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Responding to ‘rainbow days’ at school image

Responding to ‘rainbow days’ at school

Helping young people is more complicated than 'affirmation only'.

Last year a new Principal started at our children’s school. One of her first initiatives was to hold Wear It Purple Day in the high school—a decision that has had a huge knock-on effect at the school and in our family. Since then, the school has added other ‘rainbow’ days to the calendar, such as the International Day Against Homophobia, Biphobia and Transphobia in May.

With Wear It Purple Day coming up again soon, I’m sure our family is not the only one facing the dilemma: how should Christian parents and children respond to ‘rainbow’ days at school?

What is the aim of these days?

These kinds of days were founded in response to concerns about the mental health of young people who might be questioning their sexuality and gender identity. In the words of the event organisers, Wear It Purple day aims to:
•    Advocate for and empower rainbow young people
•    Celebrate and promote the value of diversity and inclusion in all community settings
•    Raise awareness about sexuality, sex and gender identity and challenge harmful social cultures
•    Champion rainbow role-models to help young people establish the confidence to be who they are.

Schools might mark these days in a number of ways, including changes to the uniform, fun activities, special assemblies, and targeted lesson content.

Is holding a ‘rainbow’ day the best way to help children?

We live in a society where waving the rainbow flag is seen as a harmless—even necessary—expression of solidarity with people who have previously been marginalised, maligned and mistreated. Choosing not to wave (or wear) the rainbow flag is therefore interpreted as an expression of ‘phobia’, bigotry or hatred towards those people.

But it’s not as simple as that.

When it comes to children and young people, the real question is ‘What is the best way to help young people develop a healthy view of sexuality and gender?’ And for a number of reasons, I’m not sure that a whole-school ‘rainbow’ day is the answer.

It can undermine the parent–child relationship

Sex and gender are sensitive topics that should be addressed primarily within the context of the family. Parents should be free to discuss these issues with their children from within their own cultural, religious and moral frame of reference. When schools start ‘raising awareness’ about sexuality, sex and gender from a secular viewpoint, it puts parents on the back foot, especially if they haven’t been notified in advance.

Sexuality and gender are also complex issues. Children and young people need the guidance of the people who know and love them best—their parents. Young people who are struggling with their sexuality and gender are often struggling with poor mental health as well. Parents may be able to see the bigger picture and support their children in a more holistic way.

Organisations such as Wear It Purple have a rather black-and-white understanding of the role of parents: if parents don’t wholeheartedly and unconditionally affirm their child’s expression of sexuality or gender straight away, then school teachers and counsellors are obliged to step in, even without parents’ knowledge or consent.

It puts sexuality at the centre of identity

‘Rainbow days’ put sexual and gender expression at the very heart of a person’s self-concept. But being gay or straight, trans or ‘cis’ is not the primary way I want my kids to define themselves. Who they are is so much more, encompassing the whole breadth of their personality, interests, strengths, experiences and relationships!

When young people define themselves primarily by their sexuality or gender identity, they may start to believe that their life will only be fulfilling if they can express those things. But as Christians, we know that life is about far more than sex! In fact, the person who lived the most fulfilled life never experienced a romantic relationship.

There are many different reasons that children can face bullying at school: their clothing, physical appearance, ethnicity, academic achievements, disability or diagnosis, vaccination status … perhaps schools should simply strive to become supportive communities where no-one is bullied, rather than singling out one particular group.

It encourages children to label themselves before they’re ready

According to the Wear It Purple organisation, you’re either a ‘rainbow’ kid or you’re not. But how can children as young as 12 be expected to have certainty about their sexuality (or indeed anything else)? Children in high school are still developing their sense of who they are and how they feel about others.

During adolescence, a young person’s brain begins a process of growth and development that won’t be fully complete until their mid-20s. The part of the brain that’s responsible for thinking through the consequences of actions is still immature, so teenagers often rely on the emotional, impulsive part of their brain to make decisions. It seems unwise to push children to label themselves publicly, when so much of their identity is still in flux.

It promotes radical gender ideology

In the rainbow acronym, the T is actually very different to the LGB. Homosexuality relies on biological fact: it describes someone who is attracted to people of the same biological sex. By contrast, the T for ‘transgender’ relies on radical gender theory that severs the link between biology and gender.

Wear It Purple and similar organisations use diagrams such as the ‘Genderbread Person’ to teach children that the sex of their body might have no relationship to their gender identity and that sex is not binary, but a spectrum. Scientifically speaking, neither of these statements is true.

Teaching these beliefs as fact is not harmless. It promotes exaggerated gender stereotypes in the place of simple biology. It tells children that having female genitalia doesn’t make you a girl—but somehow wearing pink, playing with dolls and having long hair does!

Radical gender ideology teaches that if you experience an incongruence between your psychological gender identity and your biological sex, then it is your body that has to change. In my opinion, this is the opposite of ‘body positivity’: it encourages children to despise and reject their God-given bodies, rather than learn to love them.

