Opening Pandora's Box
May 30th 2022
On April 13th, the New Zealand Ministry of Education announced its new Relationship and Sexuality Education resource package in a self-congratulatory Facebook post. The announcement met with decidedly mixed reactions. Some commenters applauded the resources’ supposedly progressive orientation. Others seemed deeply concerned by their contents. A few said that they would join the increasing number of parents who are withdrawing their children from the state education system because of their discomfort with how sexuality is being taught. Certainly, some parents may have questioned what message the Ministry intended to send by placing a love heart next to the word “pornography”.
What’s actually in these resources? The Ministry claims that the resources aim to reduce bullying and promote acceptance of lesbian, gay, and transgender people, which are goals I support. I also support frank, open, and age-appropriate instruction in the ‘facts of life’. It’s tempting to dismiss parental worries about the resources as merely the complaints of conservative Christians with religious objections to homosexuality. However, a careful review of the Ministry’s suggested resources will cause concern to any parent who understands the relevant science and cares about the health and safety of their children. These resources send messages that create risks of psychological and physical harm, and encourage schools to keep secrets from parents.
Creating risks of psychological and physical harm
The ideological bias of the Ministry’s resource pack is immediately apparent. Many of the resources are sourced directly from controversial trans activist groups like Australia’s Minus 18 and the New Zealand lobby group InsideOut. Minus 18 is known for actively encouraging girls to “play with” binding their breasts. A large study found that those who engage in this practice report health problems in 97% of cases, including fatigue, back pain, shortness of breath, and even fractured ribs. Breast binding is sometimes the first step towards removal of the breasts, which is experienced as a relief from the pain and deteriorating health caused by long-term breast binding. For boys, Minus 18 advocates ‘tucking’, which means tucking the penis between the legs and/or pushing the testicles back up inside the body. This practice can lead to penile and testicular pain, infertility, and serious damage to the genitals.
One of the resources that the Ministry directly recommends is a Minus 18 video entitled Trans 101. The video appears designed to encourage as many young people as possible to identify as transgender. A barrage of breathlessly enthusiastic teenagers introduce their young viewers to the “huge and amazing world of people who’re trans and gender diverse”, in an unsubtle effort to position transgender-identification as fun and exciting. The video does not even hint at the serious health costs and risks of medical transition, which is associated with a lifetime of sterility, sexual dysfunction, medical dependence, and other health problems. Concerns about the dubious safety and effectiveness of youth medical transition have led to a strong move away from this practice in progressive countries such as Sweden and Finland, and a highly critical official investigation in the UK. Despite this, Minus 18 markets these life-altering drugs and surgeries as if they were harmless lifestyle choices.
What is most disturbing, though, is the way that the video defines being ‘trans’. Until recently, medical transition was provided only to adults, almost all of whom were men, with severe gender dysphoria (i.e. intense distress about the biological sex of their bodies). However, the video explicitly rejects this notion, stating that “having dysphoria doesn’t make someone more, or less, trans”. Instead, it defines ‘being trans’ as follows: Most of us are taught the idea that people are born a boy or a girl, and that we’re expected to act a certain way based on what’s between our legs. But that actually isn’t true for everyone. It totally ignores the huge and amazing world of people who are trans or gender diverse.
In other words, if you don’t act according to “what’s between your legs” (i.e. in line with sex stereotypes), then you’re transgender. The video continues:
Traditionally, we tend to think of gender as decided by the body we’re born in. People are usually assigned female, or male at birth. But bodies and gender are actually pretty separate things. Gender is basically part of someone’s internal sense of self... You’ve probably heard the term transgender, or even gender diverse. That’s when your gender doesn’t entirely match the one you were assigned at birth... That could mean the gender you were assigned felt meaningless, restrictive, or altogether just didn’t quite fit. That might seem like a pretty broad definition, and that’s because it is.
This is a bit hard to follow, because it’s incoherent (people’s “internal sense of self” is not assigned to them at birth). However, the important thing to note is that “gender” is defined by Merriam Webster as “the behavioural, cultural, or psychological traits typically associated with one sex” - in other words, sex stereotypes. So, the video is telling children that if a girl finds female stereotypes meaningless or restrictive then she must be ‘trans’. And if a boy feels that he doesn’t quite fit into male stereotypes, then he must be ‘trans’ too. These are the children that Minus 18 is channelling towards breast binding, penis tucking, and eventual gender reassignment surgery - anyone who doesn’t exactly fit sex stereotypes. This is indeed a “pretty broad definition”, and it captures a huge number of children.
