Curriculum debate speaks volumes

By Huang Tsung-huei 黃宗慧  / 

Sun, May 08, 2011 - Page 8

The Ministry of Education recently announced the inclusion of educational materials addressing the subject of homosexuality as part of the gender equality curriculum for elementary and junior-high schools for the current academic year. News of this has horrified parents’ groups and other opponents. Given the nature of their reactions, it is no longer good enough just to say that this is the product of homophobia or conservative mindsets, and neither can we turn a blind eye to it. It is far better to seek dialogue on the issue to prevent the hardening of opposing stances any more than is necessary, which would only make the goal of achieving respect for homosexuals and the acceptance of differences all the more difficult.

The biggest concern for opponents to the inclusion of this material is that the information will confuse elementary and junior high school students about their own sexual identity and affect their psychological development. For this reason, some parents are saying that schools should only provide instruction on these issues to “children unsure of their own sexual orientation,” and that there is no need to apply them universally to all students in these schools. Putting aside for the moment any condemnation we might want to make of the implicit presumption in this suggestion, one that hands the bully easy ammunition — the idea that heterosexuality be recognized as the a priori “right and proper” gender or sexual orientation — the very idea that children will “become” homosexual just because they are taught about it is a distortion.

Homosexual identity really is the result of a “becoming,” as is heterosexual identity, whether male or female. This may sound like sophistry, but it is something that quite a few researchers in gender studies agree on. Gender and sexual orientation can be influenced by both nature and nurture; it is both innate and learned. In addition to the purely physiological aspects, there are diverse deciding factors, including the socio-cultural environment in which one is brought up and what one identifies with on an emotional level. The journey that these influence involve exploring and making choices in what is a process of “becoming.”

It seems that there are elements within those opposed to the ministry’s policy that think the homosexuality lessons will somehow lead students astray, confusing them about their own sexual orientation and making them “fall into” becoming homosexual. This kind of thinking not only misrepresents the process of gender identity by positing that children could suddenly become homosexual merely through exposure to education about it, it also implies negative connotations to the idea of “becoming homosexual.”

Some children have feelings of fear or uncertainty because they feel at odds with their sexual orientation, or the fact that they cannot “become” a heterosexual as society expects them to. Surely there is something positive about providing these children with information to teach them how to accept this identity, or at least how to see themselves as something other than a freak, that they do not have to grope around in search of a identity other than the one that they feel.

Another thing is that in this day and age, when information is often just a click away, elementary and junior-high school pupils have access to information about homosexuality from many different channels.

Even if they are not actually looking for it, they will come into contact with it in one form or another through the media and become informed — or misinformed, as the case may be — about it in that way. Kids find out snippets of information, like the fact that slim gay men are referred to by some as “monkeys,” while bigger, hairy gay men are called “bears.”

If these terms are not taught through homosexual education they could well become ammunition for bullies making vocal attacks on people with a minority sexuality. If this is indeed the case, I don’t think it is what parents or educators would want to see.

What opponents should really be worried about is whether, after these materials have been introduced into the curriculum, they will be taught properly, and whether elementary and junior high school teachers are up to the job of teaching them.

Such reservations, however, do not mean that it is too early to include these materials in the curriculum, or that we should stop because of them. On the contrary, we should redouble our efforts as a result and give our approval to the teaching of homosexual issues. Teachers should set an example and not shy away from the inclusion of these materials.

If prejudice against homosexuals exists in society as a whole, one can imagine that those teaching this subject in schools would be feel a degree of pressure to gloss over the materials, or to teach them in a perfunctory way. And if this is the case, one shouldn’t hold out too much hope for any real advancement in the teaching of gender equality in schools, even if the ministry does include these materials in the curriculum.

Huang Tsung-huei is a professor in National Taiwan University’s Department of Foreign Languages and Literature.