The Religious Discrimination Debate is a Test for the States and Territories

The Religious Discrimination Bill, released in late August by Attorney-General Christian Porter, would be the biggest reform to anti-discrimination law in Australia in at least 15 years, since the passage of the Age Discrimination Act 2004.

 

In fact, it is potentially the most radical change to our federal anti-discrimination system since, well, the beginnings of anti-discrimination law in this country.

 

That’s because it fundamentally undermines one of the key concepts of this framework: concurrent Commonwealth, and State/Territory, jurisdictions.

 

Since the passage of the Commonwealth Racial Discrimination Act 1975, NSW Anti-Discrimination Act 1977, and similar laws elsewhere, these laws have operated effectively alongside each other, without directly interfering with each other.

 

Where conduct was prohibited under laws at both levels, the victims of such discrimination were able to choose where to lodge their complaint. Successive Commonwealth Governments haven’t sought to cover the field, or explicitly override the provisions of State and Territory anti-discrimination laws.

 

But this is no longer the case. The Religious Discrimination Bill dramatically, and unprecedentedly, upsets Australia’s anti-discrimination applecart.

 

Section 41 provides that ‘statements of belief’ do not constitute discrimination for the purposes of any anti-discrimination law – including each of the Racial, Sex, Disability and Age Discrimination Acts at Commonwealth level, and all equivalent state and territory laws.

 

The Apple Isle has even more to lose than the others – with section 17(1) of their Anti-Discrimination Act 1998 singled out by name as being specifically overruled.

 

This is undoubtedly because it offers the most effective form of protection against conduct that ‘offends, humiliates, intimidates, insults or ridicules’ a wide range of groups, including LGBTI people, women, single parents, people in de facto relationships, divorced people and people with disability, among others.

 

But all State and Territory Governments should be alert and alarmed at this unwanted and unwarranted intrusion, not least because of the proposal that the Commonwealth Attorney-General be allowed to override even more laws by future regulation, without needing the approval of federal Parliament (and with Senate numbers making it extremely difficult for these regulations to be disallowed).

 

It is not just the principle of federalism that is offended by this hostile takeover. It is the fact the Religious Discrimination Bill makes it easier to offend the rights of vulnerable groups in each and every Australian jurisdiction that makes its contents so disturbing.

 

This makes the current religious discrimination debate a major test for State and Territory Governments around the country. Will they stand up to the Commonwealth Government’s decision to undermine their anti-discrimination laws?

 

More importantly, will they stand up for the communities in their respective states and territories – LGBTI people, women, single parents, people in de facto relationships, divorced people and people with disability – who stand to lose the most as a consequence of the Religious Discrimination Bill?

 

There is another, related challenge for State and Territory Governments from these developments. At the same time as the Attorney-General was releasing his exposure draft Bill, the reporting date for the Australian Law Reform Commission’s review of ‘religious exceptions’ was pushed back to December 2020.

 

This is the inquiry that was established earlier this year to examine whether provisions which allow religious schools to discriminate against LGBT students, and teachers, should be amended, or repealed entirely.

 

The delay means any legislation arising from this inquiry will likely not be passed until the second half of 2021 – and therefore won’t be in place until the 2022 school year at the earliest.

 

This is incredibly disappointing given Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s broken promise, in October 2018, that he would ensure LGBT students were protected before the end of last year. Effectively, this will now be delayed by more than three years.

 

The contrast with the Religious Discrimination Bill is also revealing. On one hand, the Morrison Government wants to pass a stand-alone Religious Discrimination Bill before the end of this year – a substantial, and radical, change to our federal anti-discrimination regime, with just one month of public consultation.

 

On the other, it refuses to make what are modest, straight-forward changes to protect LGBT students and teachers in religious schools for several years. It has decided to vacate that field, and consequently to vacate their responsibilities to vulnerable kids.

 

In the meantime, LGBT students and teachers will continue to be subject to abuse and mistreatment, simply on the basis of who they are, in schoolyards, classrooms and staff-rooms around the country.

 

And so it is now up to State and Territory Governments to show the leadership that the Commonwealth Government won’t. For NSW, Victoria, South Australia and Western Australia to pass urgent changes to protect LGBT students. And for all jurisdictions other than Tasmania and the ACT to cover LGBT teachers.

 

Because all kids deserve to grow and learn in a safe environment. And they don’t deserve to wait until 2022 to know what that feels like.

 

Berejiklian Andrews RD Bill

NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian at Sydney Gay & Lesbian Mardi Gras, and Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews at Midsumma. Will they stand up against the Religious Discrimination Bill which will make it easier to discriminate against LGBTI people in their respective states?

 

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The Right to Learn

The right to education is one of the most fundamental of all human rights.

 

This is both because education has incredible intrinsic value, and because of the significant consequences it can have on an individual’s life outcomes, from employment to health, housing and justice, as well as the ability to fully participate in society.

 

The community also has a collective interest in ensuring that all of its members are able to access the right to learn. Why then does Australia allow ongoing inequality in the enjoyment of this important right?

 

I could be talking here about the gross disparity in educational outcomes for Indigenous Australians compared to their non-Indigenous counterparts (with the latest Closing the Gap report showing that Governments are not on track to meet commitments for school attendance, and literacy and numeracy).

 

I could also be talking about the completely disproportionate levels of funding provided by the Commonwealth to private schools over public schools, with ACARA estimating that the Commonwealth Government allocated $8,053 for every private school student compared to just $2,645 per public school student in 2016-17. (Apparently some students are worth more than others.)

 

Instead, for the purposes of this article, I will focus on the fact that cisgender heterosexual students are better able to exercise their right to learn than lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) students.

 

This is because cisgender heterosexual students in Australia are free to enjoy the right to education without fear of discrimination simply on the basis of these attributes. Unfortunately, the same is not true for far too many LGBT students around the country.

 

That is because the anti-discrimination laws of several Australian jurisdictions allow religious schools to lawfully discriminate against students on the basis of their sexual orientation and gender identity. This includes:

 

The Commonwealth Sex Discrimination Act 1984

 

The NSW Anti-Discrimination Act 1977 (which in fact allows all private schools and colleges to discriminate on the basis of homosexuality, and transgender, even where the school is not religious)

 

The Victorian Equal Opportunity Act 2010

 

The Western Australian Equality Opportunity Act 1984, and

 

The South Australian Equal Opportunity Act 1984 (although for South Australia the legal situation is not entirely certain).

 

On the other hand, LGBT students are legally protected against discrimination at religious schools in Queensland, Tasmania, the ACT and the Northern Territory [for a complete summary of the situation nationally see: Back to School, Back to Discrimination for LGBT Students and Teachers].

 

However, we should not allow this conversation to be dominated by dry legal analysis, when it is the discrimination these laws permit that we should highlight.

