There were reports in the Times and the Mail today about a new book by Olly Pike which teaches queer theory and gender identity to 8-11 year-old schoolchildren. This post by Shelley Charlesworth analyses the full range of schools books and videos from Olly Pike.
Olly Pike: the Pop’n’Olly brand of queer theory for children
Most of the resources promoting gender ideology materials for schools are provided by activist groups such as Stonewall or diversity and inclusion training bodies such as Jigsaw or Equaliteach. So it’s welcome news that the Department for Education recognises this as a problem and are taking it seriously. The DfE and the EHRC are writing new policy for schools on pupils who identify as transgender which should spell out the legal framework to treat all children equally. It’s hoped children with gender distress will in future be protected within normal safeguarding procedures instead of the ideological ‘human rights’ approach promoted by LGBT+ groups.
But schools will still be the target of organisations that offer equality or anti-bullying training or material that is marketed as part of the RSE curriculum. For primary pupils, this often comes in the form of stories, and related topic work.
Pop’n’Olly is one such brand. It’s unusual in that it’s the work of one man, former actor Olly Pike, who writes and produces a range of books and videos for primary schools, because although he sits under the activist umbrella, he is not part of a larger group nor has an educational background.
However, his work is ubiquitous in the niche field of LGBT+ publishing for schools.
His materials have been endorsed by Educate & Celebrate, Peter Tatchell, the NEU, Andrew Moffat of No Outsiders, Mermaids, Equaliteach and Stonewall among others. His books are often listed on LGBT picture book lists for children and referenced in dissertations on queering children’s literature.
Olly Pike’s output is instantly recognisable in both book and video form. He uses the same two-dimensional template for all his characters, whether animated or on the page. They are all more or less the same size or shape, distinguishable only by hair or clothes. Thus, the classroom posters for trans writer Juno Dawson and artist Frieda Kahlo are eerily similar except Kahlo has heavy eyebrows and is in Mexican dress while Dawson has long hair and a tee-shirt bearing the slogan “Some People Are Trans. Get Over It.”
Olly Pike appears as himself in the videos, wearing a pair of cat ears, often in shorts, accompanied by his friend Pop, a balloon. He also appears in cartoon form, looking like a young boy, his cat ears in place. When he introduces himself, either as human or cartoon, the man and the boy merge; “My name is Olly, a writer, an illustrator and a YouTuber. I have curly brown hair, I love ice cream and I am a part of the LGBT+ community.” The blurring of Olly Pike, the real-life man in his mid-thirties and the character of Olly, the ice cream loving man-child with ears and a balloon pal is a running theme in all his output.
He has over 80 videos on his You Tube channel which claims to be “..for children, parents and teachers, providing LGBT+ educational videos, which teach about equality and diversity.” With nearly four million views of the content, it’s likely many children have now watched a Pop’n’Olly video. Some are animated versions of his books but the majority are short videos on LGBT+ themes “explained for kids”; gender identity, drag, intersex, romantic love, privilege, pride events, discrimination, pronouns, all clearly adult activist themes. It’s the standard LGBT+ menu but significantly there’s no standalone “explainer” video about lesbians; children will have to work out for themselves what a lesbian is.
This may be a blessing as Olly Pike’s approach is grounded in queer theory which has nothing useful to say about lesbians. (Or he may have a problem with lesbians, of which more later.) He may not use the word queer on his YouTube channel but the construction of his persona, the content, the ideological underpinning is all informed by boundary-smashing queer theory.
In a sequence of four videos called All The Boys I Have Ever Loved Olly Pike addresses children straight to camera, cat ears in place. The delivery is gushy, confessional, and gossipy as if sharing relationship advice among friends. It’s framed as ‘romance’ and the love objects are described as ‘boys.’ He questions his behaviour with these ‘boys’ (was I too intense? did I expect too much?) and wonders if he has ever truly been in love. Sexual attraction is implied but disguised by the language and symbols of romantic love: red hearts flutter when he describes one of his loves as a tall muscly beautiful dreamboat with the most incredible cheekbones.
