The newly appointed head of the New South Wales (NSW) Department of Education, Mark Scott, has called for an investigation into the ways that gender and sexuality are talked about within the Crossroads health education program for Years 11 and 12.
The main concern is the way gender identity is being taught in this program, specifically that:
gender is a ‘social construct’ that is neither fixed nor binary and that sexuality is ‘dynamic’ and ‘constantly changing’.
The concern is that these messages do not have a “scientific basis” and are potentially harmful to the students that are receiving them.
While gender and sexual identity are often used interchangeably, these terms are distinctly different.
Gender identity refers to a person’s personal and internal identification with being male, female, both or neither.
Sexuality, however, refers to a person’s attraction to others, whether this be physical, emotional or spiritual.
These two things are not always related, and there are countless ways of identifying with both.
Who is the Crossroads program taught to?
Crossroads is a NSW-based educational program for Year 11 and 12 students. Its aim is to provide an intensive course that covers personal identity, mental health and wellbeing, relationships, sexuality and sexual health, drugs and alcohol and safe travel. All NSW government secondary schools are required to deliver the program over a minimum of 25 hours.
Like the Safe Schools Coalition, the program has been in place for a number of years. However, both of these initiatives have only recently come under scrutiny.
This points to an overarching attack on individuals, groups and institutions that are seeking to redress the oppression felt by those in gender and sexual minorities.
What does the research say?
Gender can be understood in three broad ways:
Gender as binary
The first of these is the idea of biological determinism, or “we’re born that way”.
This idea asserts that we are biologically programmed to enact our gender in particular ways. We are either born XX (female) or XY (male), and have definitive and fixed gender and sex roles that align with these characteristics.
Problematically, this theory does not account for the approximately 1.7% of individuals who are neither XX or XY (intersex), nor for the entirety of the transgender population.
The idea of a “correct” or understandable gender binary has led to around one or two of every 1,000 newborns undergoing surgery to “normalise” the appearance of their genitals. Most of this surgery is cosmetic and rarely medically necessary.
An independent study of intersex people in Australia found “strong evidence suggesting a pattern of institutionalised shaming and coercive treatment” of these individuals.
This led to poorer physical and emotional health, as well as increased rates of poverty and suicide, and poorer educational experiences and rates of employment.
This evidence demonstrates that the theoretical frame of biological determinism, which so many rely upon to make claims about the “normal” way to be a man or a woman, is flawed and is resulting in damaging outcomes for a section of our community.
Gender as a social construct
The second way that we can understand gender is as socially constructed – children “do what they see” and learn from an early age how to be male and masculine or female and feminine.
As particular behaviours are culturally dominant, these tend to become normalised and replicated.
However, this perspective again cannot account for the fact that some people resist these normative stereotypes and push back against gender norms.
We know from extensive research that those who do not ascribe to the predominant gender norms experience greater levels of violence and harassment. This is the most common and least disrupted form of violence in schools.
Bullying such as this serves to normalise particular constructions of gender and polices boundaries – often with a homophobic edge.
This means that although this theory of gender has provided us with additional flexibility for understanding gender relations, it cannot be the theory that encapsulates every possibility.
Gender as a construct of language
Finally, gender can be understood as a construct of language and discourse.
In other words, we apply arbitrary understandings of gender to behaviours and bodies, and these meanings can change across time and space.
This theory asserts that there is no fixed truth about gender (or sexuality); the ways that we refer to gender are simply constructs, reiterations of “common sense” truths.
This theoretical lens rejects the idea that gender and sexuality are static, that people are “born that way”, or are just “doing what they see”.
Instead, it suggests we assign categories to bodies and behaviours and that these categories are powerful in themselves. This theory allows a more complex perspective of gender to develop – one that is not exclusionary.
It rejects that there is any one true way of understanding gender. As such, it is far more applicable and universal than the other theories.
How useful is the program?
Although sex and relationships education represents a key part of policies to safeguard young people and their sexual health, government guidance is largely outdated. This results in poor-quality programs that are mostly not meeting young people’s needs.
The Crossroads program focuses on challenging and changing the dominant (often essentialist) beliefs, values and expectations around gender and sexuality.
While it does not explicitly name a particular theory of gender in its curriculum, its focus on unpacking social and cultural expectations of gender allows us to presume that it positions gender as a construct of society or of language.
This approach provides students with meaningful and accurate information about gender diversity in order to challenge homophobic and transphobic discrimination.
The program also asks students to consider the ways that gender has influenced their own and others’ identity and relationships (including violence), and the ways that social and cultural pressures have influenced their own gender.
These are crucial questions for young people. About 80% of them will experience or witness gendered (often homophobic or transphobic) violence and harassment at school. They are likely to alter their behaviours to avoid this persecution.
It’s also important to recognise that schools are sites where heterosexuality is constructed as the only expected and “normal” sexuality, as binary (and biological) gender constructions tend to dominate in these contexts.
Teaching nuanced and critical understandings of gender is crucial in an environment where LGBTIQ members of the community are between six and 15 times (depending on their intersecting identities) more likely to self-harm or attempt suicide than their heterosexual or cisgender – people who have a gender identity that matches the sex that they were assigned at birth – counterparts.
Research has shown that having more conservative attitudes towards gender may link with the acceptance and promotion of violence. Maintaining and extending the approach of Crossroads to Years K to 10 sex and relationships education is therefore critical if we are to reduce incidents of abuse and harassment in schools.