gender politics

‘Act more normal’: what happens now to gender diverse kids at school

From GSCS SIG Symposium: Exploring sexuality and gender diversity throughout school communities: Students, parents and educators

Where schools do a good job at celebrating diverse students, they create a better experience for everyone. However, the confluence of the papers from our Gender, Sexualities and Cultural Studies SIG session showed that this outcome is rare. When we planned this symposium we did so with the aim of holistically mapping the problems that emerge when schools and the institutions that influence them persist in a narrative of sameness- and to do this, we collectively presented four papers that related to the experiences of students, parents and educators, and the policing of gender and sexuality norms that they encountered at and around schools. In doing so, the panel demonstrated that schools continue to act as regulatory institutions that shape individual’s experiences of their gender and sexuality, often negatively.

Jackie Ullman’s research with more than 2300 gender and sexuality diverse students offered clear, empirical evidence that verbal and physical harassment that targeted gender and sexuality diversity in schools is still common, with more than half of the participants indicating that they heard homophobic language more than several times per week, and more than half of these saying that teachers ‘never’ or ‘hardly ever’ intervened in this. Indeed, 10% of participants indicated that teachers actively participated in this kind of marginalising language. Ullman’s research also found that teachers sometimes participated in victim-blaming, suggesting that students could avoid the violence that they were encountering if they only “could try to act more normal”. While these findings show the deep problems faced by gender and sexuality diverse young people at school, they also indicate that students do better at school when teachers are positive in the everyday about these identities- and this includes higher attendance, sense of connectedness, greater academic performance and increased self-concept. Unfortunately, the political context in NSW, including proposed legislation that may prohibit curricular performances such as these, could create a commitment to diminishing these outcomes.

Beyond the experiences of students, Tania Ferfolja and Victoria Rawlings each explored the experiences of parents that encountered the homo-cis-normative institution of the school. Ferfolja’s paper demonstrated the contemporary pressures and scrutiny that gender and sexuality diverse people are encountering, particularly in New South Wales. In her research with Jackie Ullman, Ferfolja captured how this scrutiny played out in the lives of parents of gender and sexuality diverse children, as they encountered schools that were often hostile or exclusionary to these identities. They found that these parents had to undertake time consuming and emotionally taxing labour to prepare their children for potential discrimination at school, monitor their safety, seek external support, educate educators, and agitate school leadership when problems arose. Emails, meetings, phone calls, and letters to schools were a common feature across the parent experience in this study, and were an outcome of a lack of trust in the schooling system broadly. In response to these contacts, parents indicated that they received advice that their children should oppress or deny their sexuality or gender identity at school in order to better fit in, demonstrating the strength of the institutional commitment to cis-heteronormativity.

Victoria Rawlings also explored the experiences of parents, though did not focus on students that were gender and sexuality diverse. Instead, her study included any parent that indicated that their child had encountered gendered violence at school. This included students that had been subjected to homophobia due to having same-sex parents, and those that encountered sexual harassment and misogyny. Her findings showed once more that parents expended significant labour in contacting schools about these events, and that this parental responsibility was borne from schools resisting the consideration of gender and/ or sexuality motivations behind violence- even when these experiences were encountered by multiple students.

Finally, Emily Gray explored the experiences of queer educators, who, within the normative confines of schools, are sometimes required to conceal their sexuality or gender identities. Her work emphasised the ways that normative assumptions about heterosexuality and (cis)gender dominate all aspects of school life, and are keenly felt by LGBTIQ+ educators. Whether someone can live near a school, whether they can disclose parts of their life when asked by students, whether their partners can attend events with them, and whether they can intervene in staff discussions about gender and sexuality are only some of the decisions faced by these teachers. This creates a struggle and constant renegotiation of teachers’ private and professional worlds.