It’s reasonable to assume he knows he is addressing children here as they are his target audience. He positions himself as an educator, endorsed by the teaching union, the NEU, so is it appropriate for him to tell pupils about his dating experiences? A male teacher speaking to a class of girls about his first love at fifteen and his holiday romance would rightly raise safeguarding flags. It may not be Pike’s intention but he is enacting the original purpose of the No Outsiders academic project which asked “how might we create primary classrooms where gender queer classrooms and queer sexualities (for children and teachers ) are affirmed and celebrated?” To be clear it is not Pike’s sexuality, or that of the No Outsiders researchers that is in the problem here, but the initiation of an online discussion of adult sexuality with children. It’s why those taking queer theory into schools always represent serious safeguarding concerns.
The interest in romantic love is threaded throughout all the Pop’n’Olly materials. It sets them apart from similar resources in that they make very little attempt to engage with children as children. At first the simple prose and childish drawings can camouflage this. However, academic activists who categorise Olly Pike’s work as being about ‘Queer Love’ have got it right. They identify his work as part of the queering children’s literature project, whose propagandistic aim is to privilege gender identity and other invented identities over biological reality.
Taking Pop’n’Olly into schools
Although most of Olly Pike’s work is online, according to a recent interview in Gay Times he visits schools in person to do workshops and post the pandemic lockdown he’s announced he’s ready to go back into schools. While he’s recently teamed up with a small LGBT+ educational organisation in Dorset which also makes schools visit, most of Pop’n’Olly’s business is in getting his books and videos into schools.
He does this by signing up donors who can join one of the five tiers of membership: Elf, Mermaid, Unicorn, Dragon and Giant. For this, free Pop’n’Olly books will sent to schools in your name. Corporate donors include Vodafone, Hiscox, Heathrow Airport and Flagstone Investment Management. Stephen Doughty MP has signed up as a Unicorn member. Numerous LGBT groups have also donated. One of the Giant donors is based in Spain and makes fetish underwear for men; his online shop is just two clicks away on the Pop’n’Olly twitter feed. By February 2022 Olly Pike claimed that over 7000 books had been sent to UK primary schools, 30% of the total. A list of schools who’ve received books by donation can be found on his website.
Olly Pike retells fairy stories from an LGBT perspective, often only very tangentially related to the original tale.
In one of the rare stories to feature a female protagonist, Princess Penny and the Pea, the princess is in a wheelchair, thus ticking two equality boxes at the same time, and the pea can talk. It’s about challenging rules and the dangers of being defined, ending with the advice ‘there is no need to divide or say who is what.’ Like all of the Pop’n’Olly creations there is no characterisation, Penny is just a cypher to argue that it’s not necessary to know who people are, even if, as in this case, it is a talking pea.
Prince Henry and Jamie are his two most viewed videos and the books most likely to be on school lists. Prince Henry lives in a rainbow kingdom where same sex marriage is celebrated, but not love across the feudal divide. Henry wants to marry his valet Thomas, a commoner, which is at first contentious and then it isn’t and everyone lives happily ever after.
Jamie is a retelling of Cinderella as a transgender fairy story which has had nearly half a million views on YouTube. Jamie lives with her two mean brothers. She looks after the house and is good at fixing things. We’re told that when Jamie looks at herself in the mirror it doesn’t match how she feels inside. Getting ready for the Princess’s ball, Jamie puts on a suit, cuts her hair, looks at herself in the mirror and says “I’m a boy I always have been.” The Princess falls for Jamie and accepts without question the story of ‘his’ truth, that she is transgender. Small children listening to this will learn this is how to be an LGBT ally. Accompanying worksheets reinforce the ‘be kind’ message, with separate sheets on being an ally and transgender.
In this story Pike repeats the most commons tenets of gender ideology, the belief that stereotypes of dress and interests are what make you a boy or girl, that you have a gender identity that can be different from your biological sex, and that it’s possible to born in the wrong body. The Jamie story is for children at Key Stage 2, ages 8-10. It doesn’t say but it’s dealing with a complex aspect of human behaviour, transsexuality, that will involve drugs and surgery or at the very least a lived experience of feeling alienated from your body. Children at this age are developmentally unable to process or assess the truth of what they are told. Telling children unscientific nonsense, that a girl can discover she was always a boy, is harmful and a safeguarding risk.