 

For example, these were just some of the responses to my 2017 survey looking at The State of Homophobia, Biphobia and Transphobia in Australia:

 

“I was given detention and threatened with suspension for revealing I was attracted to girls at a Christian high school. I was forced to endure hands-on prayer to rid me of the homosexual demons.”

 

“I was at a Christian private school in north Sydney, we had lessons in religion that focused on why being gay is wrong and how you can change.”

 

“My friend goes to a Catholic school and is bisexual. Her music teacher gives her shit about being bisexual and says that she is sinning and she will be going to hell.”

 

I also know from bitter personal experience just how toxic these environments can be, having (barely) survived five years at a religious boarding school in Queensland in the early 1990s.

 

As these accounts demonstrate, the discrimination LGBT students endure at the hands of religious schools concerns far more than simply admission, or expulsion – instead, it is more insidious, and effects every moment of every school day.

 

The fact this prejudice is legally allowed in several Australian jurisdictions is almost unbelievable – and totally unacceptable.

 

Students should be focused on studying for their exams, not studying how to conceal their sexual orientation or gender identity.

 

Students should be worrying about whether the person they ask to take to the formal says yes, not worrying that they will be suspended because their date is the same gender they are.

 

Students should be doing what most teenagers do – complaining about their school uniform – not fearing punishment for wearing the uniform that matches their gender identity.

 

Students should be learning what they need to stay safe in their health and physical education, and sex-ed, classes, not being made to feel invisible and forced to pick up bits and pieces from far less reliable sources.

 

Students who experience homophobic, biphobic or transphobic bullying should be able to have confidence that their school will be on their side, not wondering whether they will be the ones disciplined instead simply because they are LGBT.

 

Students should be thinking about what they would like to do after they finish their education, not contemplating whether they will even survive it.

 

Above all, students should be given the gift of curiosity about the world around them, not taught that the world hates them because of who they are.

 

These are just some of the ways in which lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students are currently denied the same right to learn that their cisgender heterosexual equivalents enjoy.

 

It is a situation that has been created by the actions of politicians – and has been allowed to persist because of their inaction.

 

That includes Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s broken promise, made in October last year, to protect LGBT students in religious schools against discrimination by amending the Sex Discrimination Act before the end of 2018.

 

Instead, we now have an Australian Law Reform Commission inquiry into religious exceptions that won’t report until April 2020, and a re-elected Liberal-National Government that likely won’t do anything until the second half of next year (at the earliest).

 

This is simply not good enough. We must remind them of that fact every single day until they act – because LGBT students will be discriminated against every single day until they do.

 

We must also pressure the state governments of NSW, Victoria, Western Australia and South Australia to fix their own broken laws. There is no possible excuse any of them could proffer that would justify allowing this mistreatment to continue.

 

Because reading is fundamental, as is writing, arithmetic, and all of the other essential skills that are imparted by teachers today. And all students deserve access to them, irrespective of who they are.

 

Education is a human right that must be provided to everyone equally, without discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. That currently isn’t the case in Australia. It’s something we must change for the sake of LGBT students now, and for the generations yet to come.

 

The right to learn

All students have an equal right to education, including LGBT students.

What ever happened to protecting LGBT students against discrimination? An explainer.

In the last 18 months, anti-discrimination law reform has been the subject of considerable public attention.

 

Following the Ruddock Religious Freedom Review, and including multiple Senate inquiries, hopes had been raised that lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) students might finally be protected against discrimination by religious schools under Commonwealth law.

 

So far, those hopes have been dashed. Despite promising to do so, the Morrison Liberal-National Government failed to pass any changes to the Sex Discrimination Act 1984 (Cth) to repeal or limit the exceptions that allow religious schools to discriminate against LGBT kids prior to the election being called.

 

In this article, I will attempt to explain how we got here (including where things stand now), who is to blame and what will likely happen from here.

 

How did we get here?

 

In November 2017, then-Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull referred the issue of whether Commonwealth law adequately protects religious freedom to a panel headed by former Liberal Attorney-General Philip Ruddock.

 

This was to appease conservatives within his Government who were seeking to amend Senator Dean Smith’s flawed Marriage Amendment (Definition and Religious Freedoms) Bill 2017 to include even more religious exceptions than it already did.

 

The Ruddock Review investigated a wide range of issues, including religious exceptions to LGBTI anti-discrimination laws, before handing its report to Turnbull in May 2018 – which the Liberal-National Government then sat on.

 

In October 2018, the Sydney Morning Herald published the leaked recommendations of the Review, focusing on proposals to clarify the existing right of religious schools to discriminate against, and expel, LGBT students.

 

This prompted significant public outcry, including from many parents who had no idea that religious schools, funded by enormous amounts of taxpayers’ money, could lawfully mistreat vulnerable kids in such an abhorrent and appalling way.

 

New Prime Minister Scott Morrison responded by saying his Government would amend the Sex Discrimination Act to prohibit discrimination against LGBT students before the end of the year (2018). It is probably also useful to remember he did this in the context of the lead-up to the Wentworth by-election, which the Government feared losing to a backlash from moderate voters (narrator: they did).

 

The Greens introduced their own Bill to the Senate – the Discrimination Free Schools Bill 2018 – that sought to protect both LGBT students and teachers in religious schools. That was then the catalyst for the first Senate inquiry, looking at ‘Legislative exemptions that allow faith-based educational institutions to discriminate against students, teachers and staff’.

 

That Committee reported in late November, recommending that “the Australian Government amend section 37 and remove subsection 38(3) of the Sex Discrimination Act 1984, and amend any other relevant legislative provisions, to prohibit discrimination against students on the grounds of the protected attributes in the Act” [Recommendation 3].

 

This report was immediately followed by Labor introducing their own Bill, the Sex Discrimination Amendment (Removing Discrimination Against Students) Bill 2018. As the name suggests, its sole focus was on removing discrimination against students, in line with what Morrison had promised in October.

 

However, instead of passing it as he had committed, the Senate referred this Bill off to a second inquiry over the summer break – meaning LGBT students would not be protected for the start of the 2019 school year.

 

In the meantime, the Government finally released the Ruddock Religious Freedom Review in full, in December 2018 (after sitting on it for almost seven months).

 

Morrison and Attorney-General Christian Porter simultaneously provided the Government’s response, in which they abandoned the earlier, explicit promise to protect LGBT students at religious schools, instead committing to send the entire issue of religious exceptions in Commonwealth, state and territory anti-discrimination laws to the Australian Law Reform Commission (ALRC) for yet another review.

 

It was therefore unsurprising when, in February 2019, the Government-dominated Senate Committee inquiring into Labor’s Bill recommended that not only should Labor’s Bill not be passed, but that “the bill, circulated amendments and all relevant matters be referred to the Australian Law Reform Commission for full and proper consideration.”

