Safe Schools Coalition:5 questions to ask yourself

March 18, 2016


5 questions to ask yourself before weighing in with an opinion about the Safe Schools Coalition Resources for Teachers.
1) Have you read all of the lesson plans and viewed all of the videos. All of it. If not…go and do it.. If you don’t have time to do this, on what grounds do you think you have a place in the conversation?
2) What do you understand about the culture and practice of the secondary school education system in your state? When was the last time you
a) were in a class of year 7s or 8s?
b) viewed any standard curriculum documents or resources used by teachers?
c) considered what processes you think are meant by the phrase ‘teach in school’?
3) Are you aware of what is currently already taught schools about gender and sexuality in the context of the social sciences; history; cultural studies; anthropology; health?
4) Have you spent time listening to at least one young person you know under the age of 18 who identifies as gay, intersex, non binary or transgender about their experience in school?.
5) Have you spent time listening to at least on parent of a young person who identifies as gay, intersex, non binary or transgender about their parenting experience and school interactions?
Schools are easily turned into ideological battlegrounds. From many sides. Perhaps there is already a feeling among some that the Safe Schools Coalition has launched the first mortar with its curriculum. Or perhaps others feel it is conservative groups that have come out all guns blazing without warning.
Our children are not well served when we fight over the rights to influence them, as if they were blank slates upon which we can write our preferred version of humanity.
Often this aspiration for our young comes more from a sense of disappointment or disgust with ourselves as adults than a respectful regard for the agency and wellbeing of the young.
Schools are notoriously neglected and misunderstood politically, but occasionally become a flash point for this or that hot-button issue. There is always much public swashbuckling ‘all play’ mayhem when school issues arise, as most of us went to school and so have a reservoir of personal experience and turbulent emotion to fuel plenty of rhetoric and grandstanding, mostly composed of broad generalisations from personal anecdotes. Schools, however are not a direct pipeline into the minds of young people. If we are concerned about the models of sexuality impressed upon the young (and it is well that we are) there are two places we also should engage critically: the images of the mass media, and the models of adult relationships in the lives of young people.

What kind of sexual formation can we expect for a generation of children whose adults behave sexually as this generation does? Whose media will use sex to sell anything? Who have made the young body an insanity inducing fixation of power, inadequacy, perfection and maleability?

A brewing question for faith communities is: how could we provide a ‘safe churches’ resource that addressed the gender and sexuality issues of the ‘safe schools’ coalition project?
Current ‘Safe Churches’ material focuses on the protection of children from adult abuse and the protection of adults in leadership and the institutions that employ them from opportunities, appearances and accusations of impropriety.
This is undeniably important and necessary.
But there are surely other ways in which churches may be threatening or damaging to emerging and diverging identities of young people. A very simple example arose this week as a local church advertised a youth event called ‘The Sex Factor’ for years 7 -12, with no indication that female voices would give a lead alongside the two males who are in charge. Does this not seem fraught?
If nothing else, the Safe Schools Coalition draws our attention to the difficulties that young people face in communities that lack the language, culture, courage or skills to recognise and embrace the diversity of human identities through sex and gender.
It is, I think, especially important for churches who hold a theology of heterosexual normativity to do robust and detailed work on how this theology can positively account for the phenomenon of non-binary gender and sexuality. ‘Normativity’ has been harnessed to ‘legislative limitation’ and ‘theological imperative’ and ‘exclusivity’ by less than logical or healthy means. It is bewildering to see conservative responses focus on re-asserting blue-for-boys and pink-for-girls models: we can do better. Scripture (totally devoid of blue and pink categorisations) holds better than this.
Whether we think same sex attraction is an abomination or fabulous, whether we approve of surgical responses to  gender dysphoria or reject the oppression of women through the normalisation of cosmetic surgery, there is more to this conversation than asserting the moral dimensions of gender and sex.
In a recent QandA episode Lyle Shelton commented on the influence of ‘gender theory’ in the safe schools material, questioning this ‘theory’ as an appropriate basis for the formation of our children.
I have spent a lot of time studying gender theory, particularly in relation to children – ancient and contemporary. I find it more useful than Lyle does. But one thing I agree with him on: theory is not enough.
We must, in the end, respond to the real, actual, living, breathing people in our community. Not just theoretical sexuality, or ideological genders.
Arguments about whether our sexuality and gender is genetic or cultural is fruitless – because a genetic condition is neither more nor less defining than culture or nurture.  When theological appeals turn to ‘scientific’ naturalistic determinism  for validation, we know we are floundering.
All kinds of factors shape our identities. Some factors are deeply imbedded beyond the reach of our conscious choice, and others ebb and flow responding to nurture, opportunity, modelling and decision. What a beautiful, mysterious, sacred thing it is to be human, each of us in a way that no other human ever is or was.
So we must truck with those who we share with in life, and take time to hear each story in order to understand better.
This task will require much more listening than speaking.
But when it does come to speaking, whatever we want to say about the safe schools curriculum, it must be said looking one another straight in the eye, from an informed and considered perspective that understands what is already being taught, and how it is being taught in schools, and how young people are being shaped by the larger narratives of society around them.

One comment

  1. Beth, thankyou for such a well-thought through response to the discussion. Your points about mutual respect, listening, being informed & the impact of attitudes to sexuality & gender in the wider community are so important. On a sort of related note – I’ve been wondering how Christians can/should respond to the increasing fluidity and rejection of categories that I see in teenagers – not just around gender but about many ways I am in the habit of defining people. I don’t think this is a negative shift, it actually challenges me in how I love people. I think it will have a big impact on how evangelical approaches are received by those young people – the language Christians use could easily obscure the actual message, and lead them to dismiss the church as an anachronism.

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