It could contribute to social contagion

It is no secret that there has been a staggering increase in gender dysphoria among young people (especially girls). Some who have investigated the phenomenon such as Dr Lisa Littman and journalist Abigail Shrier are convinced that this is partly the result of social contagion among peer groups and social media networks.

If children are taught from a young age to question their gender, then it’s not surprising that many of them will become confused. If kids keep telling each other that all their problems will be solved by ‘changing’ genders, then of course, many will start diagnosing themselves with gender dysphoria. 

It promotes an ‘affirmation only’ model of care

Organisations like Wear It Purple believe that the only way to help children who experience gender incongruence is immediate, unqualified affirmation. The clinicians at the Westmead Gender Service explain why this can be unhelpful:

[I]nsofar as the gender affirmative model is taken as equivalent to medical intervention, clinicians (including ourselves) who work in gender services are coming under increasing pressure to put aside their own holistic (biopsychosocial) model of care, and to compromise their own ethical standards, by engaging in a tick-the-box treatment process. Such an approach does not adequately address a broad range of psychological, family, and social issues and puts patients at risk of adverse future outcomes and clinicians at risk of future legal action.

By contrast, when parents and clinicians take a cautious ‘wait and watch’ approach, at least 80% of children find that their gender dysphoria resolves by adulthood (Trans: When Ideology Meets Reality by Helen Joyce, pp. 43, 80–1).

It introduces children to mature content online

The Wear It Purple blog publishes various stories from ‘rainbow’ young people. For example, one of them describes a young person’s decision to have ‘top surgery’, which even includes a graphic ‘after’ photo. The organisation’s Facebook page often links to another ‘rainbow’ website called Minus18. There you can easily find information on practices such as breast binding and penis tucking, as well as invitations to attend the Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras or a Queer Formal.

This kind of online content—only a few clicks away—is not necessarily suitable for children, especially without the support and guidance of their parents.

It undermines true diversity of thought and belief

At our children’s school, there were families from many different religious backgrounds including Christians, Muslims, Buddhists and Hindus. In general, all of these faith groups hold conservative views about marriage, sex and gender. Many other parents I have spoken to are not religious, but still socially conservative on these issues. Holding ‘rainbow’ days privileges one particular view of sex and gender above others and undermines the true diversity of belief within the school community. It disrespects and alienates parents with differing viewpoints, especially when it’s done without their knowledge or consent. If a school requires all students to wear purple or make another outward display of support on the day, it marginalises those who might choose not to participate.

How to respond

In love 

However we choose to respond to ‘rainbow days’ at school, we should do it out of love, and for the sake of the gospel. If we oppose Wear It Purple Day ‘for the sake of the children,’ then we need to be sure to love those very children wherever we might come across them. On a personal level, we need to find ways of showing respect and grace to ‘rainbow’ young people, even if the way they present themselves might make us feel uncomfortable.

In truth 

At the same time, we shouldn’t be afraid to speak the truth about God’s good design for human flourishing. Christians can reject radical gender ideology without rejecting the young people who are caught up in it. We speak the truth because we love those children: we know that ‘changing’ their gender and their body won’t bring them true fulfilment.

As a family 

Whatever we choose to do, we need to talk it through with our own children very carefully. Our children are growing up in a world that sees this as a simple choice between love and hate. But these are complex issues that will require a lot of discussion.

In communication with the school 

When we see these days coming up on the school calendar, it’s important to meet with the school leadership and/or event organisers. We can discuss some of the above concerns and explain our family’s beliefs. We could suggest an alternative celebration of diversity which doesn’t require students to affirm something that contradicts their values and beliefs. When we did this at our children’s school, many other parents were grateful for our advocacy.

Without causing others to stumble 

It may well be that different Christian families will come to different conclusions about participating in ‘rainbow’ days. Some parents may choose to keep their children home on that day; others may choose to send their children but ask for them to sit out of the specific activities and refrain from wearing purple; still others may choose to attend and participate as an expression of compassion (attempting to welcome the child without welcoming the ideology).

These are difficult decisions and we might disagree strongly about the best way to respond. But our first instinct should always be to pray for, and listen to, our fellow believers before passing judgment. Perhaps it is fitting to finish with Paul’s words to the Christians in Rome, who had come to different conclusions about the moral dilemmas of their day:

Therefore let us stop passing judgment on one another. Instead, make up your mind not to put any stumbling-block or obstacle in the way of a brother or sister … Let us therefore make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification … So whatever you believe about these things keep between yourself and God. Blessed is the one who does not condemn himself by what he approves. (Romans 14:13, 19, 22)

This article originally appeared at The Gospel Coalition Australia.
Harriet Connor is the Content Editor for Growing Faith and the author of Families in God's Plan: 12 Foundational Bible Studies and Big Picture Parents: Ancient Wisdom for Modern Life (Wipf and Stock, 2017). She lives on the Central Coast of NSW with her husband and four sons.


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