 

Given the Liberal-National Government’s ongoing opposition to legislation addressing this issue, that meant no amendments to the Sex Discrimination Act 1984 were passed in February or March.

 

Instead, on Wednesday 10 April 2019 – less than 24 hours before the election was called – Attorney-General Porter announced he had referred the issue of religious exceptions to the ALRC for an inquiry lasting 12 months, not reporting back until 10 April 2020.

 

Where do things stand now?

 

Despite the flurry of activity on this issue over the past 18 months, and the past six months in particular, the legal situation now is unchanged:

 

Under the Sex Discrimination Act 1984 (Cth), religious schools are legally permitted to discriminate against, and expel, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students on the basis of who they are.

 

They are also free to fire, and refuse to hire, LGBT teachers and other staff, despite the significant amount of taxpayers’ money used to pay their salaries.

 

This is obviously incredibly disappointing, especially given the supposed bipartisan commitments to address this issue made late last year. Which prompts the equally-obvious question:

 

Who is to blame?

 

While responsibility for major #auspol policy failures like this can usually be shared around, the blame for the lack of action in this particular area lies squarely at the feet of the Morrison Liberal-National Government.

 

The have failed to progress anti-discrimination law reform in four key ways:

 

  1. The Morrison Liberal-National Government refused to introduce its own Bill to protect LGBT students

 

Despite Prime Minister Morrison’s October 2018 commitment to introduce and pass amendments to the Sex Discrimination Act to protect LGBT students before the end of the year, his Government never actually introduced its own Bill to make these changes. Which, you’d have to admit, makes it extremely difficult to actually pass anything.

 

Indeed, if the Liberal-National Government was ‘fair dinkum’ about fulfilling its promise, it would have at least tried to move its own legislation on this issue. With a Prime Minister who is quite fond of saying ‘if you have a go, you get a go’, his Government didn’t bother to have a go at changing this law – meaning LGBT students don’t get a go at learning in a discrimination-free environment.

 

  1. The Morrison Liberal-National Government sought to introduce new powers to discriminate

 

As noted above, the Labor Opposition and Greens both introduced their own Bills to protect LGBT students, and LGBT students and teachers, respectively. The Labor Bill in particular was subject to Senate debate in late 2018, before being referred to the second Committee inquiry.

 

During this debate, the Liberal-National Government introduced amendments that would ensure that, even if religious schools lost their specific exception in section 38(3) of the Sex Discrimination Act, they would continue to be able to discriminate under the general religious exception in section 37(1)(d) [Government amendment KQ147].

 

They also sought to expand the reasonableness test for indirect discrimination to include consideration of whether any “condition, requirement or practice is imposed, or proposed to be imposed, in good faith in order to avoid injury to the religious susceptibilities of adherents of that religion or creed” [Government amendments KQ148, 150 and 151]. This would have effectively expanded rather than restricted the range of groups who could be discriminated against because of religious beliefs to include intersex students as well (among others).

 

Finally, the Government wanted to allow religious schools to discriminate against LGBTI students if it was part of teaching activity (broadly defined to capture “any kind of instruction of a student by a person employed or otherwise engaged by an educational institution”) as long as it was done “in good faith in accordance with the doctrines, tenets, beliefs or teachings of a particular religion or creed” [Government amendment KQ149].

 

If any or all of the Morrison Government’s amendments had been passed, it would have meant religious schools could have continued to discriminate against LGBT students – it just would have been done under different sections of the Act.

 

  1. The Morrison Liberal-National Government tried to limit changes to preventing expulsion only

 

Another way in which the Government undermined anti-discrimination law reform was by narrowing its scope to preventing religious schools from expelling or refusing to enrol LGBT students, while continuing to allow them to discriminate against, and mistreat, vulnerable kids in other ways.

 

This approach formed part of Prime Minister Morrison’s early rhetoric following the leaking of the Ruddock Review Recommendations in October 2018, as he focused on expulsion: “I don’t think if someone’s at a school they should be kicked out because they have a different sexuality to what might be believed to be the appropriate thing by a particular religious group” [emphasis added].

 

While subsequent debate seemed to broaden to cover all forms of discrimination against LGBT students, in February 2019 Government Senators once again tried to limit the reforms to preventing expulsion only, with The Australian reporting Government members of the Senate Committee sought a deal with the Opposition on this issue (‘ALP stops bid to protect gay kids’, The Australian, 19 February 2019).

 

Thankfully, the Opposition rejected this narrow approach. This is important because there are many different ways in which religious schools can discriminate against LGBT kids, without necessarily expelling them, and they are all harmful (see, for example, my own story here: The longest five years’ ).

 

Only removing the power to expel, while allowing schools to mistreat students in myriad other ways, would have been completely inadequate and inappropriate.

 

  1. The Morrison Liberal-National Government has done everything in its power to delay reform

 

There is absolutely no reason why the Commonwealth Government, and Parliament, could not have passed reforms to the Sex Discrimination Act, protecting LGBT students, before the end of 2018.

 

How can I say that so confidently? Because the ACT Government did exactly that, passing it owns reforms – based on the best practice Tasmanian Anti-Discrimination Act 1998 – between the leaking of the Ruddock Review Recommendations in October and the end of the year. These reforms, which protect both LGBT students and teachers, will commence by 6 June 2019 at the latest.

 

Instead, at Commonwealth level, we have had Labor and Greens Bills, and two Senate inquiries, but no Government legislation and no change to the law.

 

Even worse, we now have a reference to the ALRC that won’t report on the issue until 10 April 2020, meaning any Bill arising from it will likely not be debated until the second half of next year. Consequently, any reforms to protect LGBT students wouldn’t take effect until the start of 2021 – at the earliest.

 

Christian Porter

Attorney-General Christian Porter

 

It is clear, from these four arguments, that the Morrison Liberal-National Government is responsible for the fact LGBT students are still not protected against discrimination as we start the federal election campaign.

 

What people may not be aware of is that they are also responsible for two major threats to LGBT anti-discrimination laws in the near future.

 

The first is the ALRC inquiry itself. Its terms of reference includes the following:

 

consideration of what reforms to relevant anti-discrimination laws, the Fair Work Act 2009 (Cth) and any other Australia law should be made in order to:

  • limit or remove altogether (if practicable) religious exemptions to prohibitions on discrimination, while also guaranteeing the right of religious institutions to conduct their affairs in a way consistent with their religious ethos; and
  • remove any legal impediments to the expression of a view of marriage as it was defined in the Marriage Act 1961 (Cth) before it was amended by the Marriage Amendment (Definition and Religious Freedoms) Act 2017 (Cth), whether such impediments are imposed by a provision analogous to section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act 1975 (Cth) or otherwise.

