The Gender Inclusive Handbook addresses a wide range of factors that can negatively impact a student’s education, including sexual harassment, stereotyping and bias. The section that has been picked up by a media keen to generate controversy begins with a broad account of student parents, and their need for support.
This section mentions mothers explicitly as a group in need of consideration, as well as students with other kinds of caring responsibilities. It also seeks to advise educators in how best to support students who are (a) breastfeeding mothers (b) bottle-feeding parents and (c) chestfeeding non-binary parents who may lactate but refer to/ experience their bodies differently. Practical advice across all groups includes facilitating access to quiet and private spaces, and support for parents in planning time for infant feeding alongside learning activities.
A widely quoted passage used to discredit the Handbook has been given a reading by hostile media that suggests we deny there are mothers or fathers, when we clearly state that using these terms alone may be problematic:
While many students will identify as “mothers” or “fathers”, using these terms alone to describe parenthood excludes those who do not identify with gender-binaries.
The point here is clearly to add, not subtract. Remarks made in response to this that sex is always binary and that everyone has a binary set of parents, are mistaken in point of fact. Regardless of anyone’s view on binary sex difference, however, working as, with and among ‘those who do not identify with gender binaries’, is clearly now an important part of life at any University and in many parts of society.
Many students at primary and secondary school are already well educated in this. Indeed, the teaching offered on gender issues and LGBTQI+ inclusion in many of Australia’s schools is creating a much more enlightened community of young people than was once the case. These young people become our students and it’s important that they also find ANU a non-discriminatory and inclusive place to study.
In providing recommendations on more gender inclusive language in classrooms that typically comprise significant gender diversity, we do not practise ideology but recognise a reality. Moreover, these recommendations are not proposed as mandated uses of language at ANU as the press has claimed. Rather they are offered as suggestions that in the first instance aim to show respect by adding terminology that may be more adequate for non-heteronormative sexuality and non-binary experiences of bodies, gender roles and parenting.
This is surely part of what being LGBTQI+ inclusive and non-discriminatory means. Avoiding making overly rapid assumptions about a person’s gender sometimes requires a re-set of default usage of gendered terms. The Handbook therefore supports using neutral language like ‘gestational parent’ rather than ‘mother’ in particular settings. Respect and inclusion mean taking the time to find appropriate modes of address. The general principle here aims to defend the rights of students to choose the language used to describe them, and mothers and fathers are no exception to this. It is a matter of respect to address people in gender-appropriate ways.
Much of the media coverage has been particularly mocking of the term ‘chestfeeding’ and has misleadingly suggested it replaces ‘breastfeeding’ as terminology.
Recognising ‘chestfeeding’ -- alongside (not to replace) the term ‘breastfeeding’ -- is based in research that reveals significant harms in failing to recognise the difference. This applies in particular ways to medical research and clinical practise. Dinour (2019) points out that the experiences of transgender and non-heteronormative parents are missed by researchers who presume a gender binary, thus distorting scientific knowledge. Other research points to wide-spread ignorance in the medical profession about lactation in transmasculine men – which can lead to use of language that reinforces gender dysphoria as well as directly causing problems like untreated mastitis, as doctors, nurses and others fail to understand that even after removal of mammary tissue lactation can take place. For those who wish to understand more, this article in The Atlantic is helpful.
Of course, such issues are likely only to affect a small minority, but that minority is growing and moreover deserves full respect and consideration even if it is a small group. Just as women-specific needs have often been ignored by the medical community in favour of an approach to medicine based on a male-norm, here transgender needs and experiences risk being sidelined based on ignorance of non-binary gender. The Handbook’s concern for a solid education among clinical professionals is therefore hardly done justice when cast as fanatical political correctness. Nor can it reasonably be said to threaten women’s interests.
We have arranged for this Handbook to be reviewed by experts in gender, education, and by some of our students, to make sure it communicates as clearly and helpfully as possible. We strongly stand by its aims and plan to release it formally when it has gone through this process of further consultation. We hope it will be a useful resource in support of non-discriminatory and inclusive workplaces and education, informed by the insights research offers into diverse needs and experiences.