Reflections On . . . Early Childhood Education and Care and LGBTQIA+ Families

By Leah Russell

Updated / Monday, 31 October 2022 10:14

For many young people who are seen as “different,” even the most familiar everyday settings can feel like unsafe places – schools, bus stops, cinemas, parks, supermarkets, online spaces. I recently watched my child, who identifies as non-binary and pansexual, scan the crowd at a place like this for potential homophobes and bullies, looking for someone who might look like them, who dresses like them, and who might provide some protection in an extremely uncomfortable setting. It made me wonder what it must be like to be scared for simply being yourself. 

I tried to imagine what it must be like to always have to navigate this world on someone else’s terms. I have sat and consoled my child as they wept after numerous victimisations – they have been assaulted, had drinks thrown at them while being verbally abused, and have been sexually harassed by their peers and younger children (I have permission from my child to share their story). These are punishments for being different and “other.” My instincts as a mother take over in these moments. I think about how I wish above all else that I could protect my child from ever having to feel “less than” or afraid. But this doesn’t just bother me as a parent. It bothers me as a member of society and as an Early Childhood Educator, who understands the importance of children’s experiences during their formative years.

As I write this piece, I am overwhelmingly aware of the fact that I am coming from a place of privilege. Yes, I am a woman who grew up in a working-class area. This puts me into a minority group. However, I am not qualified to speak of issues and experiences of people from the LGBTQIA+ community. I am a heterosexual woman who has been married for almost 20 years. I do not know what it is like to live my life as a person who is discriminated against because of how I identify, or my sexuality. I expect many readers will be greatly offended by this blog. All I can do is own this and name it. I am writing this for my child and others like them. I am writing this because it is the responsibility of the majority to try to understand how it feels to be in the minority and to work hard to eradicate bias.

I have seen firsthand how these experiences have changed my child and shaped how they see the world. But I know they are not unique. LGBT Ireland’s 2019 research found that 73% of LGBTQIA+ students felt unsafe at school. 77% of LGBTQIA+ students are verbally harassed based on their sexual orientation, gender, gender expression, or ethnic origin. 68% of LGBTI+ students hear homophobic remarks from other students. 1 in 3 LGBTQIA+ students reported that other students are not accepting of LGBTQIA+ identities

There has been a little media attention paid to the discrimination experienced by LGBTQIA+ people recently. In July 2022, they reported that a Mayo bookshop was targeted by a Right-Wing group because they advertised “Drag Queen Storytime.” More recently, we heard about a secondary school teacher who grabbed the headlines because he refused to use a child’s chosen pronouns. However, those statistics suggest that this is only the tip of the iceberg. These reports don’t really capture the scale of everyday prejudice and abuse.

As an ECEC practitioner, I wonder if we are addressing these issues in a way that is actually helpful. We hear lots of rhetoric in this sector about “celebrating difference.” Do we really need to have celebrations for minorities? For a young child learning about the world around them, that just shines a spotlight on those groups. It basically says, “this person is not like the rest of us.”  But here’s the thing, we are all different, none of us are the same, so why don’t we just get comfortable with that?

Children’s attitudes towards gender and difference are developing when they are very young. We therefore need the skills and knowledge as Early Childhood Educators to address these attitudes and to help children build positive views of difference. We need to think about the messages we as adults are giving to young children about sexuality and gender roles in society and how these messages inform their understanding. I question the recent trend in Ireland with hosting gender reveal parties that identify children as being either pink or blue before they have even been born!

As a parent, I wonder what it must be like for a person who has experienced all that my own child has experienced. How difficult would it be to balance the feelings of fear for one’s own sense of self against that want to protect their child as I do from ever experiencing that feeling of being “less than” or afraid? Should they really be expected to bring their child, a parent’s most precious jewel, to an early education setting, or school, and hand them to an adult who they can only hope will not treat them any differently to the other children because of who their parents are?

In 2016 the Diversity, Equality and Inclusion (DEI) Charter for ECEC was launched by the DCYA. This document sets out the Anti Bias Approach to ECEC and makes recommendations regarding the implementation of Anti Bias Goals. Funding for training was ringfenced to support EC Educators. However, DCYA targets were quicky achieved and no further budget was allocated. It seems the implementation of the DEI Charter and Anti Bias Goals has been “achieved.”

So here are my final questions for ECEC Educators, Managers and Providers: What are you doing for marginalised families to ensure they feel safe and welcome when they use your service? What messages do children and families using your setting receive about gender and difference?

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of the Museum of Childhood Ireland.

Leah Russell is an Adjunct Assistant Professor in Early Childhood Education and Care at Progressive College and National College of Ireland. Leah has a BA (Hons) in Early Childhood Education and Care and an MA in Education (Early Years). She also has extensive knowledge and practical experience working in Early Years Education. Prior to lecturing, Leah worked as Early Years Programme Co-ordinator on the Preparing For Life intervention project, funded by Tusla, and with Better Start, the National Early Years Quality Development initiative. She is one of just a handful of people in Ireland who hold The Growing Brain training qualification and one of only two people in Ireland who hold the Gold Standard award in Sustained Shared Thinking and Emotional Well-being. Leah specialises in mentoring and coaching for professional development in Early Childhood Education and working with children under 3.

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