 

Now, some people might see the first dot point, and specifically the reference to limiting or removing religious exemptions, as encouraging. And it could be – except that this is also what religious fundamentalist organisations, such as the Australian Christian Lobby, also want (for example, the ACL’s own submission to the Ruddock Review stated that ‘State and Commonwealth Anti-Discrimination laws establish an unhelpful and incomplete framework of religious exemptions which inadequately balance the right of religious freedom against the right to non-discrimination’ before recommending ‘that existing exemptions in anti-discrimination law re reframed as ‘general limitations clauses’).

 

The remainder of that clause – ‘while also guaranteeing the right of religious institutions to conduct their affairs in a way consistent with their religious ethos’ – is where the danger lies. Namely, religious exceptions may simply be replaced by the introduction of positively-framed rights to discriminate against LGBT people.

 

The second dot point is just as problematic. Despite the fact there is limited, or no, evidence that people expressing discriminatory views of marriage are suffering real-world adverse consequences, the ALRC is supposed to give significant attention to ‘protecting’ them.

 

This includes undermining the best practice LGBTI anti-vilification laws found in the Tasmanian Anti-Discrimination Act 1998 (which are equivalent to section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act, and the primary reason why the RDA has been raised in this context) [For a comparison of LGBTI anti-discrimination and anti-vilification laws, click here].

 

The second threat comes from another part of the Morrison Liberal-National Government’s response to the Ruddock Religious Freedom Review: its commitment to introduce a Religious Discrimination Bill.

 

Once again, this should be a positive development. Most people interested in human rights, including myself, support the inclusion of religious belief or lack of belief as a protected attribute in anti-discrimination law in jurisdictions where it is not currently protected (specifically, the Commonwealth, New South Wales and South Australia). This will help ensure religious minorities are protected against discrimination in education, employment and service delivery.

 

On the other hand, a Religious Discrimination Bill could become a vehicle to include positively-framed rights for religious individuals and organisations to discriminate against others, becoming a stealth ‘Religious Freedom Bill’, in the same way that some Liberal-National MPs and Senators tried to turn a same-sex marriage bill into anti-LGBTI equality legislation.

 

The truth is we will not know which option, good or bad, the Government is pursuing until we see the text of the Bill itself. Which is why Attorney-General Porter’s announcement that the Religious Discrimination Bill would not be released until after the election is so worrying (‘Religious freedom bill fails to meet election deadline’, The Australian, 10 April 2019).

 

Despite saying in December at the release of the Ruddock Religious Freedom Review that “the Religious Discrimination Bill, which we are well-advanced on the drafting of and which we would have out early next year, so that people can see it”, LGBTI Australians will now be kept in the dark on a key new law that could have a significant impact on our rights (although it is probably safe to assume major religious organisations have been consulted on its drafting).

 

Not only has the Morrison Liberal-National Government stopped laws to protect LGBT students against discrimination from passing during the 45th Parliament, they have already started two processes (the ALRC Inquiry, and the Religious Discrimination Bill) that could see LGBT rights go backwards in the 46th.

 

What about the other parties?

 

The Labor Party has largely been supportive of LGBTI rights throughout this (sometimes convoluted, but consistently frustrating) process.

 

As discussed earlier, they introduced the Sex Discrimination Amendment (Removing Discrimination Against Students) Bill 2018 that does just what it says on the box. They have been very clear they will protect LGBT students in religious schools against discrimination if they are elected next month.

 

However, the ALP has been somewhat less clear in terms of their plans for teachers. While committing to remove the exceptions that allow religious schools to fire, and refuse to hire, LGBT teachers and other staff, they have also made vague comments about introducing amendments to ensure religious schools can continue to impose their ‘ethos and values’. Bill Shorten and the Labor Party need to outline exactly what they intend to do on this issue, before the election.

 

[Update 11 May 2019: While Labor have reiterated their intention to protect LGBT teachers and other staff, they have still not clarified the scope of any amendments to protect the ‘ethos and values’ of the school. More concerningly, they have indicated they will wait for the ALRC to conduct its inquiry into religious exceptions before protecting LGBT students or teachers. This is unacceptable – students deserve to be protected as quickly as possible, and there is a Bill ready and waiting to be reintroduced. It should be one of the first items of business of a new parliament.]

 

The Greens are obviously supportive of removing exceptions that allow discrimination against both LGBT students and teachers. They have also indicated that religious exceptions should be removed in other areas (including health and community services), as well as in the Fair Work Act 2009 (Cth).

 

In terms of the minor parties, the right-wing fringe groups (including Pauline Hanson’s One Nation, Cory Bernardi’s Australian Conservatives and the racist Senator who shall not be named) are exactly as homophobic and transphobic as you would expect, and don’t deserve our attention.

 

However, one minor party earns a special mention – although not for reasons they would appreciate. That is because the Centre Alliance (the renamed Nick Xenophon Team) supported some of the Government’s amendments that, in practice, would have permitted religious schools to discriminate against LGBT students. In fact, the position of the Centre Alliance is the reason that Labor’s Sex Discrimination Amendment (Removing Discrimination Against Students) Bill could not at least pass the Senate in late 2018.

 

What happens next?

 

The outcome of the federal election on Saturday 18 May will determine what happens next in terms of anti-discrimination law reform.

 

If the Morrison Government is returned, it is unclear whether LGBT students will be protected, and if so what that change would look like. Even if they remove the specific religious exceptions in the Sex Discrimination Act, it is highly likely they will simply replace them with new, positively-framed rights for religious organisations to discriminate against LGBT people, including in education.

 

Any reforms under a re-elected Liberal-National Government will also be delayed until at least the second half of 2020 (after the ALRC has completed its inquiry), meaning LGBT students in religious schools will be exposed to discrimination until at least 2021.

 

And, as discussed above, both the ALRC inquiry itself, and the imminent (although still secret) Religious Discrimination Bill, could see LGBTI rights actually go backwards under a 2nd term Morrison Government.

 

If the Labor Party is elected, on the other hand, it is highly likely that LGBT students will be protected against discrimination as a matter of priority. It is also probable that LGBT teachers and other staff will be protected in some form – although it will be up to LGBTI organisations to push them to make sure any such changes are as straight-forward as possible, and not undermined by ‘ethos and values’-style amendments (an increased Greens presence in the Senate would also assist in this respect).

 

Nevertheless, we must remember that the only thing in this area that is guaranteed to happen, every school day of this election campaign – and for months, and possibly years, afterwards – is that too many LGBT students will attend a school where they can be lawfully discriminated against.

 

And the primary reason is that Prime Minister Scott Morrison broke his promise, made just six months ago, to do something about it.

 

**********

 

Disclaimer: As with all posts, this article reflects my own views and not those of any employer, past or present.

 

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The longest five years

[Content warning: homophobia; violence; suicidal ideation]

 

Those eyelashes.