In all these papers, the current political context in Australia and especially in New South Wales emerged as a significant challenge for teachers and schools to navigate when considering students’ wellbeing and school culture. Presenters noted that the moves in NSW to prevent discussions of or allowances for gender diverse young people, if successful, could have years or even decades of implications for school communities, and further entrench the already deep disadvantage faced by this group. In addition, the current media landscape continues to target teachers and schools that seek to redress this disadvantage through confronting harmful practices in their schools. As we continue to explore what conditions are possible in this climate, we also urge colleagues in education to push against these shifts, and in doing so, strive for greater inclusion and equity in and around schools.

From left to right: Tania Ferfolja is associate professor in the School of Education at Western Sydney University, Australia, a member of the Centre for Educational Research and a member of the NSW arm of the national Australia Forum for Sexuality, Education and Health. Her research centres on equity in education with a focus on gender and sexuality diversities in curricula, policy, pedagogy, schooling and employment practices in Australia and internationally. Emily Gray is a lecturer in Education Studies at RMIT’s School of Education. Her interests within both research and teaching are interdisciplinary and include sociology, cultural studies and education. She is particularly interested in questions of gender and sexuality and with how understandings these identity categories are lived by individuals and experienced within social institutions. Victoria Rawlings is a lecturer at the University of Sydney and her research focuses on the intersections between gender, sexuality, youth and social structures. Her PhD investigated the connections between gender, social structures and ‘bullying’ in two high schools in NSW. . in 2021, sge was awarded an Australian Research Council DECRA fellowship to conduct research in partnership with school communities around cultures of gender and sexuality. This research aims to understand how schools can positively and proactively include all students. Jacqueline Ullman is an associate professor of Adolescent Development, Behaviour and Wellbeing at Western Sydney University, where she teaches in the areas of educational psychology, sociology of education, research design and research methods for preservice secondary teachers and educators looking to pursue continued education. Her primary research focus is in the area of diversity of genders and sexualities and associated inclusive educational practices.  She is the AARE 2021 winner of the Raewyn Connell award.

If you want gender justice, should you ban private boys’ schools?

The “offensive and misogynistic behaviour” of elite private school boys that routinely erupts into the public consciousness is not an aberration. It is a byproduct of the heterosexist ‘machinery’ that organises relational life within these schools (Variyan & Wilkinson, under review). 

There is strong evidence that young female teachers are being responsibilised for boys sexually harassing them, where they were being questioned about their teaching and dressing in too feminine a manner. Teachers also reported encountering disbelief from their school leaders in the face of complaints of sexual harassment, as well as the poor handling of complaints with minimal consequences for boys’ harassing behaviours. These are all critical incidences and discourses of victim-blaming that lead female teachers to question themselves, to self-censor and self-blame. However, it also stands to reason that market pressures might lead school heads to play down or disappear reports of sexual harassment before these incidents come to parents’ (or wider public) attention. After all, these schools “have reputations, brands and interests to protect in a crowded educational market”. 

Why are elite private schools in the spotlight this time?

Chanel Contos, formerly a student at Kambala, began a petition last month for “sexual consent education” to be taught much earlier. Her petition was swamped with testimonies from young women, some of whom say they were 13 when they were sexually assaulted by their male peers. Now Ms Contos will meet with principals to address sexual assault claims that have affected hundreds of former students.

But it is the culture which matters. And when it comes to researching culture in elite private schools access is always a challenge. 

My research in three elite private boys’ schools reveals that part of this social machinery is the male-centric rusted-on cultural practices of these schools. For example, the gender segregation, the hyper-competition and the pre-eminence of rugged sport continue to manifest a culture of masculinity that is both toxic and excluding of females. This marginalisation is a critical aspect of how female teachers in these schools are disempowered, because masculine ways of being and masculine authority are privileged first and foremost, and become the social logics that female teachers must navigate.

The reports of sexual assaults amongst elite private school girls that have recently broke out in the media have been touted as a ‘wake-up call’ for the privileged all-boys’ private schools who have been named in these allegations. For critics who have previously argued that the “education sector [has] yet to learn lessons of #MeToo”, perhaps this is really the moment when everyone actually wakes up. I can’t help but be sceptical about this possibility. A better education for boys is laudable, but also suggests that violence against women and girls is a simply a question of the improving boys’ knowledge about these matters. Nothing could be further from the truth.

