From the time children start learning how to talk, they are taught that everything has a name and how to differentiate between different things. If we didn’t teach them to differentiate between green and red and the meanings associated with different colors, for example, we would worry every time they crossed the road. Similarly, if we fail to teach our children about different sexual identities, the society we create is likely to be homophobic, full of discrimination, prejudice and sexist bullying.
Recently there has been much vocal opposition to teaching about homosexuality in elementary and junior-high school based on the firmly held belief that fifth and sixth graders are too young to learn about such things. It has even been said that this would not be about teaching respect for gender, but, rather, involve teaching children about sex.
The experience of the Canadian government shows that such fears are not only unwarranted, they are in fact harmful. Beginning in 1994, the Public Health Agency of Canada published the Canadian Guidelines for Sexual Health Education to teach elementary school children how to understand different sexual identities and orientations.
These materials have been constantly amended and evaluated, and last year, Questions & Answers: Gender Identity in Schools was published. This book was intended to strengthen gender knowledge among teachers, administrative educational staff and health specialists. Apart from teaching children about sexual orientation diversity, it also included information on the meaning of such terms as “transgender,” “homophobia” and “heterosexism.” The book gives particular importance to schools directing their efforts toward supporting transgender youth and their parents and guaranteeing that transgender students are not bullied, discriminated against or threatened because of their gender identity.
These guidelines have now been in circulation for 17 years — not only have they not been discarded, they have been further enhanced, requiring that educational workers keep up to date with the latest ideas in the fields of sex and gender so they can respond to actual situations in schools.
This is ample proof the Canadian government and public do not think that elementary school students are unable to understand gender diversity and homosexuality, or will become sexually confused as a result of such education.
The Canadian government is fulfilling its responsibility by working to improve education about homosexuality and oppose homophobia, aware that only by properly training educational workers can the serious problem of homophobia be eliminated from school campuses and society at large.
Of course, gender issues should be thoroughly and properly taught. Furthermore, this should not be restricted to just formal educational materials and instructions, but could include any innovative measure that encourages youth to absorb such knowledge.
In France, for example, the government has invested a great deal of public resources in educating people about homosexual issues and public action to oppose homophobia.
One example is how the French government — planned jointly by the then-health and sports ministry and the National Institute for Prevention and Health Education — in October 2008 issued a call for theater plays against homophobia based on the theme “young homosexuals as seen by others” (Jeune et homo sous le regard des autres). In all, more than 900 plays were submitted, of which the jury selected five that were then recorded as short films together with Canal Plus and used as educational materials. A profoundly moving 59-page booklet was also produced to complement these five short films and distributed to provide a basis for further discussion after the films were shown.