It highlights too Olly Pike’s avoidance of putting lesbians centre stage in any of his retellings. Jamie is a resourceful competent girl who likes short hair and this might have been an opportunity to tell a lesbian love story. But by making Jamie transgender this option is foreclosed. This damaging message is being played out in the real world as the soaring figures of same-sex attracted girls being treated at the Tavistock attests.
Love and relationships
The choice of fairy stories for Olly Pike’s proselytising is not accidental. The close relationship between romance and some fairy tales lets him discuss adult relationships, gay and trans, without being explicit about what he is doing. He can always dodge behind the romantic shield if accused of talking about sex to children. Jamie, Prince Henry and The Prince and the Frog (the latter a gay love story, with a confusing extra called Princess Caroline who is not interested in the frog or romance and is therefore likely to be ‘aromantic’ as defined by the activist lexicon) all encourage children to discuss romance. In a separate standalone video explaining sexual attraction he talks about terms such as heterosexual, gay, lesbian, bi, pan and asexual or being somewhere on a spectrum but ends by telling children “your own sexual orientation isn’t something you need to think about right now.”
But Pike does like talking about love as his series All The Boys I Have Ever Loved proved. Despite telling children they don’t need to think about sexuality, there is no way of explaining romantic love without acknowledging that sexual attraction is at its core as his video on love demonstrates. It starts by explaining that romantic love is different from the love you feel for your family or pet. It’s a strong emotion, he says, similar to a being on a roller-coaster. People “express their attraction or love for each other with their bodies” and this can lead to marriage and having babies. There’s a nod to the existence of aromantics (probably most of his pre-pubertal audience in fact), but the problem remains, talking about romantic love necessitates talking about sexual attraction. The video ends with Pike asking his 8-10-year-old viewers to write down their answer to the question “Will all romantic relationships require the exact same things?” The accompanying worksheets continue the theme of impossible and inappropriate questions: “What do you think might feel good in a relationship?” “What might be some of the challenges in a relationship?” “Do you think how someone looks or personality is more important in a relationship?”
The worksheet talks only about ‘people’ having relationships. It’s not made clear whether this refers to children or adults. Teachers are told to use this discussion point:
“Different people will experience love differently. Some people show their love by giving each other gifts or surprises. Others may give each other hugs and kisses. Others might give each other their time. Everyone will have different expectations and ideas of how to show their love for someone. This is sometimes called ‘love languages’. It can be helpful if a couple know and understand each other’s love languages, whether they are the same or different.”
This is of no educational value. Children have best friends, not ‘relationships,’ but they will be confused into thinking that hugs and presents mean they are having a ‘relationship’ with their friend. Suggesting that couples share ‘love languages’ implies secrecy, which is another safeguarding red flag. This is queer theory in action, teaching children that love has no age or sex boundaries.
Olly Pike does write about different families in Goldilocks And The Five Bear Families. This could be seen as meeting the DfE’s RSE guidance on primary schools, introduced in September 2020, but in fact the images and illustrations show little of family life. Goldilocks lives on her own and “likes it that way” while the bear families have no other purpose other than as signifiers for same-sex, single parent or multi-generational families. There is no child/parent interaction in any of the stories. Instead Pop’n’Olly concentrates on different identities, unrooted in time and place; adult identities including those that have emerged only in the last decade, eg non-binary, asexual. Princess Caroline and Goldilocks are notable examples.
What Does LGBT+ Mean? a guide for schools, published in 2021 is co-written with LGBT charity trainer, Mel Lane. On the back a KS2 teacher is quoted saying it “contains everything I need to cover the new RSE curriculum.” This is not true. The RSE statutory guidance says primary schools should teach children about different types of family, about human reproduction and key facts about puberty and the menstrual cycle. It should be age appropriate. But there is no requirement to teach LGBT+ identities which is all this book does.
Chapter headings give a flavour of the contents: Identity, Assigned sex and gender, Gender as a spectrum & pronouns, Transgender, Non-binary, Intersex, Romantic love, Sexual orientation, LGBT+ Flag Guide.
The explanations are taken from the now standard LGBT+ lexicon. Below are just some of the inaccuracies in the text.