He had beautiful blue eyes, scruffy blond hair and a mischievous smile, but it’s his eyelashes I remember most more than a quarter of a century later.

The day before, my Mum had driven me the eight hours from the farm west of Rockhampton where I was raised, to this boarding school in Brisbane’s inner-west. The day after I would start year 8, and what would be the longest five years of my life.

But that January afternoon, as the new boarders got to know each other down at the pool, I was transfixed by his eyelashes, droplets of water on them glistening in the Queensland summer sun.

That moment crystallised the feelings of difference that had slowly accumulated over the previous few years. At 10 and 11, I had grown increasingly bewildered as the other boys and girls at Blackwater primary began to express interest in each other.

At 12, in this unfamiliar environment, a long, long way from home, I finally understood why.

I liked boys.

 

**********

 

It took me another month or so to learn the right language to describe who I was. But I realised quickly afterwards that being gay was unlikely to be welcomed. Not by my National Party-voting parents (my Dad had actually nominated for federal pre-selection the year before). Not by my classmates. And definitely not by my school.

This was 1991. Homosexuality in Queensland had only just been decriminalised – and even then, the Parliament had imposed an unequal age of consent for anal intercourse (to ‘protect’ boys from being recruited to the homosexual lifestyle), something that would not be repealed until 2016.

Social attitudes were changing, but at a glacial pace. Many parts of the state were still firmly stuck in the Joh Bjelke-Petersen era. My school was one of them.

Based on the Lutheran faith, it enforced both religious indoctrination, and homophobia, with steely German efficiency.

We had chapel five times a week (Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays, Fridays, and an hour-plus every Sunday), and bible studies another two or three times.

The school rules, which were printed in the student diary, were based on supposedly ‘christian’ principles, and included the statement that homosexuality would not be tolerated because it was not in accordance with god’s will.

The sex education that was provided was a superficial, hetero-normative joke. While the jokes made by my classmates, often within earshot of unresponsive staff, were frequently homophobic.

If I was going to survive here, I would have to suppress my burgeoning same-sex attraction with all my might.

 

**********

 

It is hard, even now, especially now, to find the words to describe the utter loneliness of what followed.

Being surrounded 24/7 by 180 other boys, at a school of 1600 students overall, but having absolutely no-one to talk to, or confide in.

Needless to say there were no ‘out’ role models to look up to.

So, I quickly cut myself off, socially and emotionally, rather than risk the ostracism – or worse – of letting slip my secret.

Looking back, it was probably the only rational course of action. But it would slowly erode, and corrode, my self-esteem.

 

**********

 

I became so withdrawn that the rest of year 8, and most of year 9, was a numb blur.

As an academic child – some (well, if I’m being honest, most) might say nerd – I concentrated on my schoolwork.

The only snippets I learnt about what it meant to be gay came from pop-culture.

Sneaking peaks at Outrage magazine at the newsagent between school and the local shopping centre.

Scanning newspapers for any gay references I could find. One article about homosexuality from The Australian, back when it actually did journalism, sticks out in my mind, at least in part because of the scantily clad male torso it featured.

Trying to stay up late in the dorm to watch Sex with Sophie Lee, and Melrose Place featuring Matt the (largely-sexless) gay social worker.

Not exactly the most well-rounded education on ‘gayness’, but I devoured any morsel I could get.

 

**********

 

My clearest memory of year 9 came one evening during our allocated study period, during which each boarding house year group was supervised by a year 12 student.

This particular night our allocated ‘senior’ was joined by his twin brother and their friend, and they proceeded to discuss, in front of us, what they had got up to during the previous weekend.

On the Saturday night they and some others had apparently gone to a major bridge in Brisbane, found a toilet block where ‘faggots’ (their word, not mine) congregated, and ‘rolled’ them.

They were confessing to gay-bashing. Except this was no ordinary confession. They were smiling. Joking. Laughing. They were bragging.

Long before the term ‘toxic masculinity’ was popularised, I was learning what it meant, face-to-face.

I could not be 100 per cent certain whether what they were saying was true, or just teenage ‘bravado’ (even if it was the opposite of real bravery).

But I was now absolutely sure of one thing. Being gay at this school would not just lead to social exclusion, and possible expulsion. Being gay here was physically dangerous too.

I retreated even further into my closet. It became my whole world.

 

**********

 

Unsurprisingly, denying who I was, and isolating myself from my surrounds, was profoundly damaging to my mental health.

I suffered what I would later understand was major depression.

By the second term of year 8, I was already contemplating what seemed like the only way out: ending my life.

At first these thoughts came weekly. Then every few days.

By the start of year 10, I was thinking of killing myself upwards of a dozen times every 24 hours.

There wasn’t a day from then until after I finished year 12 that I didn’t think of committing suicide.

 

**********

 

Amidst the gloom, year 10 provided the one enjoyable term of my entire five-year stint of boarding school.

That was an eight-week ‘outdoor education’ program, where each class of about 30 lived in spartan accommodation in the hills north of Toowoomba.

By spartan, I really mean it. No flushing toilets. No running water full stop. To have a hot shower you had to build the fire, and boil the water, yourself. And after all that it only lasted for a total of about 30 seconds.

Still, there was something enjoyable about having no classes, and being immersed in an environment where kids could just be kids for a bit. I finally managed to make a few friends, mostly among the female students, something that would come in handy during the remaining two and a half years of hell in that school.

 

**********

 

Even out there, however, we couldn’t fully escape the religious inculcation the school was so expert in. We still had group daily prayer. And church every Sunday.

As part of its stereotypically ‘protestant’ emphasis on self-reliance, towards the end of the eight weeks we were also made to do a 24- or 48-hour ‘solo’, where we were left in the middle of the bush, with little other than a flashlight and a bible for company.

So I read it, cover to cover, in the desperate hope I might find something in there to help me overcome my predicament.

Which began a period of about 6 months where I would engage in an individual nightly prayer, wishing I would wake up as something other than myself. Each morning I was profoundly disappointed.

I was more lost than ever.

 

**********

 

The nadir of this search for ‘redemption’ came late in year 10, when I sought the assistance of one of the pastors to be baptised.

For a couple of months that involved spending an hour each week with him, discussing faith and what it meant to me.

We didn’t discuss homosexuality. I wasn’t going to raise it, and he certainly didn’t ask.

But it must been have clear to this kind old man (and that is still how I remember him) that the young boy in front of him was drowning.

If it was, then he himself was too far out of his depth to help.

My strongest memory of that entire process was sitting in his office, listening to – but not really hearing – his words, as it felt like my whole body dissolved into the couch, until I wasn’t there anymore.

It was clear that religion was not going to be my life-raft.

 

**********

 

Perhaps surprisingly, by year 11, things had slowly started to improve.