Over the past decade, there has been a massive surge in children seeking medical treatment for gender-related issues, along with rising levels of treatment regret. Minus 18 promotes exactly the kind of messages that many experts believe have triggered this medical tragedy. When these messages are given credibility by trusted authority figures, such as a child’s teacher, it creates a vulnerability to unhelpful peer influences and online misinformation. The brief Youtube documentary ‘The Call is Coming From Inside the House’ gives examples of online content encouraging children to identify as transgender, and the impact it can have: In December 2020, the UK Department for Education provided schools with guidelines designed to protect students from the harmful material produced by groups like Minus 18. The guidelines state:
You should not reinforce harmful stereotypes, for instance by suggesting that children might be a different gender based on their personality and interests or the clothes they prefer to wear. Resources used in teaching about this topic must always be age-appropriate and evidence based. Materials which suggest that non-conformity to gender stereotypes should be seen as synonymous with having a different gender identity should not be used and you should not work with external agencies or organisations that produce such material. While teachers should not suggest to a child that their noncompliance with gender stereotypes means that either their personality or their body is wrong and in need of changing, teachers should always seek to treat individual students with sympathy and support.
We need similar guidelines here in New Zealand. Until then, it will be up to parents and schools to ensure that the material taught to children is accurate and safe.
Encouraging schools to keep secrets from parents
InsideOut, for its part, advocates for schools to facilitate the ‘social transition’ of children without parental knowledge or consent. This advice is endorsed by the Ministry and uncritically reflected in the Ministry’s resource pack.
Social transition is the controversial practice of treating students as if they were the opposite sex, a central aspect of which is using a new name and pronouns (e.g. ‘he’ instead of ‘she’). Social transition is a powerful psychosocial intervention with concerning long-term effects. Research suggests that early social transition has few if any mental health benefits, and may risk instilling or prolonging gender dysphoria. For example, a recent study found that 97.5% of children who underwent social transition remained transgender-identified five years later. In contrast, other research has found that without social transition, most children seeking help for gender identity issues eventually become comfortable with their biological sex. It thus seems likely that social transition puts children at severe risk of unnecessary medical transition, which has serious health consequences as mentioned earlier.
Ministry of Education guidance encouraging schools to withhold information from parents and caregivers
The Ministry’s advice on social transition is shown above. Notice that this advice does not suggest any lower age limit for withholding this information from parents. By implication, the advice encourages schools to participate in the social transition of children as young as five years old without parental consent.
Anyone who believes that transition-in-secrecy policies are harmless needs to read the harrowing stories of the families it has damaged. One Florida couple allege that their school kept their 12-year-old daughter’s gender crisis secret from them until she attempted suicide twice. In another case, a girl’s school allegedly encouraged her to transition against her mother’s wishes. After starting testosterone injections the girl developed chronic pain, and eventually committed suicide at age 19. Don’t believe that these stories couldn’t happen here. A recent report in local newspaper The Beacon indicates that a Whakatane school has already begun facilitating social transition behind parents’ backs.
Most teachers will be instinctively uncomfortable with participating in secretly transitioning children. They know that trusting and open relationships between schools, parents, and children are critical. They know that almost every parent wants to provide the very best support for their children. They know that parents can only provide that support if they’re informed about the challenges their children face. They know that it’s not a teacher’s place to make life-altering decisions about children without parental consent. They also know that teaching children to keep secrets from their parents makes them more vulnerable to sexual abuse. These teachers just need to know that they have your support. If your school requires teachers to keep secrets from parents, this is grounds for a serious conversation with your school’s principal.
What happens next?
New Zealanders who genuinely care about LGBT rights and welfare can learn important lessons from how events have unfolded in the United States. There, the intrusion of extremist gender ideology into classrooms has triggered a troubling legislative backlash that may prevent teachers from supporting gay and lesbian youth or engaging in open discussions of sensitive but important topics. Educators have abused parents’ trust, and voters and politicians are punishing them for it. Something similar could easily happen here. The Labour-Green government will not be in power forever.
There is much more that could be said about the Ministry’s recommended RSE resources. Fortunately, due to our devolved education system, schools are not forced to use them. You also have the right to withdraw your children from “any particular element” of RSE instruction. I suggest asking your school’s principal to exempt your child from any instruction in gender identity, preferred gender pronouns, or the false belief that there are more than two sexes. If enough parents do this, then your school may find it easier to either stop teaching these topics, or segregate them into a separate lesson. A suggested email is available here.
Tackling this issue will be much easier and more effective if you work together with other concerned parents. In my experience, most teachers, school principals, and Boards of Trustees are reasonable people who respond to parental concerns. I strongly recommend that you insist that your school is transparent about what they are teaching your children as part of its RSE curriculum. Ask to see the actual resources that will be used. It’s a good idea to ask early, because schools do not always make this easy. Also bear in mind that the Ministry is encouraging schools to integrate RSE into every aspect of the curriculum, so it’s important to ask to be notified when this occurs. Take the time to understand what’s being taught, who created the materials, and for what purpose. If you’re uncomfortable with the materials then don’t doubt your instincts. Get things changed, or get your kids exempted from RSE instruction.
For accurate, objective, and developmentally-appropriate RSE information for children, I recommend:
Jessen, C., & Semple, D. (2020). Dr Christian’s guide to growing up. London: Scholastic.
Cooke, K. (2016). Girl Stuff 8-12. Penguin Random House Australia.
Cooke, K. (2009). Girl stuff: Your full-on guide to the teen years. London: Rough Guides.
Laura has a Substack that is worth following - you can find this article and others at Arguments with Friends