Saving Safe Schools

This post is part of a series looking at the unfinished business of LGBTI equality in Australia. You can see the rest of the posts here

 

Safe Schools is, simultaneously, one of the simplest policy issues in Australia, and one of the most complex.

 

Simple, because it is an effective, evidence-based program aimed at reducing bullying of one of the most vulnerable groups in our society: young lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) people. Surely, supporting this group, and lowering the disproportionate rates of social exclusion, and mental health issues, that they experience, should be straightforward?

 

Complex, because – well, have you listened to (most) Liberal and National politicians over the past few years? Did you read The Australian newspaper in 2016? [*Neither is recommended of course, but if you did you would have heard and seen a barrage of criticism of this initiative addressing anti-LGBTI bullying]

 

This little program became the focal point of one of the biggest culture wars in our recent history, such that among right-wing circles even the name Safe Schools has itself become toxic, synonymous with all manner of imagined problems.

 

It is hard to remember that, at the federal level, Safe Schools was initially the epitome of bipartisanship – announced and funded by the then Rudd Labor Government before the 2013 election, before being launched under the Abbott Coalition Government in mid-2014.

 

How did we get from there, to wherever the hell it is we are now? I’m not proposing to rehash that depressing history – instead, I would strongly suggest you read the excellent Quarterly Essay ‘Moral Panic 101: Equality, acceptance and the Safe Schools scandal’ by Benjamin Law.

 

However, I am interested in the why – why did a simple and straight-forward program aimed at reducing homophobia, biphobia, transphobia and intersexphobia in schools provoke such an angry response from so-called conservatives around the country?

 

Part of the explanation can be found in the response of one of the program’s greatest advocates, Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews, to the decision by the then Turnbull Liberal National Government to ‘review’ the program in early 2016. From his Facebook post:

 

“Schools have to be a safe place for every kid – no exceptions.

Teachers have to be given the tools to deal with every situation – no excuses.

And there is absolutely nothing wrong with this effective little program, which achieves the above two aims and nothing more.

But let’s be honest here: I don’t think these extreme Liberals are actually offended by the structure of the program, or the teachers who lead it.

I just think they’re offended by the kids who need it.

They don’t like the fact that some young people might be different.

And I’m sick of it.

I’m sick of Liberal politicians telling our kids that there’s something wrong with them – when there isn’t.

I’m sick of Liberal politicians trying to push us all back, whenever we all take a few steps forward.

Cory Bernadi [sic] says teenagers are too young to know about love and care and acceptance.

Well, I can assure you, Senator: they know a whole lot more than you.”

 

This offence – at the fact LGBTI kids exist – was so great that, even though the independent review found the program to be effective, age-appropriate and consistent with the curriculum, they axed it anyway. The NSW Liberal National Government, and other conservative administrations around the country, quickly followed suit.

 

But while the offence of Liberal politicians that LGBTI kids have the temerity to exist might be part of the explanation for Safes Schools’ axing, it is by no means a complete explanation.

 

One perhaps even more important contributing factor is discussed in Benjamin Law’s Quarterly Essay, in response to the changes by then Education Minister Simon Birmingham that “schools must now obtain the approval of parent bodies to train teachers [in Safe Schools], and before any lessons are taught.”

 

As Paul Thoemke is quoted on page 57/58 in relation to trans children: “This may be the most politically unsavvy thing I can say. But I sometimes think the greatest risk for these kids is their families… Family life can be awful for a homosexual child, too. Youth who come out meet with parental grief, confusion, denial, or rage so hot that, for everyone involved, the prospect of the child eating from dumpsters or sleeping under bridges may be preferable to coexisting with them under the same roof.”

 

This really is the crux of the debate. Some parents are so homophobic, biphobic, transphobic or intersexphobic (often all four) that they would prefer LGBTI children to be in a wooden box rather than sitting at a wooden desk in a safe and supportive classroom. And not ‘just’ their own children, but all LGBTI kids.

 

Of course, the majority of parents do not see this issue in this warped way. They, like the LGBTI community itself, want to see all children have the ability to live their best lives.

 

Indeed, one of the features of this debate is that it is the LGBTI community and its allies who are arguing for the best interests of kids, while our opponents, who have long (falsely) railed against us with the ‘Won’t somebody please think of the children?’ mantra in the name of ‘traditional family values’, that are acting in the interests of intolerant adults.

 

Unfortunately, in 2016 the Turnbull Liberal-National Government listened to the hateful minority, followed by a number of states and territories.

 

As a result, in early 2019, the Safe Schools program is only functional in Victoria, the ACT (called the Safe and Inclusive Schools Initiative), Western Australia (called the Inclusive Education Program) and the Northern Territory.

 

It has been replaced by general, and generic, ‘anti-bullying programs’ in NSW, Tasmania and South Australia (disappointingly the Queensland Labor Government has never fully supported Safe Schools), in part based on the argument that LGBTI kids don’t deserve a special program to specifically promote acceptance of their difference.

