The No Outsiders project, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, aims to challenge homophobia and create more inclusive primary school environments. Led by Elizabeth Atkinson and Renée DePalma at the University of Sunderland, in collaboration with researchers at the University of Exeter and the Institute of Education, University of London, the project is exploring ways of challenging homophobic discrimination through positive and non-stereotypical representations of gay, lesbian and bisexual people, as well as people who do not conform to rigid gender stereotypes. Elizabeth Atkinson and Renée DePalma explain.
Schools participating in the No Outsiders project are using a collection of children’s books featuring non-heterosexual characters. Favourites include And Tango Makes Three, the true story of two male penguins in Central Park zoo who bring up a penguin chick; King and King about two princes who fall in love; and Spacegirl Pukes about a space-travelling girl with two mums who gets a tummy bug. Many of these books carry deeper messages: for example, One Dad, Two Dads, Brown Dad, Blue Dads, which takes a wry look at the strange explanations given for why people are as they are, and suggests that we should just accept them as themselves.
In one primary school, the National Literacy Strategy objective which requires pupils to write their own versions of traditional tales has provided the framework for an exploration of diverse relationships. The teacher used King and King as a starting point for work in which the children reconsidered the classic Cinderella-type tale and wrote alternative Cinderella stories. Drama work, with puppets made by the children, was used throughout the unit to allow the children to explore different identities for their characters. The teacher says:
We began the lesson with a letter from the Prince asking the class for help (because he has to meet all these princesses but doesn’t want to marry any of them) and then we read the book. The children then had to make puppets of their own Cinderella characters. Lots of boys decided to have male Cinderellas and a couple of boys decided to have gay characters.
As part of literacy strategy teaching in another primary school, a teacher is working with pupils to create a libretto for an opera based on two of the project books, And Tango Makes Threeand Oliver Button is a Sissy(the story of a boy who loves dancing). In a discussion with these Year 6 pupils, they told us that both books are good even for very young children because they help them understand that ‘it’s OK to be different’.
Mark Jennett, the project’s diversity trainer, particularly likes the subtlety of texts like And Tango Makes Three. He states:
I particularly like how And Tango Makes Three expresses no surprise about the nurturing instincts of the male penguins (so many books that aim to challenge stereotyping still suggest that their gentle boys or feisty girls are unusual). Interestingly, no one has asked me if I think the penguins are like this BECAUSE they are gay (I don’t!) but it would still make for a fascinating and, I think, wholly positive discussion if they did.
An Advanced Skills Teacher is incorporating a range of books depicting non-heterosexual-headed families and characters who resist gender stereotypes into a scheme of work for emotional literacy, which is being used in a number of schools across two Local Authorities. One activity piloted this year involved reading the book William’s Doll about a small boy who wants a doll, with a group of Year 6 pupils and then inviting them to visit a reception class to observe and participate in children’s play. In the ensuing discussion about the reception children’s gendered play choices, these pupils brought up several related issues, including ways that adults might not conform to gender stereotypes, people who change from man to woman and vice versa (the teacher offered and explained the word ‘transgender’), and lesbian and gay people in popular media. This teacher reports:
The consensus at the end of the discussion was that it was our responsibility to challenge incidents where we saw people being pressured into gender stereotypes… Once we had got past the stock ‘It’s what’s inside that counts’ answers, we were able to talk about peer pressure and its effect on all of us.
In a small rural church school, a range of books was used as the focus for work across the whole school for a No Outsiders inclusion week, with the pupils presenting some of their work to parents in the village church at the end of the week. Years 5 and 6 studied The Harvey Milk Story, the biography of the first openly gay US elected representative who was murdered because he was gay.
Years 1 and 2 adapted King and King into a pantomime and introduced two new characters, a fairy godmother and a wicked doctor. They also read the sequel, King and King and Family, in which the two princes, now happily married, adopt a baby girl. They wrote wedding invitations for the princes’ wedding and travel journals from their honeymoon as part of their literacy hour work.
The Reception class listened to And Tango Makes Three, talked about different family patterns and created a penguin dance. Earlier in the year, And Tango Makes Three and We Do – a book of photographs celebrating lesbian and gay weddings – were used to discuss family patterns and civil partnerships after one of the Reception children said her two mothers were getting married to each other. Sue, the school’s head, says:
The funny thing was that although the children enjoyed working with these stories, they didn’t seem overly fussed by the explicit references to LGBT issues/same sex parents/gay ducks – they loved the stories for what they are – stories!’