In this final calculation, dealing with gender violence and oppression in elite private schools might be a question of dealing with powerful interests. I suspect that these interests, and the advocates for these schools, will aim to ride out the media storm and deflect attention so that they can get back to business as usual. Maybe that’s too cynical, but I doubt that the recent allegations made visible in the media is really new news to these schools’ leaders. 

However, If the Australian community is prepared to admit that the usual tropes of ‘boys will be boys’ will no longer suffice, then perhaps there might be an appetite for real change. I do not believe that this change will come from better schooling programmes alone, because the hyper-commodification of schooling, parent pressure, and sedimented school practices are significant social architectures that will continue to generate silences around the profane aspects of elite private schoolboy culture. Instead, it may just be the time to consider even more radical thinking. This could begin with asking whether elite private boys’ schools have any place in a gender-just world, but it could also begin with asking what education might look like if it had an ethics of justice at its core. 

Dr George Variyan is a lecturer in Master of Educational Leadership in the Faculty of Education at Monash University. His background includes teaching, learning and leading in schools in Australia and overseas. George’s engagement in research is based on a critically orientated sociology, which explores human agency in the relationship between education and society. Key interests include educational sociology, gender, social justice, and ethics.

Gender respect: how can we better engage boys and men?

It is September 2016 and I have been invited to speak on a panel with Rosie Batty, former Australian of the Year. We are speaking about the role of education in preventing violence against women and children. The conference title is pertinent: Prevalent and Preventable. The panel is mostly education leaders. One by one, they articulate stories of inspiration and hope about the practical role that education can play in making a difference in creating a world free from violence. When it is my turn to speak, I feel like I am puncturing this hope.

I tell the story of my morning walk to the venue from my hotel through the city streets. It involved passing two strip clubs, one of them, The Firm, Premier Gentlemen’s Club and the other the Crazy Horse which you cannot miss given the huge neon sign of a naked woman out the front. Life-sized advertorial images of sexualized barely clad women stare back at me as I walk past. I relay to the audience the sense of irony I feel being asked to speak about how education can teach gender respect when a culture of gender disrespect engulfs us. It is embedded in our spatial and social landscape. I also note that the attendance at this conference is almost entirely female; women telling stories of violence against women and their children – chilling, devastating stories of survival and great inspiration.

But stories that only women are hearing. ‘Where are the men’, I ask? We cannot change the story of gendered violence without working with men.

The problem

Violence against women remains a serious, widespread problem in Australia, and elsewhere, with enormous impacts and social costs. We are all aware of the shocking statistics:

  • On average, at least one woman a week is killed by a partner or former partner in Australia.  ​
  • One in three Australian women has experienced physical violence, and one in five sexual violence, since the age of 15 (the Australian Bureau of Statistics and the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence).

We all felt the horror, only weeks ago, when Hannah Clarke’s estranged husband doused her and her three young children in petrol and set them alight.

Violence against women has its roots in our gendered society where ideal masculinity continues to be associated with strength, power and wealth and ideal femininity with deference, softness and physical objectification.

Why engage boys and men in this problem?

The significance of engaging boys and men in the work of feminism or gender justice is well recognised and more important than ever.

The current #MeToo climate has attracted public and political support for gender justice, but also a strong anti-feminist backlash. New forms of backlash are casting men and boys as the real victims. Perhaps the most extreme and violent of this backlash is the INCEL movement. This is a group that commits acts of violence in response to, and in resentment of, their state of involuntarily celibacy –that is attributed to and blamed on women. Moreover, there is a dominant view as professed by President Trump that it is a ‘very scary time’ for boys and men given they may be held to account later in their lives for sexual misconduct perpetrated in their youth.

This view bears out in recent research with concerns expressed for falsely accused men. Commentators such as Bettina Arndt fuel these concerns. Arndt labelled efforts to prevent sexual assault of university students as a “rape crisis scare campaign” and accused women of making up claims of domestic violence to get back at men.

