.30)

It is unfortunate that the teacher says she has never heard of anything like that, because that is of course a lie.

A similar response occurs when the same teacher discusses the story “King and King” and talks quite openly with the class about the Princes’ sexuality.

“Despite this discussion, the embeddedness of heterosexuality and ideas about marriage were such that the reasons Laura’s pupils suggested for the prince not marrying a princess cohered around his preference for singleton status and wish to avoid gold-diggers.” (Allan et al. 2008; p.8)

In some fundamental way these children are not consenting to the gay and lesbian narrative. That teachers plough ahead, regardless, may acclimatize children to having their feelings ignored by those who have authority over them. This would render them more vulnerable to abuse.

All subtlety is dispensed with by another LGBT programme, Educate and Celebrate. Here, teachers and children “come out” during school assemblies akin to religious services welcoming new converts:

“One of our busiest times is February, LGBT history month when we engage our students, our teachers our parents and the local authorities in whole school change. We have been looking at LGBT all week. We have had singers, we have had dancers, we have had singing and we have had drama, we have had teachers coming out to standing ovations, we have had kids come out…it’s just been incredible…the best week ever.

These processes risk interfering with children’s deepest instincts, feelings and thought processes and there may be many parents who feel that this is territory on which non-family members should not trespass.

LGBT, the new political axis

Challenging heteronormativity is not simply about treating all people equally or loving our neighbour. It is about changing the way we think about the human being as such. And, while we should treat others with kindness and respect, we are free to think what we like. We are free to think that a mother and father is better than two same sex parents, or that gay marriage is wrong, or that if we are born with a penis we belong to the male sex. And while all topics should be up for discussion, people should not, without our knowledge, use their power and influence to try to change our beliefs, not to mention reality itself.

Yet fundamental social change is exactly what those who challenge heteronormativity want to achieve. Barnes and Carlile explain that “In a nutshell, we are asking teachers to change, and not simply mirror our society.” (2017; p.33). They also have a whole chapter which explains how

“The next phase is” for teachers to “take your work out into the community, spread the good practice, demonstrate the positive impact of your institutional change and turn it into societal change.” (p.93)

This desire for widespread social change was explicit in the No Outsiders project from the beginning, where their work was seen

“as a first step in a much larger politically engaged educational project supporting social justice.” (DePalma and Atkinson, 2009; p.29)

This has been put into practice by Andrew Moffat, who has carried the seeds of political activism sown over 10 years ago into schools today. In “Reclaiming Radical Ideas in Schools: Preparing Young Children for Life in Modern Britain,” he explains the importance of taking these ideas into the community:

“…in the infancy of No Outsiders we have enabled conversations with our parent community about LGBT equality that may never before have taken place … but two years further on, questions need to be asked about the effectiveness of the work when it is confined to working behind the school walls. Are we teaching children to say one thing when in school and another at home or in their local community, and if so, is this real change? Are we really engaging with the community on new ideas?”

“We want the equality ethos that we have created inside the school gates to permeate the surrounding community where different ideas about equality and diversity may, or may not exist.”

“[T]he time is right to extend the No Outsiders ethos beyond the classroom.” (Moffat 2017)

We are a democratic society. Should a small group of people be funded and provided with the tools to change our society without our properly informed consent?

One of the problems is that the activists, lobbyists and interest groups are not explicit about the changes they would like to see. Trying to identify the subtext of the programme being rolled out in schools is difficult because there is a lack of fit between what the educationalists publicly present and the motivations, theories and beliefs which inform their work.

However, the evidence presented here suggests that the idea of challenging heteronormativity underpins the relationships education which has been significantly invested in and is now being rolled out in British schools. The academics, pedagogues and teachers doing so have a responsibility to clarify their vision, their aims and their methods. We need to know what their goal is, and whether it is shared by the parents of the children who are going to be subjected to their “pedagogies”. Only when we know and have properly discussed and researched all these things will we be able to give, or withhold, consent.

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. (Part 1 of this article is here.)


Allan, A., Atkinson, E., Brace, E., DePalma. R. and Hemingway, J., 2008. Speaking the unspeakable in forbidden places: Addressing lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender equality in the primary school. Sex Education, 8(3), pp.315-328.

Atkinson, E. and Moffat, A., 2009. Bodies and minds: Essentialism, activism and strategic disruptions in the primary school and beyond. Interrogating heternormativity in primary schools, pp.95-110

Atkinson, Elizabeth et al (2009). No Outsiders: Researching approaches to sexualities equality in primary schools: Full Research Report ESRC End of Award Report, RES-62-23-0095.Swindon:ESRC

Atkinson, E. and DePalma, R., 2009. Interrogating heteronormativity in primary schoolsStoke-on-Trent, England: Trentham Books.

Atkinson, E. and DePalma, R., 2009. Un‐believing the matrix: Queering consensual heteronormativity. Gender and Education21(1), pp.17-29.

Atkinson, E. and DePalma, R., 2008. Imagining the homonormative: Performative subversion in education for social justice. British Journal of Sociology of Education, 29(1), pp25-35.

DePalma, R., 2013. Choosing to lose our gender expertise: Queering sex/gender in school settings. Sex Education13(1), pp.1-15.

DePalma, R. and Atkinson, E., 2010. The nature of institutional heteronormativity in primary schools and practice-based responses. Teaching and Teacher Education26(8), pp.1669-1676

DePalma, R. and Atkinson, E., 2009. ‘No Outsiders’: Moving beyond a discourse of tolerance to challenge heteronormativity in primary schools. British Educational Research Journal35(6), pp.837-855.

DePalma, R. and Atkinson, E., 2009. “Permission to Talk About It” Narratives of Sexual Equality in the Primary Classroom. Qualitative Inquiry15(5), pp.876-892.

DePalma, R. and Teague, L., 2008. A democratic community of practice: Unpicking all those words. Educational Action Research16(4), pp.441-456.

Barnes, E. and Carlile, A., 2018. How to Transform Your School Into an LGBT+ Friendly Place: A Practical Guide for Nursery, Primary and Secondary Teachers. Jessica Kingsley Publishers.

Moffat, A., 2017. Reclaiming Radical Ideas in Schools: Preparing Young Children for Life in Modern Britain. Routledge.

Nixon, D., 2009. Vanilla” strategies: Compromise or collusion. Interrogating heteronormativity in primary schools: The work of the No Outsiders project, pp.51-65..


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