Equality & Diversity: Part 4 - Sexual orientation

Anne O'Connor, Independent early years consultant currently developing equality and diversity training materials with Lancashire Sure Start Early Years and Childcare Service
Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Mixed and biased messages that even young children can pick up about sexual orientation are more prevalent and more damaging than many people might think, says Anne O'Connor.

Sexual orientation refers to the natural preference or inclination of a young person or adult with regard to choice of sexual partner. It is an aspect of the equalities debate that people don't always associate with early years provision. Rightly, there are concerns about perceived notions of sexualising young children. However, there are valid reasons for practitioners equipping themselves with an understanding of the very real effects of discrimination in this area.

Affects us all

Bias related to sexual orientation, often referred to as 'homophobia', is the oppression of a group of people because of their sexual orientation as lesbian, gay or bisexual. It also includes prejudice and bias based on perceived notions about homosexuality and gender stereotypes which prevent people from moving out of their gender roles for fear of being labelled as gay or lesbian. It is very important that we realise just how much homophobia affects everyone in society and particularly children.

Firstly, many children are raised by parents who are gay or lesbian. These children need their parents to feel acknowledged, welcomed and supported by their childcare and learning environments, and sadly this isn't always the case. Secondly, as with all other forms of prejudice and bias, children quickly absorb the attitudes of those around them. Think about how the word 'gay' is now often used to show scorn or dislike or comments you might hear from children, such as 'Boys can't marry boys.'

Biased attitudes about sexuality can also prevent children (and adults) from behaving in ways not usually associated with their gender roles, for fear of being labelled gay or lesbian. Easy examples of this include boys doing ballet and girls playing football, but others may be more subtle.

Adults working in early years may be unaware of the homophobia that underlies comments such as 'boys don't wear pink'. The problem in this instance isn't just that it prevents people (whatever their sexual orientation) from making choices that are right for them. The damaging implication - and the hidden message that children absorb - is that being lesbian or gay is bad.

In many cultures it is common for people to greet others of the same gender with a hug or a kiss. Holding hands, hugging and being close to someone defines friendship, not a person's sexuality. Sadly, fear of being labelled 'gay' can make people limit their willingness to receive and express affection with people of the same gender.

Think about the playground 'rules' you had to follow when you were a child, to avoid 'put downs' related to homosexuality. What were the words and phrases being used then and do they still have the same power to wound? What words and phrases do you hear children use now amongst themselves? Talking about personal experience in this way can be a good strategy for opening up discussion about homophobia and the way it impacts on all of us.

Institutionalised bias

Ellen Wolpert, in Start Seeing Diversity, writes, 'Homophobia includes social standards and norms that dictate heterosexuality as moral and normal and homosexuality as abnormal and immoral, backed up by institutional power that privileges heterosexual people and denies privilege to gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people. It includes the many ways governments, businesses, churches and other institutions and organisations discriminate against people on the basis of sexual orientation.'

Institutionalised bias and stereotypical comments in the media reinforce prejudice, even when society seems to be moving forward in its understanding of sexual diversity. In 2003 it became illegal to discriminate in the workplace on the grounds of sexuality and there is a growing understanding that homosexual, bisexual and transgendered people play a full part in society. Yet, there is still a great deal of work to be done in exposing and challenging institutional bias and supporting individuals who have to deal with this on a daily basis.

Organisations such as Stonewall campaign for equality and social justice for lesbians and gay men and work to eradicate homophobic bullying in all areas of society. Their research document 'The Teacher's Report' found disturbing evidence that 44 per cent of primary school teachers have observed homophobic bullying, name- calling and harassment among children.

For practitioners working in early years settings, just as in other workplaces, 'coming out' as a lesbian, gay or bisexual is still not an easy thing to do. The absence of openly gay and lesbian practitioners just helps perpetuate the myth that heterosexuality is the norm and the only way for adults to form relationships and create families.

Family Life

Real partnership with parents should be based on respect for the many ways there are to create and run a family. It is often forgotten that there is huge diversity in contemporary family life. One husband, one wife, and two children is just one way of creating a family unit.

Just have a think about your own family and those that you know and come into contact with. There are large and small families; lone parents; extended families and kinship carers (grandparents, etc); families created through adoption and foster care; step-families and families coping with loss or bereavement; teenage and younger parents; older parents with young or 'second' families; unmarried cohabiting parents and parents who live apart and share the upbringing of their children.

Even though we might hold on to some notion of what constitutes an ideal family, daily life presents us with lots of evidence to suggest that real families that function well, don't all look the same. The issue here is not that gay and lesbian parents are yet another category to add to the list - it is important to remember they could be anyone already on that list, as none of the examples above require a person to be heterosexual.

There are some specific issues, however, for the many children being raised by parents who are lesbian or gay. These children seldom see their family life reflected around them in the toys they play with and the stories they read - and neither do other children. Children who grow up with few links to gay or lesbian people also need to see positive images and hear positive statements in order to challenge the stereotypical views they might otherwise pick up.

To protect their children from prejudice, some gay and lesbian parents may be discreet about their family make-up. You may not need to know the sexual orientation of a parent - what they do need is for you to relate to them in their parenting role, just as you do with all other parents.

Lesbian and gay parents as individuals are as diverse as those of any other social group and their sexual orientation need not arise as an issue, any more than might your own. But where a setting is open and honest about their anti-bias work, then lesbian and gay parents are likely to appreciate the opportunity to share this important aspect of their child's life. They can then help you to best support their child in situations where bias might occur.