The friendships I had made with a few of the female day students strengthened. Even if I felt I couldn’t disclose my secret to them, just having someone, anyone, to talk to, even about random, meaningless stuff, made the days seem not so long, and the nights not quite so terrifyingly alone.

I was also learning more about this whole ‘gay’ thing.

One of the advantages of being a nerd meant I was free to visit, unsupervised, the University of Queensland Social Sciences Library, ostensibly to undertake research for my school assessments. In fact, I was becoming closely acquainted with the work of Alfred Kinsey and his ‘Sexual Behaviour in the Human Male’.

I surreptitiously picked up a few copies of Brother-Sister (the 90s, Brisbane equivalent of the Star Observer), reading them cover-to-cover and then throwing them away before heading back to campus.

It was reassuring to know that a gay world did exist out there, somewhere – a suburb, and a galaxy, removed from where I was.

Pop-culture was also steadily expanding its, and my, gayze. Tales of the City (the TV series) was an eye-opener, with its heady depiction of gay life in 70s San Francisco. It even made being gay look like it could be fun.

And I distinctly recall the moment I first saw the photos of Ian Roberts in Blue Magazine (images that were committed to memory for several years after that).

Life in the dorms even got slightly easier with the installation of shower curtains. Which, unless you’ve lived in a boarding house, may not seem like a big deal, but finally provided enough privacy to do what teenage boys do… A lot…

It felt like the invisible but ever-present weight I had been carrying was slowly lifting. There was much less ‘praying the gay away’, replaced with the almost imperceptibly small beginnings of self-acceptance.

 

**********

 

Any progress I had made was stopped in its tracks by a moment of brutality.

Well, two moments.

Physically, I had matured faster than some of my peers, and at 15 had a nascent patch of hair on my chest (which, I’ll be honest, I was a little bit chuffed about).

One evening early in year 11, after study a group of about half-a-dozen boys from my year ambushed me between two buildings, pinned me down and removed my shirt.

I struggled to break free, but there were too many of them.

I called out for help, which was then muffled by one of their hands across my mouth.

No-one came.

I didn’t comprehend what was going on, until one of them took out a razor and shaved my chest.

I think the whole thing was all over in about three minutes.

Looking back, I don’t know how but I somehow managed to compartmentalise this un-provoked attack. Pretending it didn’t mean anything. That it was ‘just’ some harmless hazing. That this kind of thing happened to everyone. Didn’t it?

Perversely, the dissociation of more than three years in the closet helped me to detach myself from this incident.

I tried to move on. I was even partially successful. Until it happened again.

 

**********

 

The second assault, towards the end of year 11, was much, much worse.

The modus operandi was similar – the shaving of my by-then slightly thicker thatch.

There were more people involved, this time at least a dozen, maybe 15 (including, sadly, my year 8 crush, the one with those ‘eyelashes’).

It happened in the dorm cubicle I shared with three other students, on the floor right next to my bed, stripping away any sense of safety it had previously provided.

The fact they came prepared with shaving cream, in addition to a razor, revealed just how pre-meditated it was.

I didn’t struggle. Or call out for help. The first attack had shown there was no point.

In fact, what sticks with me is just how quiet it was.

The sound of squeaky sneakers on the wooden floor. The whirr of the shaving cream. That’s all.

They didn’t even need to talk to each other. They knew what they were doing, having taken the school’s German efficiency and applied it to brutalising another student.

This was an act of dominance, and humiliation. I was confronted by my sheer powerlessness in comparison.

But the biggest psychological damage was inflicted by its mere repetition.

This was not, could not, be written off as simple ‘hazing’, lazily picking on outward physical difference.

Even if they didn’t express it – and I couldn’t say the words out loud – I knew they had worked out I was different in an inward, and far more significant way.

They were going to make me pay for it. I did. They had broken me.

 

**********

 

I didn’t report them. How could I? They constituted about a third of all the year 11 students in the boarding house. The popular boys. The rugby players. People who I continued to share a ‘home’ with, and see every morning, afternoon and evening of every single day.

I knew, without qualification, that if I complained, and any of them (or all of them) were punished as a result, the following 12 months would be living hell. The violence wouldn’t stop; it would escalate.

So I lowered my head.

I did confide in a couple of my female friends, Jo and Cindy. Who were rightly horrified and who, unbeknownst to me, reported the second incident to the school.

The school’s response was, to put it mildly, shocking.

They knew what had happened. And they knew exactly who had been involved. Nevertheless, they refused to take action unless I made a formal complaint – something which they must also have realised I couldn’t do, based on an entirely legitimate fear for my own safety.

We reached a stand-off.

The boarding house’s improvised approach was to take me out of study one night, and sit me alone on an uncomfortable chair in a fluorescently-lit corridor. They forced all of the boys who had been involved (thus conceding they knew exactly who did it) to come and apologise to me, one after another.

I don’t remember much of that experience. I certainly don’t recall any genuine contrition on their parts for the actual attack. Although I do remember several of them thanking me for not ‘dobbing’, and others apologising to me because they incorrectly thought that I had complained but now knew I hadn’t. Such were the warped moral priorities of the teenage male boarding student.

 

**********

 

About a week after those ‘nonpologies’, the school announced the student body leaders for the following year.

One of the boys who had assaulted me was named school captain.

Another was made head boarder.

If that wasn’t enough of a sick joke, because of my grades I was also named a prefect – and so would have to spend even more time alongside them.

 

**********

 

The icing on the cake of that almost unbelievably horrible year came a couple of weeks later.

As was the style at the time – but probably also as a reaction to what had happened to me – I had clippered my hair in a buzz cut.

Sitting in the back row of my Economics class, the teacher, who was also the ‘dean of student welfare’ for year 11, joked to the class, “didn’t you get enough of having your hair shaved in the boarding house, Alastair?”

 

**********

 

It was clear the school would never give a shit about me.

After four years in the closet, and beatings both physical and psychological, I barely cared about myself.

Which meant that year 12, for me, was simply a battle for survival.

The lowest point arrived in chapel one morning when, in front of years 11 and 12, a new pastor gave a sermon about a teenager from his previous parish.

The boy had come to see him, ‘confused’ about life and his place in it. The pastor claimed he had tried to help, but the boy ultimately took his life.

The pastor described how he was now in a better place, in a way that suggested this was not the worst thing the boy could have done in those circumstances.

That pastor had effectively ‘dog-whistled’ his insidious homophobia to a room full of 600 impressionable 15, 16 and 17 year-olds, intimating that they should consider killing themselves if they were confused.

Fortunately, my contrarian nature meant my immediate reaction was to think, “fuck you, I won’t do what you tell me”. It was possibly even the first day I believed I might eventually outlive that school.

But I often think about how the other 40 or 50 queer kids who were in chapel that morning reacted to his hate.

