Conservatives in the capital are protesting against a primer for educators they say teaches kids too much too soon about gender and sex. Do they have a point or is this an attack on Berlin's famed cultural diversity?
The 140-page booklet of materials and advice for early childhood educators bears the somewhat unwieldy title "Murat Plays Princess, Alex Has Two Mothers and Sophie is Now Called Ben: Sexual and Gender Diversity as Topics of Inclusive Early Education Pedagogy." Commissioned by the government of Berlin and put together by the advocacy group Queer Format, collection of teaching aids was distributed to kindergarten teachers earlier this month.
The booklet then became the subject of sensationalist headlines in tabloids, which misleadingly labelled it as a "sex brochure for kindergarteners." In reality the publication is aimed at teachers as a way of helping them instruct young children and answer questions about issues such as transgender individuals or non-traditional families and gender roles.
"The basis of this hand-out is not a sexual pedagogic approach or any sexual-pedagogical content, such as child sexuality," Queer Format said in a statement. "On the contrary it discusses gender and family diversity in the context of human and especially children's rights."
But representatives of Berlin's conservative CDU and far-right populist Alternative for Germany (AfD) parties officially protested in Berlin's governing Senate last Thursday. The issue was sent to committee, where it could come up for debate as early as the end of this week. And it's sure to keep generating strong feelings on both sides.
Letting children be children?
The AfD initially issued a harshly worded statement accusing Berlin authorities of "wasting money" and "hypersexualizing…child development." But when asked to expand on his party's views, the AfD's education spokesman in Berlin, Franz Kerker, said the main issue was the age of the children concerned.
"Basically we say that they are too young to talk with them about topics that involve sexuality," Kerker told Deutsche Welle. "We're of the opinion that we should talk about the fact that different models of life exist, but that this should happen at a later age."
This closely resembles the position staked out by the mainstream conservative CDU.
"Children should be allowed to be children and not be confronted with things like these," Olaf Wedekind, the spokesman for the CDU parliamentary group in Berlin, told DW.
Both Kerker and Wedekind said that their positions were based on their own experience as fathers. So how much of this impasse is about parental concerns and how much about politics?
An 'attempt at scandalization'
In a joint statement, the Social Democrats (SPD), Left Party and Greens, who govern Berlin in coalition, rejected right-wing protests against the teaching aids.
"After their attempt to scandalize the handouts on sexual and gender diversity for teachers didn't work, the CDU would prefer not to talk about the issue," the statement said, adding that the three parties would be happy to "enlighten" conservatives in committee.
The Lesbian and Gay Union (LSU) within the CDU has also dismissed the party's concerns about the suitability of the guide.
"We have not been able to discover any recommendation to sexualize children or confront them with topics that are inappropriate for that age," the LSU wrote in a statement.
Many conservatives feel that the state promotes, instead of just teaching about non-traditional lifestyles
Can small children be educated about single-sex parent families without talking about sex per se? Queer Format points out that a version of the hand-out has been in circulation for years and that 95 percent of participants in seminars using it rate those training sessions as "good or very good."
But conservatives counter that the guide occasionally overshoots its mark, citing a passage that reads "If parents, authority figures or psychotherapists react dismissively, negatively, correctingly or restrictively to child behavior that does not conform to gender roles, the situation should also be evaluated from the perspective of endangering the child's welfare."
That rather convoluted statement, says Wedekind, amounts to an implicit threat to potentially take children away from parents who do not share certain views about gender and sexuality.
Where to devote state resources
And do kindergarten teachers and educators really need 140 pages of material that, in part, cover situations that are relatively rare? Kerker suggests that Berlin city government would be better advised to focus on improving the infrastructure, particularly the digital infrastructure, of the cash-strapped capital's schools.
Perhaps this aspect of the conflict will cool off somewhat. The Berlin chapter of the charity Deutscher Paritätischer Wohlfahrtsverband says that it will finance the printing of 1000 further copies of the booklet.
"Questions of sexuality and family are important topics for children and should be part of everyday kindergarten reality," the deputy head of charity, Martin Hoyer said in a statement.
But that position is precisely what those on the right of the political spectrum take issue with. With the capital governed by a left-wing coalition, the protests in the city's parliament have almost no chance of success. But conservatives are keeping open the option of further acts of opposition, perhaps public protests, after the issue has run through the Berlin Senate's committees.