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Children need to see themselves in texts, and to read stories that reflect marginalised sexual, racial and gendered diversities, now more than ever, writes Louis Hanson.
Louis Hanson

28 Mar 2017 - 2:31 PM  UPDATED 29 Mar 2017 - 11:38 AM

Many English teachers, including some members of the Victorian Association for the Teaching of English, are continuing to advocate for the implementation of more diverse texts in Victoria's school curriculum.

Following their state conference late last year dedicated to diversity in the classroom, the association remains adamant about the importance of having school texts with varying gender, sexual and racial diversities, as part of the syllabus.

Jan May, an Education Officer at the Victorian Association for the Teaching of English, tells SBS that the English department has huge potential to advocate for diversity.

“The advantage of a subject like English is that you’ve got texts you can list and get students to read and discuss,” she says. “You have that capacity to look at what underpins a piece of writing, and to get past the fact that one character’s straight and one character’s gay. Underneath, they have very much the same concerns. Deep down, we all have the same needs and concerns.”

“One of the more interesting things in the last ten years,” she continues, “is that, even though we pride ourselves on being more broad-minded, there’s been a rise in conservative schools. The Government have put so much funding into small, private, conservative schools.”

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According to May, the issue lies in the “text selection sensitivities” section of VCE’s text list, in which ‘conservative’ schools can choose to ignore minority voices under the guise of sensitivity. “You’ve still got some conservative schools out there. Schools where there is no way these texts could be in their libraries.”

The Education Officer insists that this effort to introduce diverse texts, though, requires support from the entire school network, rather than from particular departments.

“I think it needs to be a whole school policy, and it needs to be driven from the top. If the school, students, parents and staff community see that acceptance is being driven from the top, that’s where the message resides.”

For now, she believes the power lies with “the kids and teachers who are brave enough to challenge the norm.”

However, according to conservative public speaker and author Vickie Janson, there are more important issues to teach Victorian school children other than gender identity and sexuality.

Janson believes that “volatile and impressionable youth need some certainty, and focusing on something that may change, even suggesting the significant people in their life may change and so forth, doesn’t address young peoples’ deepest questions about life and identity”.

“I am not of the view that our primary identity should be promoted to children as residing in our sexuality,” Janson says. “The core business of education should be to equip young Australians for the workplace. Being employable is one of the greatest safeguards against mental health issues.”

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However, Jason Ball - Victoria’s 2017 Young Australian of the Year and beyondblue ambassador - says that this perspective should not equal an erasure of marginalised voices. Children need to see themselves in texts, he argues, and to read stories that reflect marginalised sexual, racial and gendered diversities, now more than ever.

“Being gay doesn’t define me, but it is part of who I am and not something that I should have to hide or repress to the detriment of my own mental health and wellbeing,” he says.

According to the mental health advocate, diverse representation in the classroom is crucial for a child’s sense of inclusion. “Adolescence is already fraught with insecurity,” he says. “Children who are unable to see representations of themselves, or people like them, may feel insignificant, weird or isolated as a result.”

“I didn’t find LGBT representation in my school texts, so I went searching for it elsewhere. I felt a sense of shame and secrecy about these books. I hid them from my parents. I didn’t have anyone I could talk to about the stories I was reading.”

“If these books were part of a class text,” he said, “these issues and topics would have been discussed in the classroom and I would have felt less alone.”

Ball’s experience is reflected in statistics across the country. LGBTI Australians over the age of 16 are six times more likely to experience a depressive episode than their non-LGBTI peers, according to the LGBTI Health Alliance.

“Humans are complex and diverse,” Ball says. “Because there is a rainbow of different expressions of gender and sexuality, sex education needs to be diverse to cater for all people. Seeing other people like themselves, especially positive representation, validates their experiences and offers them hope for their future.”

The Australian Christian Lobby refused to comment.

Louis Hanson has written for the Guardian, the Huffington Post, SBS Sexuality, Archer, Acclaim magazine and the Australia Times, is a student at the University of Melbourne, and an LGBTQI+ youth advocate. Website: louishanson.com & Instagram: @louishanson.