 

**********

 

The highest point of senior year came one August afternoon, as I sat in the office of my favourite English teacher, and the dean of student welfare for year 12, crying.

Yes, crying. Why was that a highlight? Because I had just committed the ultimate act of defiance in a school that was intent on erasing any student who happened to be gay or lesbian.

I had come out.

It almost goes without saying that it was the most difficult thing I had ever done. I was so emotionally spent afterwards that, even though Gayle was supportive (and wanted to help me attend a support group outside of school), I did not have sufficient energy left to take the next step. Or any steps.

Indeed, it would be another two years before I told another soul.

But it was enough that someone finally knew my secret.

It was also a pre-emptive act of remembrance. If I took my life in the weeks or months that followed, someone would know why. And they might be able to address the set of circumstances that contributed to it.

 

**********

 

The final term of year 12 was like the home straight of a marathon, as I limped and staggered towards the end. I literally had nothing left of myself to give.

Even my grades started to suffer (although I suspect Gayle encouraged some of the other teachers to give me special consideration).

But as I fell through the finish line tape, and started to maybe hope that the future could have something, anything, better to offer than the previous five years had mercilessly dispensed, the school had one last insult to add to my many injuries.

At the conclusion of each year in the boarding house, the senior students handed out ‘awards’ to the year 8, 9, 10 and 11 kids, while the year 11 students were given responsibility to dole out awards to the seniors.

Mine? In front of the entire boarding house, including staff, I had to walk up and collect the ‘Big Fat Poof’ award.

None of the staff intervened. All of the other kids laughed.

Those students had found the language to describe what the year 11s the year before – my classmates – had suspected. They saw right through me.

It almost seems appropriate my time at that wretched institution ended in one final act of humiliation before I walked out of its unwelcoming gates.

 

**********

 

A couple of days after final exams, my Dad drove me that same eight hour-trip back to my childhood farm in Central Queensland for the final time.

Sitting in the passenger seat, I was, in many ways, the same kid I had been five years prior. My physical age might have been 17, but emotionally I was only 12; specifically, that 12 year-old boy transfixed by those eyelashes, experiencing the exciting and confusing first throes of a teenage crush.

Except those subsequent years had stripped away any optimism I might have once held about the future, as my school and classmates collectively drummed into me that who I was was something to be ashamed of.

My teenage years had been stolen from me by religious indoctrination, and homophobia – which, at least in that environment, were very closely inter-twined.

I would have to ‘do over’ my adolescence, in the months and years to come. To make stupid mistakes, and learn from them. To grow up. To fall in – and out – of love.

Fortunately, the world outside would prove a far more accepting, and interesting, place than my boarding school had been.

It’s hard to imagine how it could have been any worse.

 

**********

 

Ten years later I found myself attending my school reunion on a rainy night in a dingy function room in the Valley.

You may ask why I would subject myself to that (and I certainly am as I write this) but, at the time, I felt like I had something to prove.

Unlike Romy, it wasn’t to show how successful or popular I was, merely to demonstrate that they hadn’t broken me. After everything they had put me through, I was still standing.

It wasn’t necessarily true. My personal life was basically a mess, and would be for another few years, right up until I met my fiancé Steve. But that wasn’t going to stop me from faking it.

Nevertheless, I am thankful I went for one reason. Early in the evening, one of the boys who had been involved in the second assault on me saw me through the crowd, made a beeline straight toward me, and unprompted offered me his apology for what he, and the others, had done.

Not only was it sincere, it was obvious the incident had weighed heavily on him in the decade since.

Nothing was going to take back what had happened. But it was comforting to hear the wrong acknowledged, and to know at least one of the perpetrators was genuinely remorseful.

 

**********

 

Another decade later I went to my school’s 20-year reunion on a sunny afternoon at a bowling club down by the Brisbane River.

This time I didn’t have anything to prove, but I did have something to gain – to reconnect with some of the friends I had made during my time there. Which I did, although once again the highlight was a pleasant surprise.

Mid-afternoon I found myself having a chat with the boy (well, now middle-aged man) with those ‘eyelashes’, as well as another student with whom I had shared a dorm cubicle all the way back in 1991.

The crush was long gone (what had I been thinking?). Instead, we had a lovely conversation about our lives and what we were up to. They offered their heart-felt congratulations on my engagement to Steve, even remarking that he was a ‘good-looking fella’ (well, I certainly think so).

It was all incredibly natural, and showed how much they had evolved in the intervening decades.

Indeed, we had all changed.

 

**********

 

Well, nearly all. While it had eventually got better for me, I was soon reminded that it didn’t get better for everyone.

I sat outside on the wooden steps leading down to the green chatting with another student from my year. After I told him about my relationship, he volunteered that he had been out on the gay scene during his twenties, but that he had since rediscovered Jesus and was now straight.

Worse still, he was employed by a faith-based organisation working with troubled youth on the streets. He was likely perpetuating the same harmful messages we had received, and subsequently contributed to him becoming ‘ex-gay’, inflicting them on another generation.

While I had somehow managed to survive that horrific school, and was living a beautiful life teenage Alastair scarcely would have dreamed possible, for him those same five years seemed to be stuck on repeat.

 

**********

 

For LGBTI people, if this post has raised issues for you, please contact QLife on 1800 184 527, or via webchat: https://qlife.org.au/

Or contact Lifeline Australia on 13 11 14.

 

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At my grandma’s house, during a break between school terms.

 

Postscript: 19 April 2019

 

It is now just over a month since I shared this story. It’s fair to say it is the hardest thing I’ve ever written. But choosing to press publish was even harder. The response has been overwhelming. From friends who offered their love and support. I thank you from the bottom of my heart.

 

From others who shared their own, similar experiences. The countless tweets, and messages, saying that if you simply changed the date or location, their story mirrored mine. I thank you for your honesty, and honour your courage.

 

From people who I went to school with. Many of whom who wrote to say they wish they had known at the time, and could have done something to help (that’s one of the worst things about ‘the closet’, it isolates you from people who could be allies). I thank you for your support.

 

I have also received messages from other students who attended the same school, who’ve detailed their own shocking experiences of abuse and discrimination. Except for them the cause wasn’t homophobia, but racism. Which is not at all surprising – if an environment is toxic for one group, it’s highly likely to be toxic for others too. But it was still depressing to learn the horrors they endured. I thank you for your strength.

 

Just this week I received a message from one of the teachers at the school. Who expressed her sincerest sympathy about what had happened to me. In doing so, she confirmed one of the worst elements of the story: the pastor’s sermon. And she informed me that multiple teachers had told the school afterwards that it was unacceptable.