The reality is false reports of sexual assault are rare (as research shows).

Gender justice will not be realised without profound changes to boys’ and men’s lives and without them working with girls and women to challenge gendered structures and practices. This engagement necessarily involves men and boys grappling with their identities, especially around relations of privilege. This is a difficult and contentious undertaking – fraught with emotional intensities.

The emotional intensities of gender politics

Replying to @clementine_ford online

“Go and get gang raped ya f**king dumb slut. Soldiers fought in the war for us to live in this mad f**king country and c**ts like you deserve to head-butt a knife will get raped and watch the whole family die you dirty dog.”

Clementine Ford has attracted a lot of trolling from unhappy boys and men (and probably some women). In these comments we feel the intensity of emotion in the anger, rage, resentment and violence expressed towards her, women and feminism.

Similar intensities of emotion were expressed towards a recent Gillette Advertisement, ‘The Best a Man Can Get’. The advert showed a number of powerful vignettes capturing sexual harassment, masculine entitlement at work and boys fighting boys. The key intention was to call men to challenge the harmful masculine norms that lead to violence and sexism. The public backlash was overwhelming with over 1.5 million ‘dislikes’ on YouTube. It was perceived as insulting and blaming of boys and men; as presenting all men as toxic and as ‘virtue-signalling’ political correctness. Many men vowed to boycott the company. Let boys be damn boys! Let men be damn men!

Resistance and backlash

These intensities of emotion have been a key concern of masculinities research. As Australian sociologist, Michael Flood, argues, hostility and defensiveness are frequent responses amongst men when they are invited to consider their entitlement and privilege in gender relations. Talking with boys and men about contentious topics such as sexual harassment and consent, homophobia and hegemonic masculinity, can be difficult and discomforting, and can produce shame, anger and rage.

Such discomfort arises especially when we are invited to confront our own privilege and complicity. It is suggested in this quote from a boy (a student in a recent study) about sexual assault

I think a lot of … straight guys’ reluctance to talk about it … at least in some part they recognise that they have been part of the problem; that they have been part of, you know, encouraging other people. I am sure even some of them recognise they, themselves, have maybe ‘grinded’ on somebody without their consent … which is sexual assault…

From Engaging boys in gender activism: issues of discomfort and emotion

This discomfort when it leads to feeling strong emotions such as indignation, embarrassment, fear, anger or shame can ‘block, defuse, and distract’ from an engagement with the experience of others (as explained in an academic paper by Michalinos Zembylas, Professor at the Open University of Cyprus).

As educators or those working with and relating to young men in this space, we need to better deal with this discomfort in ways that engage and not alienate.

Addressing resistance and backlash

There are strategies to address men’s resistance. Men can be inspired to support gender equality through, for example, the presentation of stories that bring to life gender inequities and that foreground and listen to women’s experiences, and through addressing men’s own experiences, including perceived and actual disempowerment.

In education contexts and other learning spaces, there has been a history of educators supporting boys and young men to critically examine how they experience gender – how masculinities are socially constructed and how harmful versions of masculinity are reproduced (i.e. spoken into existence) through for example, peer culture, family, girlfriends and media, and how they might be transformed through alternative ideas about masculinity.

However, it is evident that such approaches do not tend to explore the powerful role emotions play in shutting down conversations about gender but also in opening up these conversations.

A framework that recognises the intensities of emotion

Recently, I have been working with my colleagues Doris Bartel and Maria Delaney to develop a framework that can help explore the intensities of feelings and emotions that arise when having difficult conversations about gender. This framework is based on the work of Sadar Anwaruddin, a researcher from the University of Toronto, Canada.

The framework could be used as a self-reflective tool to support educators or workers in this area and could be used when interacting with boys and young men who might be experiencing strong emotions in relation to difficult conversations about gender. We are all on a learning journey of gender transformation.

There are four pedagogical principles around four key questions (I have adapted these from Anwaruddin’s work in Critical Affective Literacy):

Principle 1: Why do we feel what we feel?

