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Dangerous predators or confused kids?

Behind the conservative push to keep ‘gender ideology’ out of schools.

The NSW Legislative Assembly moves one step closer to a hearing on Mark Latham’s anti-trans ‘Parental Rights’ Bill as public inquiry closes this week. With the NSW Liberal Parliamentary Secretary for Education Kevin Conolly supporting the Bill and the chair of NSW Legislative Council Education Committee being Latham himself, the Bill – outlawing the teaching of ‘gender fluidity’ in schools and holding teachers and counselors as collateral – signals the most brazen foray into anti-LGBT culture wars since the 2017 crusade against Safe Schools. 

The Bill asserts ‘parental primacy’ over matters of sexuality and gender and prohibits the teaching of ‘gender theory’ – any ‘teaching, instruction, counselling and advice that gender identity can be different to one’s sex assigned at birth’ – effectively outlawing all trans-inclusive instruction and functionally binding the hands of all school staff, not just teachers, in supporting queer and questioning students. School staff often represent  the first point of contact for trans and gender non-conforming students before they formally engage with any gender-related treatment, counselling and therapy, in a period where the risk of suicide peaks. Removing the general mandate of NSW Schools to provide comprehensive sex, identity and relationship education and promote environments inclusive to the actualisation of queer youth, Latham’s proposals continue a conservative legacy of institutional paternalism, in which classrooms are misguidedly cast as defending ‘family values’ .

While discussions of trans ‘issues’ are only just now starting to be accompanied with an actual inclusion of transgender experiences, the framing of their inherent ‘threat’ to society largely remains. The public was first introduced to transgender issues on the terms of public access to bathrooms. Conservatives portrayed trans women as threats to women’s safety, coded as ‘sexual predators in a dress’ that held their femininity as some kind of performance ‘trick’. Granting licence to access gender-specific spaces would, in their minds, somehow institute an apparent license to now commit sexual assault and the dissolution of womanhood itself. 

Now the focus has shifted to identity documents, the psychiatrist’s office and, of course, the classroom – with conservatives, once deep in their conviction that womanhood was in existential threat of being erased, now are suddenly invested in the notion that it can never go away. This can be seen most recently with the fascination with gender-questioning youth accessing ‘gender clinics’, where young women experiencing ‘gender confusion’, incapable in their own agency, must be protected from ‘persuasion’ into ‘irreversible’  procedures by ‘gender activists’. This reasoning led the UK High Court in Bell v Travistock to decide that teenagers are unable to decide to take puberty blockers themselves – which is an entirely reversible ‘procedure’. Such desire to keep kids immune from any ‘gender ideology’ propels the medical gatekeeping of trans care and identity across Australia. 

Growing up transgender in Australia is already difficult on top of the anxieties associated with teenage life. Young people are more politically active against a state and status-quo they perceive as unrepresentative of their interests. These movements for change, such as School Strike for Climate, have been met with dismissive demands to ‘go back to school’ with the ultimate concern of politicians to circumvent the social and material conditions that give rise to such alienation. The logic is that such activism is not the political consciousness of an increasingly informed rising generation but the infiltration of our curriculum and classrooms by teachers and bureaucrats by ‘radical activists’ with ‘political agendas’. Latham’s bill, and a desire to ‘keep teaching non-ideological’, is the next link in this logical chain.

Just prior to the marriage equality plebiscite in 2017, the documentary ‘gayby baby’ – a film directed by Maya Newell following four children raised by same-sex parents – became a focal point of an orchestrated campaign. After being shown at Burwood Girls High during class (and which resulted in no complaints from parents), the film was banned from being shown during class time in public schools by the-then Education Minister.

This ministerial direction was eerily reminiscent of Thatcherite ‘Section 28’ laws that arose at the height of the AIDS epidemic in the late 1980s. Calls to ‘defend’ against  supposed predations of ‘degenerate evangelists’ on impressionable youth, in the interests of public health or moral safety, has long been a lynchpin of “family values” and moral panic campaigning. 

In seeking to frame teaching as non-ideological and free from moral instruction, the bill’s proponents neglect the inherent role teachers and staff play in the formation of community and provision of support to vulnerable young people. Donning well worn euphemisms of ‘protecting children’ and ‘ensuring parental rights’ doesn’t ensure the safety and wellbeing of gender non-conforming children. It  is this, and not the gesture of affirming pronouns, that is the biggest threat to realising an environment and future where such kids feel supported.

Public submissions against the Bill in NSW Parliament ends this Sunday 28th March (Education Legislation Amendment (Parental Rights) Bill 2020.)

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