A column about gay families

Last week, a Tempe childcare centre was catapulted into the national spotlight over its use of a gay-friendly children’s book. The Rainbow Cubby House featured a family with two dads, and comes from a series, ‘Learn To Include’, which was created by a lesbian and her daughter to redress a lack of children’s books with families like theirs.

Premier Morris Iemma grabbed headlines in condemning it, saying “2-year-olds should not be dragged into a debate about gay rights.” And Federal Family Services minister Mal Brough said that the centre should stick to more innocent activities like “finger-painting and having fun”.

Debate over the issue consumed talkback radio and online discussion sites, as irate lefties defended the idea of actively promoting tolerance even at such a young age, and the family values lobby weighed in with their view that they didn’t want their children’s minds warped with pro-gay propaganda.

I’m not entirely sure this is the best way to promote tolerance. While clearly well-intentioned, a ‘Learn To Include’ series sounds somewhat preachy, and it seems a shame that rather than writing an inherently meritorious children’s book that happened to include a gay family in it, the series had to be so self-consciously educative. And it does seem a little peculiar to be explicitly directing social engineering programmes at toddlers.

But the outrage of the critics has been absolutely astonishing. Gay families are a reality in modern Australia, and particularly in the inner west. It’s hard to see what precise harm results from a childcare centre reflecting its demographic makeup in its choice of children’s books. The politicians suggest that these issues should not be allowed to disrupt the supposed innocence of kiddies at play – but the reality is that the issue is already there whenever these children whenever they talk about their mummies or daddies. The supposed choice between militant promotion of gay rights and fingerpainting is a furphy. Rather, the a choice between books with exclusively heterosexual families, and more diverse ones which reflect the children’s actual lives.

To contrast with a different kind of diversity, it’s hard to imagine our Italian-Australian Premier shoving his oar in and criticising the use of books that include migrant families as an improper pro-multiculturalism statement. And what, really, is the difference?

The major difference is that, as the Coalition’s ban on gay marriage proved ahead of the 2004 Federal Election, there are, sadly, still votes in gay-bashing in Australia. And that’s what this is about. Premier Iemma’s re-election depends on winning the electoral middle ground that John Howard so successfully took from Paul Keating, and who have remained with Bob Carr on a State level. So he does not want to look too progressive. Whereas Tanya Plibersek, the Federal Member for Sydney – a very safe, left-wing seat – was only too happy to commend the books when they were launched.

Ultimately, the incident is a sad one, because it shows how far acceptance of homosexuality has to go in our community. It’s tolerated, mostly, but a long way from being treated as so normal that it’s unremarkable. If a childcare centre in an area with a high concentration of gay families can’t use a book with two dads without it becoming a national issue, what hope this there of non-fictional families with two same-sex partners being treated as equal? A lot of grown-ups could benefit from having their minds moulded by the ‘Learn To Include’ series.