Christian groups have attacked the No Outsiders project for reading "gay fairy tales" to children as young as four. The project's director tells Lindsay Jennings why she's on a mission to promote equality

ON the cover it looks like any other fairy tale. There's a castle and a king who's wearing a robe and a yellow crown at a somewhat jaunty angle. The colours are bright, the text is easy to read.

But the story of King & King, as the title may suggest, is not about a prince who marries a princess but rather a prince who shuns three princesses. He then falls in love with one of their brothers and marries him, living happily ever after. It may have the recognisable air of a fairy tale, but its message is proving to be an extremely controversial one.

Dr Elizabeth Atkinson, 48, of Sunderland University, is the director of the No Outsiders project, which uses books such as King & King in an effort to combat homophobic bullying. The two-year project - which is halfway through its first year - is being run in 14 primary schools in the South and the Midlands, with plans to expand it nationally.

So far, it has prompted such headlines as 'Four-year-olds will get gay fairy tales at school' and 'Pro-gay kids' books launched'. In one article, Stephen Green, director of the Christian Voice advocacy group says: "The arrogance of people like Elizabeth Atkinson, using children as guinea pigs is outrageous and thoroughly wicked."

Sitting in a cafà in Newcastle, Dr Atkinson says she doesn't mind that the project has attracted such vehement opposition - it's all part of the wider debate. "To be attacked is a sign of recognition that you are doing something to change the world and the job of education is to change something for the better," she says. "Fair enough if I'm attacked for changing the world for the better - so be it.

"We knew when we started this that the Christian groups wouldn't like it because they don't like homosexuals. It wasn't surprising."

The £568,000 research project has been funded by the Economic and Social Research Council. It is led by Dr Atkinson, reader in social and educational inquiry, and her colleague at Sunderland University, Renee DePalma, in conjunction with Exeter University and the Institute of Education in London. The aim is to help primary school teachers develop their own school-based projects to combat homophobic bullying. Those projects can use books, such as King & King, or they can be arts or theatre based. But, says Dr Atkinson, it is not about teaching four-year-olds about sex.

"It's got nothing to do with sexual activity, it's an equality issue and a human rights issue," she says. "It's no more talking about sexuality if you've got two princes falling in love than if you have a prince and a princess falling in love. If they raised questions about sex between a prince and prince you would use the same appropriate language as if they'd asked about the prince and the princess.

"But children as young as four are quite aware that there are gay relations. If they turned to a teacher and said 'oh it's a gay dad', it's a quite straightforward acknowledgement for a teacher to say 'that's right' and leave it at that."

One factor behind the scheme, she says, is about recognising that some children do not have heterosexual parents. "If there's somebody with two mums, who comes from this loving family background, but discovers that there's nothing which reflects her life, she may find that she has to be silenced for fear of not appearing to be normal. That silence is imposed on her from the age of three or four, not at 12," she says.

"If you leave it until secondary school to address those issues you've left it too late because children are already living with the expectations of how girls should behave and how boys should behave. All it takes is to understand that being different is part of normality."

That normality, says Dr Atkinson, can be reached with help from the books. Others include And Tango Makes Three, the true life story of how two male penguins fell in love with one another at Central Park Zoo in New York.

"The zoo keeper gave them an egg to nest on and they actually hatched it and Tango was the result," she says. "It's a story for all males because it has the message that males can be nurturing."

The Sissy Duckling is about a duck who, instead of wanting to build forts and play sports, would rather bake cakes. But when his father is shot by a hunter he turns into a hero and looks after him.

"This book has been heavily criticised by the Christian Institute because they see it as a gay duckling whereas there's absolutely nothing in the book which says that he's gay," says Dr Atkinson. "What this book says is it's okay to be who you are."

Other approaches include using drama. A drama workshop can comprise acting out the books or instances of homophobic bullying.

"Drama gives you the power to go into a story and to stop and discuss what might happen next. You can step into the victim's shoes or the bully's shoes. The workshop leader can say 'what about this person's choices here?' It's incredibly powerful," she says. "If a child is being racist they are challenged. What teachers are finding now is the confidence to address issues about homophobic bullying."

And if we don't tackle those issues, it could have an extreme effect on those children, argues Dr Atkinson. She highlights research which shows that those who have experienced homophobic bullying are more likely to drop out of school.

But many Christian groups feel that the repealing of Section 28 in 2003, which had previously banned promotion of homosexuality within local authorities, has now led to its promotion, with the result that children are being "taught" about homosexuality through gay fairy tales. They have called for parents to demonstrate against the books.

"Section 28 led to the continued marginalisation for children and adults who did not fit into specific norms," says Dr Atkinson. "What repealing Section 28 has done is make it possible for that group of people to have their human rights recognised. It's no good saying we're going to have equality but there's going to be an exception. There should be no exceptions."

The No Outsiders project has the backing of the Department for Education and Skills and the National Union of Teachers. Dr Atkinson was recently awarded the scholar activist award by the American Educational Research Association.

But she feels a mark of success will be the day that raising awareness of homophobic bullying will be as prominent and normal as education about sexism and racism.

"If you look back 20 or 30 years ago people used to justify racism," she says.

"We aren't in any way teaching them about sexuality or teaching them to be gay. We're teaching them about diversity and the right to be respected. But it will take time."

* What do you think? Add your comments below