Education Minister Evarist Bartolo’s decision not to make available to schoolchildren controversial books donated by a gay lobby group has put many parents’ minds at rest.

Last summer, the Malta Gay Rights Movement donated about 150 books and audiovisual material on transgender children, coming out, same-sex relationships and diverse family models. The movement said it wanted to target children starting from kindergarten.

The Education Minister received the books on behalf of his ministry saying the donation fit within the “education for all” approach and could also be useful for parents who did not know how to deal with the subject.

But many parents would insist that they know exactly how they want to approach “the subject”. Feeling that the State was imposing values and beliefs on their children which clashed with their own, they joined forces and created a Facebook group called ‘Parents and teachers against gender indoctrination of our children in schools’. With over 6,000 members, the group became a voice to be reckoned with and the minister listened.

Mr Bartolo assured parents last week the books “have not and will not” be distributed to their children and were kept at his ministry. Some days later, however, a ministry spokesman appeared to soften that position when he said the books were still being assessed and could be handed out to teachers and counsellors in schools.

The minister also assured parents that State schools were not being used for “gender indoctrination” by the MGRM. The aim, he said, was to eradicate stereotypes and prejudices.

One does not suspect the intentions of the gay lobby. Surely they must know, some from personal experience, how hard it can be out there in the schoolyard where bullying can be rife and not just of gay or transgender children but of any child that looks ‘different’. If the MGRM paired up with representative organisations of other minority groups, ethnic or religious, for example, and campaigned instead against bullying in general and in favour of tolerance and diversity, it is likely to be more effective and make parents less suspect and more cooperative.

The gay movement has made enormous strides in recent years. The civil union and the gender identity laws, even if controversial in some areas, are all achievements to be proud of. The previous Nationalist administration dragged its feet in this area and it is a credit to the present government that advances have been made quickly, sometimes too quickly. As Civil Liberties Minister Helena Dalli conceded at a seminar last summer, people’s attitude towards the LGBTIQ community “must catch up with legislation”. The negative reaction to the gay books donation reflects exactly that gap.

Dr Dalli endorsed the Education Minister’s decision to withhold the books but to avoid “unnecessary tension”. She is still insisting on “diversity education”, drawing parallels with how the government had not backed down when it faced opposition to the civil unions and gender identity legislation. The comparison is odious.

Parents have no problem with laws that help and protect gay people to live according to their chosen lifestyles. However, they feel is it is both their right and their duty to instil in their children the values they believe in. Dr Dalli needs to explain what she means by “diversity education”.

Good sense has so far prevailed over this issue. Whatever happens, the authorities must ensure no material considered controversial is ever introduced in schools by stealth and behind parents’ backs.

Losing the trust of parents is the worst thing an Education Minister can do.

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