Book review: Sexual Cultures in Aotearoa New Zealand

This article was first published in the PPTA News – Feb/Mar 2016

Sexual Cultures in Aotearoa NZ Education is a landmark publication of critical essays edited by Alexandra C. Gunn and Lee A. Smith.

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The introduction begins by outlining the progressive steps New Zealand has made to becoming a more inclusive society from the Human Rights Act of 1993, making discrimination on the basis of gender and sexuality illegal, and the legalisation of same sex marriage in 2013.

However, statistics show that many “trans and queer students, or those assumed to be queer, are subjected to bullying…highlighting how student peer groups can sometimes make schooling intolerable for queer youth”.

The authors make a compelling case that “New Zealand’s relatively inclusive society is not always reflected in our educational settings” and the book is intended to raise awareness and act as a call to action.

The book is divided into fourteen chapters addressing various topics and issues concerning diversity and inclusivity.

Lee Smith’s chapter on the school formal emphasises how it continues to be a “relentlessly heterosexual social sphere”. She investigates school policies and student attitudes and recommends ways to affirm sexual diversity through a school’s approach to the formal.

In another chapter, the commonly heard phrase “that’s so gay” is addressed by Steven Sexton. The phrase is shown to “privilege heterosexuality” but also Sexton acknowledges how terms “once seen as derogatory and demeaning may no longer be considered exclusively as such”.

However, the complex fabric of High School social groups and expectations means that accepting this language must be approached with caution. Some commonly used language in school playgrounds can be used with homophobic intent or to tease friends and thus teachers need to be aware of this and challenge students to think about the words they are using.

Kathleen Quinlivan’s contribution looks at Queer-Straight Alliances and the double bind that they face in operating within schools. While they provide a space for queer concerns to be raised, it is a separate space that is distinct from the rest of the school.

Within this chapter, the growth and development of school-based diversity groups and local community groups is outlined. The imlocal.co.nz website, run by RainbowYOUTH, contains a register of these groups across New Zealand and ways of contacting them.

A key theme across the book is the idea of heteronormativity. This is a term that draws attention to the privileging of heterosexuality as normal and natural, thus having the effect of isolating others that may not conform to this identity.

Throughout the book, New Zealand schools are shown to be heteronormative spaces. Heteronormativity can not only impact young people who are sexually and gender diverse; it can also narrow the understanding and empathy of all young people in terms of how they can safely and supportively function as a citizen in the modern world.

Gunn and Smith have assembled a compelling collection of essays, challenging teachers to ensure our progressive societal attitudes are also evident in our education spaces.

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