Academic journal article Australian Journal of Early Childhood

'Queerying' Gender: Heteronormativity in Early Childhood Education

Academic journal article Australian Journal of Early Childhood

'Queerying' Gender: Heteronormativity in Early Childhood Education

Article excerpt

Introduction

Over the past decade or so, research has increasingly documented the process of gender construction in early childhood. This research has highlighted how children themselves are active and knowing agents in this process, engaging in the policing of gender performances of other children (and adults), within rigid boundaries of what is widely considered 'appropriate' masculine and feminine behaviours (Alloway, 1995; Davies, 1989; 1993; Grieshaber, 1998; MacNaughton, 2000). In addition, research has begun to identify the significant role of the curriculum and educators' pedagogical practices in constructing and normalising children's gendered identities (Robinson & Jones Diaz, 2000; Robinson & Jones Diaz, in press). However, a critical issue that seems to have received limited focus within the exploration of gender construction in children's lives is the way gender is inextricably constituted within and normalised through the process of 'heterosexualisation' (Butler, 1990). The construction of children's gendered identities cannot be fully understood without acknowledging how the dominant discourses of femininity and masculinity are heteronormalised in their everyday lives, including through their educational experiences. That is, by the processes of gendering, children are constructed as heterosexual beings. This paper, through an exploration of heteronormativity in early childhood education, aims to 'queery' the construction of gender in early childhood, highlighting the intimate links between gender and sexuality. It is argued that, despite the prevalence of the dominant discourse of childhood, which constitutes children as innocent, asexual and too young to understand sexuality, thus rendering sexuality as irrelevant to their lives, the construction of heterosexual desire and identities in early childhood is an integral part of children's everyday educational experiences. This process of heterosexualisation is rendered invisible through the heteronormativity that operates through such discourses and is naturalised within constructions of gender.

What is heteronormativity?

What is meant by heteronormativity? This term is used to designate how heterosexuality is constituted as the norm in sexuality. The perceived 'normal' and 'natural' status of heterosexuality is presumed through the process of normalisation; it takes on an unquestionable position of being the 'true' sexuality, the natural order of things, primarily through the way that it is linked to the male-female biological binary and procreation. However, as Epstein and Johnson (1994, p. 198) point out, the normalisation of heterosexuality is 'encoded in language, in institutional practices and the encounters of everyday life'. For example, religious discourses and practices operate as a significant component of the normalisation process of heterosexuality, particularly in relation to parenting and families; gay and lesbian parenting and families are often actively excluded from definitions of what is considered a family. The assumption often made on enrolment forms in early childhood settings, that children come from heterosexual families, is another example of this process. Thus, the normalisation of heterosexuality is a social phenomenon that is actively negotiated, with its dominant discourses and narratives primarily constituted within the socially constructed cultural binary of heterosexual us-homosexual them: a powerful hierarchy in which heterosexuality defines and speaks with perceived authority about the 'other'. Institutionalised heterosexuality thus becomes the definer of 'legitimate and prescriptive sociosexual arrangements' (Ingraham, 1994, p. 204) and the norm by which all other sexualities are defined as different, illegitimate and abnormal. Within this framework, heterosexuality becomes compulsory (Rich, 1980). As Letts IV (1999) points out, heteronormativity is ultimately about power; a reinforcing of a 'culture of power' associated with heterosexuality. …

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