‘Sex is assigned at birth. Gender is a feeling. Cisgender is when a person’s gender is the same as their assigned sex. Pronouns should not be assumed. Transgender is when a person feels their body does not “match up” with their gender. Sexual orientation is attraction to someone’s gender or sex. Non-binary is something that is different for everyone and it’s not possible to tell if someone is non-binary anyway. And that person could also be transgender or not. People can have aromantic, asexual, pansexual, bisexual, gender-queer or intersex identities, each with its own flag.’
The book ends with the Mermaids helpline number, advising children to call if they have any further questions that they can’t ask a parent or teacher. This is highly irresponsible advice to give to primary school children, suggesting that there are secrets they can keep from parents. Mermaids teach children that they are likely to be ‘trans’ based on regressive stereotypes, they actively encourage social and medical transition, and suggest suicide or self-harm are likely consequences of not being affirmed as ‘trans.’
Mermaids is also promoted on the Pop’n’Olly YouTube channel by Olly Pike’s cartoon alter ego who says “We think Mermaids do an incredible and important job and we support them all the way.” There’s a link in the video to the TED talk given by Mermaids’ CEO Susie Green in which she talks about puberty blockers and sex-change surgery. It says Mermaids can help with “suicide ideation and self-harm.” Schools should be aware of the close relationship between Mermaids and Pop’n’Olly and not show this scaremongering material.
This guide is in breach of the latest DfE guidelines which require schools to use resources that are evidence-based and age-appropriate. They should say sex is binary and immutable, gender identity is a belief not grounded in fact, same-sex attraction is attraction to another’s sex. It’s age-inappropriate to teach about the rare conditions of intersex or variations in sexual development. Teaching children about sexual and gender identities, dreamt up by adult-led political movements like Stonewall, is in breach of existing legal requirements as the DfE 2022 guidance clarified. Teachers using this book could be in breach of these regulations.
From September 2021, all book donations to schools now include a copy of What Does LGBT+ Mean? It’s likely to accompany Kenny Lives With Erica and Martina which is the current focus of Pop’n’Olly’s promotions. This plays on the title of the 1980s book Jenny Lives With Eric and Martin, which became part of the political justification for the introduction of Section 28. But Pike shows little interest in Kenny’s lesbian mothers; the word lesbian is never used, there’s no home life, no mother child interaction. In its place is a plodding parable about racial prejudice in their town, which Kenny overcomes by painting everything in bright colours and ending with an inevitable rainbow.
Olly Pike avoids the real issues schools face in looking after children with gender distress, never straying into debates about toilets, uniforms, or sports. Instead for teachers who believe in gender identity he provides a simplified version of ideas they can introduce to children. But, however simplified, the ideas are confusing and harmful. He says a transgender person may feel their body doesn’t match up with their gender, they may change their name, clothes or hairstyle. Or they may not change anything. Gender expression is how you want the world to see you; this may be female, male, both, neither or something completely different. Gender expression can be really important to some people as it can help a person feel more comfortable in their body.
Without spelling it out this is the ‘born in the wrong body’ narrative, in which denying your sex is explained as being part of dress up, clothes and hairstyles. Children taught this harmful nonsense in primary school will take these ideas into secondary school and their experience of puberty, where the possibility of doing damage to their bodies and mental health increases vastly. It will be the girls who are most at risk of interpreting the normal angst of adolescence as being trans.
Olly Pike rarely writes about girls or lesbians. He seems to find the word lesbian hard to say. In a short film he made for Tate Britain, he features five LGBTQ artists, animated in his two-dimensional house style. David Hockney and Andy Warhol represent male gay artists, Grayson Perry is there for the cross-dressers, although Pike doesn’t use the term. The two female artists are less well known, Claude Cahun and Marlow Moss. They seem to have been picked to represent gender-queerness, allowing Pike to talk about their appearance and clothing. On the basis of no evidence he uses the pronoun ‘they’ for the photographer Cahun. The work of Moss, a reclusive eccentric who dressed in men’s clothes, is reduced to her personal style. Both had lifelong relationships with women, but for some reason Pike manages not to call them what they were, lesbians.
Pop’n’Olly materials are best described as adultification, an activity which normalises adult sexualities and niche ‘gender’ identities, and invites children to join in the discussion. Few schools are likely to say yes if an outside body offers to teach their seven-year-olds queer theory and about being transsexual. Yet this is what they will be doing if they use Pop’n’Olly resources or accept their free books.