The Commonwealth government’s Safe Schools Coalition program, directed at providing a more positive environment for “same-sex attracted, intersex and gender-diverse students” is being criticised for advocating radical views about gender and sexuality. Senator Cory Bernardi, from South Australia, describes the program as indoctrinating “children into a Marxist agenda of cultural relativism”. Senator Eric Abetz, from Tasmania, argues that it is “a program of social engineering where parents, when they get to understand what it is, rebel against it and in fact vote for their schools not to be involved”.
While there is no doubt that elements of the program involve a genuine attempt to reduce bullying and prejudice against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and intersex (LGBTQI) students, Senators’ Abetz and Bernardi are correct in what they argue. The ideology underpinning the program and associated material reflects a cultural-left bias about gender and sexuality that has existed for many years. As I detailed in Why Our Schools Are Failing, published in 2004, the cultural left has long critiques Western capitalist society as ‘phallocentric’, ‘oppressive’ and ‘misogynist’. A rainbow alliance of cultural-left movements, including neo-Marxism, feminism, gender studies and queer theory argue that traditional views about sexuality and gender enforce a binary, hierarchical code that oppresses women and anyone who does not conform to society’s heterosexist expectations.
Examples quoted in Why Our Schools Are Failing include the University of Melbourne’s History Department’s course ‘The Body: History, Sex and Gender’, where students are introduced to “an understanding of the different readings of the body… of the construction of the slender body, the gay and lesbian body, and the gendered body of the late 20th century”. At a national conference of English teachers an academic, when referring to heterosexuality, argued: “I am proposing that this new form of hierarchical dualism can and should be resisted and challenged (by) using the English classroom as a site for resistance and interventionist strategies.”
Central to LGBTQI ideology is the belief that heterosexuality is patriarchal and bourgeois and, further, that men and boys have dominated for so long because of what the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci called hegemony. Gramsci argues that unequal power relations within society occur because they appear natural and beyond dispute. Instead of gender being biologically determined it is a social construct and, as a result, students can be taught to act differently. Drawing on the theories of the French Marxist Louis Althusser, the cultural-left also argues that schools are parts of the capitalist system’s “ideological state apparatus” and they must be critiqued and challenged if the socialist utopia is ever to arise.
As a result, the 2004 South Australian school curriculum asserted “gender is a social construction organised upon unequal power relations which define and limit opportunities for girls and boys… The current construction of the gender order also supports heterosexuality as the norm. Social constructions of advantage and disadvantage are of human making and therefore capable of change.”
Given the history of gender and sexuality theory it should not surprise that the Safe Schools do Better booklet warns against heterosexism on the basis that it unfairly limits “ideas about what is ‘normal’ and ‘not normal’”. Reflecting Gramsci and Althusser, the statement is also made that homophobia “includes institutional and cultural bias and structural inequality.” Not surprisingly, the Safe Schools Gender Questioning booklet adopts a relativistic position when telling students, “There are many genders beyond just ‘male’ and ‘female’: gender can be fluid and limitless”. The latter booklet goes on to advise students there “are no limitations on what your gender and identity can be.”
While the Safe Schools Coalition argues that approximately 16% of students are LGBTQI it also must be accepted that while students, especially during puberty, might be uncertain about their sexuality and gender, by the time they enter the adult world they will be more comfortable with who and what they are. Based on what is described as the “largest, most comprehensive population-based survey of sexuality ever undertaken in Australia” two researchers at La Trobe University’s Research Centre in Sex, Health and Society conclude that approximately 98% of men and women identify as heterosexual.
In the context of the debate about same-sex marriage it is also important to note, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, that only 1% of couples describe themselves as same-sex. Instead of acknowledging that heterosexuality is the norm in relation to Australian society the Safe Schools Coalition presents a negative caricature. Nothing positive is presented about being heterosexual and in relation to the LGBTQI lifestyle there is no information about negatives, such as the dangers of gender reassignment or the higher rates of HIV/AIDS.
Given events over the last two to three weeks it is obvious that the Safe Schools Coalition program is highly controversial and the Commonwealth Government is right to call for an inquiry. Submissions are due by March 11.
Dr Kevin Donnelly is a Senior Research Fellow at the Australian Catholic University and Director of the Education Standards Institute