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‘A joy filled experience’: Dr Red Ruby Scarlet on Mardi Gras, activism and the NQF

This Saturday March 3 will see Sydney host the annual Mardi Gras Parade, described by the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras as “a bustling extravaganza that brings Sydney to a standstill and shines a global spotlight on LGBTQI lives, culture, communities and creativity”.

Dr Red Ruby Scarlet has been a long-term advocate and activist for diversity and respecting human rights in the early education sector, and has been part of a long and proud history of activists fighting for equality and inclusion of all children and their families. With the Mardi Gras Festival currently ongoing and the Parade on this Saturday, we spoke with Dr Scarlet about her work in this space.

The Framework: Mardi Gras may not be on many services’ lists of celebrations they engage with – why do you think early education professionals should engage with this event?

Dr Red Ruby Scarlet: Mardi Gras is just one festival that the LGBTIQA+ community celebrates, and though it is Sydney based, it is the biggest queer cultural event in Australia. All states and territories have Pride marches and festivals during the year, and inevitably you’ll see all of these festivals festooned with families coming together and celebrating queer culture. It’s a colour-fest for the eyes and a joy filled experience for those who create these events, participate in them, and, more recently, report on them. Still, there are many educators who think this festival shouldn’t be part of early childhood education.

At the same time, there are many committed and enthusiastic educators and teachers who are keen to celebrate LGBTIQA+ cultures but aren’t sure how or where to start. Their hesitation is possibly  due to not recognising sexuality and gender diversity as ‘culture’, however, sexuality and gender diversity is very much cultural. So in the same way we work hard to authentically embed Aboriginal, ethnic, linguistic and cultural diversities into our everyday practice, gender and sexuality are both part of these cultural diversities, and cultural diversities in their own right.

Beginning with a focus on a festival like Mardi Gras is a doorway into a deeper more authentic exploration of gender and sexualities as part of cultural diversity.

How is support for & celebration of LGBTI+ children and families part of the National Quality Framework?

After many years of lobbying, you can find LGBTI+ in Quality Area 6! This compels those of us working in and with children’s services to be exploring how to authentically, respectfully and meaningfully integrate LGBTI+ cultures into our everyday practice. I would, however, caution that one book on a shelf and a poster on the wall is not sufficient. You wouldn’t settle for this approach with any other culture, so it’s a reminder to think more deeply and ethically about where to start. But don’t worry – there is a long history of research to support this inclusive work.

There is a significant body of research in early childhood exploring sexuality and gender cultural diversity by Professor Kerry Robinson and Elizabeth Dau (to name a few) dating back to the 1980s. You’ll have to excuse my sweeping statements here, but collectively these researchers and their collaborators have raised the awareness of how gender and sexuality are a critical part of how we understand, celebrate and include culture in early childhood pedagogy.

They also raise issues around ‘isms’ and ‘phobias’ that are expressions of the biases we can carry and perpetuate by exclusion of gender and sexuality as part of our work around cultural diversity. Part of this diversity is the culture of heterosexuality. Its easy to forget that heterosexual people have a sexuality too! Often we think that sexuality as an identity is only attached to LGBTIQA+ people. But it’s not.

Where can educators and professionals find out more about how to engage with these issues?

Like any culture, building a relationship with the people who live these cultures is important and there are a growing number of resources to draw upon. For example, the report Growing Up Queer from the Young and Well Cooperative Research Centre offers insights into the experience of children growing up LGBTIQA+ in Australia.

Elizabeth Dau’s, Jill Huntley’s and Brian Newman’s respective chapters in The Anti-Bias Approach in Early Childhood is a good place to start for knowledge and practices specific to early childhood education. These, along with a chapter specifically looking and sexualities in early childhood, can be found in Fair’s Fair: How to tackle bias in education and care services by Lisa Bryant and myself.

You are a founding member and leader of the incredible group Social Justice in Early Childhood (SJIEC). Can you tell me about SJIEC’s history of advocacy for LGBTIQA+ children and families?

SJIEC has been part of marching in Mardi Gras since 2001 (Anthony Semann and I have also written about this in The Anti-Bias Approach in Early Childhood). Celebrating the festival is only one part of how we have promoted engaging meaningfully with gender and sexuality as diverse cultures over the decades. Our message is, like all cultural diversities, gender and sexualities are part of everyday life.

We have also consistently had a focus on LGBTIQA+ rights at our conference which is in its 16th year this year. We have worked with leaders like Professor Kerry Robinson and Elizabeth Dau who have helped highlight and sustain LGBTIQA+ rights for children and their families for decades.

We think it’s important to acknowledge their work (and the many others) who were, at times, doing this work under great risk because our government was and still has a slew of legislation that discriminates against LGBTIQA+ people and cultures.

We have had a significant presence of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender teachers, activists and artists, but have struggled to represent the ‘I’ (in the ever growing acronym) – although this year we are thrilled to have the wonderful Dr Agli Zavros-Orr giving a keynote address about intersex culture and education.

So our advocacy is focused on seeking ways to recognise that gender and sexuality are cultural and part of everyday life of children and their families and educators and teachers. This means recognising heterosexuality as a dominant culture and looking at ways of respectfully embedding queer cultures in and through curriculum.

It’s also important to remember that LGBTIQA+ people are Aboriginal, living with a disability, bilingual, ethnically diverse and so on. So the opportunities for us to be exploring cultural diversity in all its beauty and vastness are abundant. These pedagogical explorations in turn enable us to be activist through ensuring that we are engaging with the anti-bias goals to combat discrimination in our selves and in our curriculum.

The last question might be the most important – are you able to give us a sneak preview of your planned outfit for this year’s Mardi Gras?

Of course! The Anti-Bias T-Shirt was designed by artist Liv – for the Social Justice In Early Childhood Foundation, and the earrings are by Aboriginal designer Kirsty Dickinson from the Haus of Dizzy.

Thanks to Dr. Scarlet for her time. The Social Justice in Early Childhood Facebook Group is an online space for daily questions and reflections on social justice issues facing the early education sector, including LGBTIQA+ children and families. It is a great place to listen and learn from a huge range of educators and professionals.

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