'Embracing Equality', by the Pre-school Learning Alliance, states, 'It is important that settings are as welcoming to lesbian and gay parents as they are to other parents. Settings should specifically state in their literature and in equality and diversity policies that gay and lesbian parents and their children will be welcomed and supported. Do not wait for "something to happen", but take a proactive approach and include a mention of families with two mums or two dads. Acknowledge both parents in a lesbian or gay couple and be aware that some lone parents, too, are lesbian or gay.'


As with gender bias, this is another area where good practice in one field of anti-bias work can seem to cause conflict with another. An anti-bias approach towards sexual orientation may cause concern for practitioners and parents whose cultural or religious views cause them to have deeply held beliefs about homosexuality. But this is not a reason to avoid anti-bias practice.

Stonewall has conducted research into this issue and published the findings in a report, Love Thy Neighbour - What people of faith really think about homosexuality. It says, 'Some religious leaders may have created the impression that to be religious it is necessary to be prejudiced against gay people. Yet it is clear from this report that knowing, socialising and working with others reduces negative ideas about difference. This is a core principle of community cohesion that emerges in examination of perceived tensions between so many different groups of people.'

If an anti-bias approach is to be a significant force for developing community cohesion in future generations, we need to address these conflicts with sensitivity, understanding and clarity. The same rules of mutual respect apply as they do with all interactions with colleagues or parents.

- Be clear and honest in your policy statements about the way you put an anti-bias approach into practice.

- Be ready to explain what you do and why, as well as what you don't do. (Sometimes people make wrongful assumptions that anti-bias practice involves rigid rules and resources.)

- Show respect for parents' views by listening and demonstrating your willingness to understand their point of view. Remember how you yourself may have resisted aspects of anti-bias because of your own upbringing.

- But be clear and honest about your policies so that parents can make an informed choice about whether the setting is right for them.


About your attitudes

- Do conventional perceptions of what is appropriate give mixed or biased messages to the children in your setting? For example, is it considered acceptable to 'joke' about a young boy having a 'girlfriend' but a boy who plays exclusively with girls is a cause for concern?

- How do you respond to children's questions about sexual orientation that you might find difficult or awkward?

- How do you respond to children's sexist or homophobic remarks? How do you challenge their assumptions sensitively and provide information that is pitched at the right developmental level?

- How do you respond to children using the word 'gay', to mean something worthless or without value?

- How do you think that homophobic teasing affects children's friendships and their choice of play activities?

- How do you respond to staff or parents' homophobic or sexist remarks in a way that doesn't diminish the speaker but acknowledges the offensiveness?

- How do you challenge institutional bias in your own workplace? What needs to be done to raise awareness and change attitudes in order to make a difference?

- If you are heterosexual, do you try to not be 'heterosexist'? Have you thought about the hidden messages in day-to-day activities that make heterosexuality appear to be the norm? Can you look at the world from another perspective and challenge your own assumptions?

- If you are lesbian or gay, what do you need to do to feel able to share your perspectives with colleagues?

- Do you contact organisations that can support you with work in this area?


About the enabling environment

- Does the language in your forms and information leaflets imply two-parent heterosexual families are the norm?

- How do you approach traditional events like Father's, Mother's and Valentine's Days so that you don't exclude some children and perpetuate stereotypes?

- What appropriate ways have you found to ask parents to share with you their experience and preferences about how best to describe their family make-up?

- Are there images of diverse family life in your displays, posters and so on?


- Wolpert, Ellen (2005) Start Seeing Diversity: Th e basic guide to an anti-bias classroom. Redleaf Press

- Pre-school Learning Alliance (2007) Embracing Equality

- Hunt, Ruth and Valentine, Gill, Love Thy Neighbour: What people of faith really think about homosexuality (Stonewall)

- Brown, B (2007) Unlearning Discrimination in the Early Years. Trentham Books

- www.nooutsiders.sunderland.ac.uk

- www.outforourchildren.co.uk

- www.stonewall.org.uk

- www.earlyyearsequality.org


Provide books offering a balance to the traditional view of families, such as:

- The Family Book by Todd Parr (Little Brown & Co)

- One Dad, Two Dads, Brown Dad, Blue Dad by Johnny Valentine and Melody Sarecky (Alyson Publications)

- Spacegirl Pukes by Katy Watson and Vanda Carter (Onlywomen Press)

- If I Had a Hundred Mummies by Vanda Carter (Onlywomen Press)

- And Tango Makes Three by Justin Richardson, Peter Parnell and Henry Cole (Simon & Schuster)

- King and King by Linda De Haan and Stern Nijland (Tricycle Press)

- Mummy Never Told Me by Babette Cole (Red Fox)

Well-loved books that include family references not specifically related to having two parents of opposite gender can start discussions about family life:

- Guess How Much I Love You by Sam McBratney and Anita Jeram

- Can't You Sleep, Little Bear? by Martin Waddell and Barbara Firth

- Owl Babies by Martin Waddell and Patrick Benson

(All published by Walker Books)

Offer stories that explore 'being different'. The Ugly Duckling is an obvious one. Other examples are:

- Something Else by Kathryn Cave and Chris Riddell (Mondo Publishing)

- Alfie's Angels (Urdu and English) by Henriette Barkow and Sarah Garson (Mantra Lingua)

- It's Okay to Be Different by Todd Parr (Little, Brown Books)

- Pink! by Lynne Rickards and Margaret Chamberlain (Chicken House)

With thanks to Woodlands Park Nursery School & Children's Centre, London, for their help with photographs

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