 

Law takes apart this view in his Quarterly Essay on page 64, responding to an example about Hindu students from Elisabeth Taylor of the Australian Christian Lobby:

 

“When Taylor tells me this, I’m initially taken by her argument. Why should minorities of any kind have special treatment? Why should queer kids get the attention when others [sic] kids are being bullied too? It takes a while before the obvious presents itself: first, that general anti-bullying measures have existed for decades and haven’t helped queers at school. Second, that Safe Schools doesn’t exists solely for LGBTIQ youth, but also for the countless other Australian kids who are agents – as well as victims – of schoolyard homophobia. Third: Hindu children are born into Hindu families and communities, who affirm their religion, culture and worldview. Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex young people do not have that luxury. Gays are mostly raised in heterosexual families. And if our families and communities don’t accept us, there are consequences. One 2010 national study found that “rates of self harm are higher in [queer] young people who are not supported when they disclose to mother, dad, brother or sister.” If these kids aren’t safe at home or school, where else do they have?”

 

In 2019, we still have Governments at Commonwealth level, and in half the states and territories, that really don’t seem to care about the answer to that question.

 

Who don’t support the right of LGBTI kids simply to be – but instead listen to a vocal minority of bigots who would prefer LGBTI kids not to be. Themselves. Supported. Or Accepted.

 

The question is what we do about it. I would argue the onus is on us, the LGBTI community, our allies, and indeed every Australian who supports diversity, of sexual orientations, gender identities and sex characteristics, to vote against those Governments.

 

Because our kids are counting on us.

 

Unknown-8

Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews has shown the leadership too many of his Commonwealth, state and territory counterparts refuse to.

 

If you have enjoyed reading this article, please consider subscribing to receive future posts, via the right-hand scroll bar on the desktop version of this blog or near the bottom of the page on mobile. You can also follow me on twitter @alawriedejesus

2 thoughts on “Saving Safe Schools

  1. I am in the US but I think that you are spot on in terms of the critical impact of our growing up in a home where we are often the only gay person and given the cultural climate most places you are never 100% certain if you will be shattered there no matter what that slight doubt is enough to explain so many health and wellness disparities. I think one of the things happening that is also strongly impacted by this dynamic is the explosive increase of trans identified kids. In the states Obama created new rules that mandated a number of actions that would proactively provide for transgender identified students of every age had to be accomodated in a variety of ways. These rules where timed to coincide with a coordinated pr effort by various medical and professional organizations and several lgbt nonprofits. Given that the schools in the states are highly varied as far as any overt inclusion of gay subject matter in the curriculum weather teachers have legal protection from discrimination and in 11 states there are overt “no-Homo” laws which prevent teachers from including any mention of homosexuaklity as a possible acceptable way of living and so on. For younger children who are still unclear about their orientation and many who are suddenly there is this validated legitimate path to relieve some of the shame and stigma and negative treatment and parental censure for not doing girl or boy right. And while parents will almost always say that if given a choice of a gay child and a trans one they will take the gay child but I think there are many advantages that quickly present themselves for parents who have a child presenting cross gender play. We have almost no cultural resources for the rearing of a child of 5,6,7,8,9,10,11,12,13,or 14 year old child who identifies or presents as identifiably pre-homosexual. It may seem like a better thing when imagining your child grown and living their life but when deciding how to make it from where you are standing to the end point of actual autonomous adult human it is far more pleasant to travel those years with stories, songs, traditions, personal experience, and innumerable forms of ubiquitous support that is available from all levels of the wider communities to which people belong.

    With the gay child maybe you uproot your family for some academic utopia you will never locate. Maybe you try and adress some of the isolation that makes growing up so very miserable for gay kids and their parents. So you inviting various gay people to participate in your child’s life in ways that provide a wealth of available relatable adult parenting figures. If willing to deal with the personal fears and sense of inadequacy related to your role as a parent and the potential jealousy felt towards those individuals you have the fears and mistrust and monitoring for their own self protection from you and your child should an accusation of misconduct raised weather or not true. This practical inclination to be unsure and a bit distant is compounded further by the other potential risks that lead to possible misconduct in many cases those being the gay adult role model figures own need to heal a lifetime of receiving so little of what you would be seeking for their own child. The only one faced with a great temptation to refocus the center of care onto the intended care provider would be the child and parent themselves.

    Even that leaves millions of little normalities almost impossible to supplement in an appropriate way. How do you insure the possible first kiss opportunity how do you create the setting that will allow your child to over here adults talking about same sex attraction and relationships and picking up guys but in a way that is not at all directed at your child but is shored yup with a host of social norms about how and when some kinds of detail will and will not be included/ You can’t just take your kid to a gay club because those spaces have not been buttressed by those needed fencing in of speech and humor and off color language or adult themes.

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s