Thursday, 14 July 2016

The role of the Religious Education Teacher in helping to discuss Gender Identity

All too often these days I hear people sneering about the importance of Religious Education (RE) as part of a balanced, impartial curriculum. I understand the fear of many atheists and agnostics on the "Left" that RE in state schools over the past half century has tended to reinforce Christian bias in their local communities. Regardless, I have always believed that if such opponents of RE really wanted to help change mainstream opinions about their beliefs (or lack of belief), they would contribute towards the improvement of RE provision by designing appropriate instruction programmes for local schools (since RE is compulsory and yet the responsibility of local councils to design and deliver a curriculum). Some critics should even consider becoming RE teachers themselves. For example, there is no reason why an atheist who identifies themselves as part of the LGBTQIA spectrum could not become a RE teacher. I'm sure many accept the need for reasonable impartial debate around LGBTQIA issues and some would and should easily withstand the "personal abuse" that they could suffer as a result of introducing such issues into the classroom for the first time. To win fellow teachers and students over, LGBTQIA RE teachers have to create content that is carefully curated and delivery has to be sensitive in tone and appreciative of register. Bombarding students with inflamed opinions and overloading them with acronyms and statistics is not the way to go. Best to start with a basic definition of one topic associated with the LGBTQIA community, such as explaining what "transgender" means and then exploring religious and non religious responses by allowing an open forum for debate or spending a lesson looking at LGBTQIA hate crime would allow enough scope for debate and may even help to change the minds of students participating in the debate.

What is the purpose of RE?
Critics of RE are all too quick to dismiss the subject as "old fashioned", "irrelevant" or "biased towards one faith or another". In Lincolnshire, Christianity remains the most popular and widely practiced faith; in the 2011 census, 58% of Lincoln residents identified Christianity as their faith, despite its decreasing popularity nationwide. Numbers of Christian adherents have also been growing in Boston and its surrounding areas due to the massive wave of Eastern European immigration. This means that it is probable most RE teachers in Lincs focus on helping students to understand their own Christian values and responsibilities in the hope of moulding them into conforming local citizens.
However, there are RE teachers in Lincolnshire who prefer a much broader RE curriculum that goes beyond exploring local religious beliefs and practices and allowing students to debate moral issues in depth from religious and non-religious viewpoints. Some even prefer to touch upon philosophical concepts to help students to develop crucial critical thinking skills that will prepare them for HE and beyond.
Charlotte Vardy (2014) has talked about the need to explore different purposes for RE in the UK. I believe she has touched on 3 main purposes of RE that even LBGTQIA teachers can agree with:
  1. Religious Studies is the main opportunity for young people to address ultimate questions and moral issues which affect people of all faiths and none. 
  2. Religious Studies is a sociological exploration of the phenomenon of Religion, comparing different traditions and showing them to be essentially similar responses to the human condition. 
  3. Religious Studies provides the best opportunity to teach higher level skills such as critical analysis, evaluation and argument, which all students need for university and which other subjects often fail to deliver.
If local RE curricula focussed on fulfilling these three purposes by touching on a wide breadth of moral issues beyond that of the usual "life and death" bread and butter ones,  then I believe we can make progress in raising LGBTQIA awareness amongst young people from a variety of different backgrounds. It's not about trying to preach that the LGBTQIA way of life is "better" than a Christian "ordinary" way of life; it's about getting students to appreciate and celebrate their differences to the point where they feel unafraid to confront pre-existing bias in their local communities. As long as teachers are prepared to address issues head on in an impartial way, we will make positive progress.

How to make LGBTQIA issues relevant for RE Exams Example: A Framework for covering trans issues for Lincs local curriculum:
A discussion about trans issues has to be embedded into the exam syllabuses for GCSE or A Level Religious Studies. Most students will now answer questions on Philosophy (primarily looking at life after death, existence of God etc.) and Ethics (looking at gender identity, abortion, euthanasia etc.) from a religious and non religious point of view. I believe that teachers must focus on at least 3 religions in addition to a discussion about queer theory and feminism to make the discussion impartial.
  • What is transgenderism - offer a number of different definitions from trans organisations' websites, from dictionaries and online search engines and from trans people's own testimonies.
  • Christian responses to transgenderism - Biblical quotes (especially from New Testament - e.g.. John 8:7 "Let he who is without sin cast the first stone", gender neutral characters e.g. Ethiopian Eunuch and Jesus's explanation of Eunuchs and need for acceptance. Catholic Catechism (gender fluidity can lead to the "breakdown in the fabric of society"), Anglian/Methodist doctrine (accept transgender people without endorsing their life choices) vs Liberal Christian doctrine (Situation Ethics- God is Love; Love is the goal for all humans "What Would Jesus Do?" etc.)
  • Islamic responses to transgenderism -4 gender divisions : male, female, hermaphrodites (khunsa) and Mukhannas (MTF who want to change their sex through surgery). Qu'ran explicitly recognising trans people (Verses 42:49-42:50). Transgender as genetic "disorder" rather than a matter of choice.
  • Jewish responses to transgenderism - Talmud's gender categories - e.g. the androgynos (a hermaphrodite with male and female organs), the tumtum (someone with hidden or underdeveloped genitalia), the eylonit (a masculine woman) and the saris (a feminine man).
  • Torah - Deuteronomy 22:5 (Against crossdressing) and need for Jews to follow Jewish ethics (tzedek = justice and briyut = health) and treat trans people as part of the Jewish community if they identify as Jewish.
  • Queer Theory - Judith Butler's "Gender as performance" theory. See:  
  • Feminist approaches to transgenderism - Germaine Greer's "Pantomime Dames" critiquing MTF transgender people as "parodying women" vs Transfeminist activists such as Julia Serano and Paris Lees.
  • Basic GCSE Exam question tie-in: Explain the difference between sex and gender.
I shall be blogging more on religious responses to trans issues by examining advocates and critics in an impartial manner; kind of reminds me of my GCSE and A Level days when I was writing about Islam's approach to abortion or Thomas Aquinas's "dictates of conscience". Suffice to say there is a lot more work to do to reform GCSE and A Level RE teaching in schools in relation to impartial relation to sex and relationships but it is a challenge that all RE teachers should relish!