This principle asks us to examine what we feel in particular situations and why we feel what we feel. It is also concerned with examining what emotions do. To return to the Gillette advertisement, this principle would ask us not to dismiss the backlash responses as ill-informed anti-feminism, but to engage with them, with boys and men feeling insulted, offended, patronized; with why such feelings are incited – e.g. perhaps this advertisement incites blame and shame? Importantly, it would draw attention to what these feelings are doing – that is they shut down important conversations about gender.

Principle 2: How do we stand in the shoes of others?

This principle invites us to imagine standing in the shoes of others. It asks: How are we to understand the sufferings of others when we try to stand in their shoes? Cultivating empathy for gender transformation is important. However, we must approach this concept with caution. What happens when we can’t empathise with others? Are some people and groups more open to our empathy than others? What happens when our empathy produces feelings of pity and sentimentality for the ‘other’ rather than leading to behavioural or structural change? For some time, research in this space has highlighted that we can never really know the other. In terms of working with boys and men, a more productive focus would be to continue to support them to engage critically on their understandings of themselves and others, the limits and possibilities of these understandings, especially in relation to their attempts to empathise.

Principle 3: How do particular emotions become attached to particular people, objects and ideas through everyday politics?

This principle invites us to think about how and when masculinity becomes an object of emotion in everyday politics – in the classroom, the workplace, the media? The term ‘toxic masculinity’ is a useful example here.

This term is currently being mobilized in social and media discourse to describe a range of male behaviours. The idea of masculinity as toxic and dangerous is (re)produced through a politics of emotions. Strong emotions such as defiance, fear and anger shape how we think, feel and know boys and men. In relation to the term toxic masculinity, such politics have not been helpful and have alienated many boys and men.

This principle asks us to consider how these emotions have been produced (for example through the media) to generate a specific emotional response; how they attach themselves to particular men and boys (in, for example, classist, racialized and heteronormative ways) and what this might mean in how we work with boys and men.

Principle 4: How can what we say and feel become what we do?

This principle asks, how can what we say and feel become what we do? How can we channel strong emotions in positive ways towards social action and solidarity for gender equity?

The emotional discomfort that boys and men experience in relation to examining their ‘unearned’ advantage can (as noted earlier) produce alienation and resistance. However, it can also produce a sense of responsibility and activism. In programs that promote gender equality such connection and solidarity are often mobilised to support boys and men to engage in activist activities with feminist groups. This is far from simple or straightforward – compassionate feelings do not guarantee activism to transform structures of oppression and injustice nor do they assure action to redress inequity.

At a minimum, it is important that this engagement encourage young men to acknowledge and reflect on their own emotions, motivations, and behaviours, and to make personal commitments to continue to reflect and act in ways that embody the kind of man they wish to be, and to convey respect and honour for women’s decisions and autonomy.

The power of emotions for gender justice

Emotion remains a significant component in the production or prevention of greater justice. Any understanding of social justice requires a fundamental recognition of the integral role of emotions in reifying or disrupting injustices. As Deakin University’s Professor Bob Pease argues…

When men are emotionally engaged in the injustices experienced by women, they are more likely to interrogate their own complicity in women’s oppression and to recognise their responsibility to challenge their unearned advantages (Pease, 2012)

Amanda Keddie is a Research Professor at Deakin University (Melbourne, Australia). She leads the program Children, Young People and their Community within REDI (Research for Educational Impact). Her published work examines the broad gamut of schooling processes, practices and conditions that can impact on the pursuit of social justice in schools including student identities, teacher identities, pedagogy, curriculum, leadership, school structures, policy agendas and socio-political trends. Amanda is on Twitter @amandaMkeddie

Acknowledgement: Research exploring the utility of this framework for engaging boys and men in gender justice is forthcoming: Keddie, A. & Bartel, D. (in review) The affective intensities of gender transformative work: an actionable framework for facilitators working with boys and young men, Journal of Men and Masculinities