The No Outsiders project team has held workshops using these books around the country over the past year, both within and beyond the regions in which the project is taking place. The books have been enthusiastically received, with participants frequently commenting that they would be buying copies for their own schools or organisations. In the follow-up to one workshop, Renée DePalma, who co-leads the project, commented on reactions to The Sissy Duckling,the tale of a (male) duckling who loves cooking, cleaning and art, hates sports, and rescues his wounded father, using his skills to survive the winter when the rest of the flock has flown away:
[Some of the workshop participants] pointed out that it reinforces some stereotypes (the cover is full of glitter, the duckling is a sissy because he cooks, keeps house, etc) and I could completely see the validity of these critiques. But I would worry that this might be an argument for NOT using the book, which I think would short-circuit a great opportunity to discuss with kids whether the books reinforce stereotypes and how that might happen… I believe that even very small children are capable of having that kind of discussion, and it’s even more useful than using a book that you see as so perfect there’s no room for critical discussion.
The books have been warmly welcomed by teachers participating in the project. In one Local Authority, the project booklist has become part of the new guidance for primary schools on challenging homophobia. The PSHE adviser who has put the guidance together says:
The books are excellent for examining identity and difference in a non-threatening context. The books break down what we as adults would consider difficult issues into manageable age-appropriate narratives.
One primary head who is taking part in the project says:
These books have at last given us a familiar vehicle to discuss issues of equalities and sexualities, based around ideas of families and relationships, with young children. They are an invaluable resource in our school.
Another primary head says:
I particularly like King and King because you could use it with a whole range of age groups. The illustrations are very good, and both illustrations and text are easy to access – and it’s fun! You could explore alternative endings to fairy tales with it, and it lends itself well to drama and PSHE work. We have so many different types of families: schools need to take a good hard look at themselves and ask, do we really represent the society which the children are living in? These books offer us the opportunity to have a dialogue with children about families.
Another primary head says:
Teachers have used the project books in story sessions during the week and class assemblies linked to PSHCE. Our school serves a diverse community where children come from assorted family arrangements; there are many single parents, extended families from a range of cultural backgrounds, Looked After Children, those in differing step families and some families with same sex parenting… At a basic level the books affirm this diversity. For some it gives them confidence that their own circumstances are shared by others. Even in our school there is a pressure felt by many children to conform and a consequence of this is for children to keep quiet about those aspects that might make them seem different. Books give credibility to what may seem unusual to others.
Overall, this collection of books has provided a set of tools for exploring key issues around identity and diversity for all children, whatever their particular family circumstances or whatever their future sexual orientation. Participating teachers have commented that using these books has opened up discussions about the whole range of family patterns existing in contemporary society: a discussion which has for too long been silenced to the detriment of any children who might feel that, for one reason or another, they don’t quite ‘fit in’.
And Tango Makes Three, Justin Richardson and Peter Parnell, ill. Henry Cole, Simon & Schuster, 978 1 84738 148 4, £6.99 pbk
King and King, Linda de Haan and Stern Nijland, Tricycle Press, 978 1 582 46061 1, £9.99 hbk
Spacegirl Pukes, Katy Watson, ill. Vanda Carter, Onlywomen Press, 978 0 90650 087 3, £5.99 pbk
One Dad, Two Dads, Brown Dad, Blue Dads, Johnny Valentine, ill. Melody Sarecky, Alyson Books, 978 1 55583 848 5, £6.99 pbk
Oliver Button is a Sissy, Tomie de Paola, Voyager Books, 978 0 15668 140 7, £4.99 pbk
William’s Doll, Charlotte Zolotow, ill. William Pene Du Bois, HarperTrophy, 978 0 06443 067 8, £4.99 pbk
The Sissy Duckling, Harvey Fierstein, ill. Henry Cole, Aladdin, 978 1 416 90313 0, £4.99 pbk
The Harvey Milk Story, Kari Krakow, ill. David Gardner, Harcourt Publishers Ltd, 978 0 15668 140 7, £11.99 hbk
We Do: A Celebration of Gay and Lesbian Marriage, Gavin Newsom and Amy Rennert, Chronicle Books, 978 0 81184 612 7, £13.99 pbk
Titles listed can be ordered from:
Gay’s the Word bookshop
66 Marchmont St
London WC1N 1AB
020 7278 7654
The authors warmly acknowledge the contributions of members of the No Outsiders teacher research team who shared their experiences and reflections in this article. For more information about the No Outsiders project, and an annotated list of books for children featuring non-heterosexual characters and addressing issues of identity and diversity, see the project website: www.nooutsiders.sunderland.ac.uk