 

I’m thankful for that as well. Not just to know some of the teachers had tried to stand up for teenage me, and all the other queer kids who were there. But also because it was the part I had most trouble writing, and publishing. Ultimately, the version I included in the story was toned down from the reality – in truth, the pastor was much more explicit that gay kids should consider killing themselves.

 

While my recollection of what had happened was extremely vivid, the possibility that anyone would tell a chapel full of several hundred 15, 16 and 17 year olds that ending their life was a better outcome than being homosexual was so horrific that I doubted myself. I shouldn’t have.

 

Several people have asked why I wrote this story. The answer to that is complex. In part, it is an act of preservation, of making sure stories like mine are not forgotten. In another sense it has been about catharsis – it has been genuinely liberating to share these experiences publicly, and let go of them privately.

 

It is also an act of defiance. To let schools like mine know that mistreating kids just because they are gay, or lesbian, or bisexual, or trans, was not acceptable in Queensland in the 1990s. It’s not acceptable in Australia in 2019. And it won’t be acceptable in the future. Your religion has never been, is not, and will never be, justification for homophobia, transphobia or any other kind of prejudice.

 

That message is especially important now, as religious organisations desperately fight to retain their special privileges that allow them to discriminate against students, teachers and other staff solely on the basis of their sexual orientation and gender identity.

 

We must not let them get away with it. Because if we do, we’ll be reading stories like mine in 2043. And, most importantly, let’s never forget those stories we will never get to hear.

 

**********

 

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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.

 

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Treasurer Frydenberg, Please Abolish the National School Chaplaincy Program

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

 

The Morrison Liberal-National Government is currently calling for Pre-Budget Submissions for the 2019-20 Commonwealth Budget. Submissions close 1 February 2019 – for more details click here.

 

Please see my submission below, which I have also sent to the Leader of the Opposition Bill Shorten and Shadow Treasurer Chris Bowen.

 

**********

 

Treasurer Josh Frydenberg MP

c/- prebudgetsubs@treasury.gov.au

 

Monday 28 January 2019

 

Dear Treasurer

 

Please Abolish the National School Chaplaincy Program

 

Thank you for the opportunity to provide a submission ahead of the upcoming 2019-20 Commonwealth Budget.

 

In this submission I will make the case for what should be the easiest Budget decision of them all – to save $247 million over four years by abolishing the National School Chaplaincy Program.

 

There are multiple reasons why this entirely unjustified program should be axed, with most stemming from the requirement that any person who acts as a school chaplain must be religious. This requirement is completely inappropriate in a contemporary society.

 

In theory, these positions are supposed to be about improving student welfare. In practice, they are about promoting Christian theology, including in supposedly secular public schools.

 

As the Guardian Australia reported, in 2015 the Education Department revealed that of 2,336 chaplains funded by the Commonwealth Government, 2,312 (or 99%) were Christian, with the negligible remainder split between Islam (13), Judaism (eight) and one each from Bahai, Buddhism and Aboriginal traditional religions.

 

As a program it has already been found to be unconstitutional on multiple occasions (thanks to the ongoing efforts of the courageous Ron Williams). Successive Commonwealth Governments have responded by resorting to increasingly intricate arrangements to circumvent these findings.

 

Indeed, on a prima facie reading, the program is clearly in breach of section 116 of the Constitution, which provides that:

 

‘Commonwealth not to legislate in respect of religion

The Commonwealth shall not make any law for establishing any religion, or for imposing any religious observance, or for prohibiting the free exercise of any religion, and no religious test shall be required as a qualification for any office or public trust under the Commonwealth.’

 

The only reason the program has not been found unlawful because of section 116 is because the money to fund it is now funnelled through grants to state and territory governments.

 

Instead of engaging in this intellectual dishonesty, the Commonwealth Government should instead honour the spirit of the Constitution. As Treasurer, you should acknowledge that the National School Chaplaincy Program imposes a religious test on positions that are paid for with taxpayers’ monies – and consequently abolish it.

 

The religious requirement for chaplaincy positions presents another legal problem, and that is it is potentially in breach of state and territory anti-discrimination and equal opportunity laws,[i] because it actively discriminates against people with different religions, or who have no religion.

 

This is currently being tested in the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal, with a complaint against Access Ministries by a person who was barred from applying for a position with them because she was not Christian. As noted in that complaint:

 

‘The discrimination is not reasonably necessary for Access Ministries to comply with the doctrines, beliefs or principles of the religion associated with Access Ministries, because the work of a school chaplain takes place in a non-religious context and workplace, namely a government school, with a student population made up of students with a variety of religious affiliations and with no religious affiliation.’

 

Hopefully, that challenge is successful. Even if it fails, it is likely that the lawfulness of the National School Chaplaincy Program will come under fresh scrutiny as the Commonwealth Government establishes a new Religious Discrimination Act, as part of its response to the Ruddock Religious Freedom Review.

 

It is impossible to argue the program does not discriminate on the basis of religious belief (or lack thereof), when such discrimination lies at its heart. There must be no special loopholes as part of any new Commonwealth Religious Discrimination Act merely to allow discrimination against non-Christians, agnostics and atheists alike to continue. Nor should there be taxpayer funding for this discrimination in the Commonwealth Budget.

 

A third reason why the National School Chaplaincy Program should be abolished is because of its internal contradiction, with people hired as school chaplains because they are religious then required not to ‘proselytise’ their beliefs as part of their role.

 

There have been multiple reports, over many years, of chaplains in public schools completely disregarding this prohibition.

 

From 2011The United Christian Education Foundation is the chaplaincy provider at Ulladulla High School on the New South Wales South Coast.

 

A newsletter on its website reads: “There is much to be thankful for as we look back on another year of bringing the great news of Jesus to the precious young people at Ulladulla High School. The other week a Year 7 boy put up his hand and said, ‘I asked Jesus into my life the other day’.

 

“A Year 8 girl told me about the peace she now has since becoming a Christian,” the newsletter continues.

 

Proselytising is against the federal Education Department’s guidelines on chaplaincy, but some students at the Ulladulla school believe the chaplain is there to convert them.

 

“[It is] basically to make people become of his religion. That’s it really. To convert people to their religion,” said Max, a Year 8 student.

 

Nick, a maths teacher at the primary school nearby, was shocked when the chaplain came to his school and invited the children to pray.

 

“The chaplain was addressing the Year 6 children, a majority of those children would be going to the local high school and he did say that he was available for children there, and they can come to him and pray with him, or if not, he would pray for them,” he said.

 

And from just last year: Generate Ministries, the largest provider of school chaplains in NSW, has begun offering a “faith building” course to students and told them their chaplain is one way of accessing the program.

 

The subject, called Veta Morpheous, is a certificate III course for HSC students developed by the Victorian-based Veta Youth which says the studies enable students to “really invest in your spiritual growth and to explore your faith with adult mentors” and “grow in your Christian life.”

 

“It’s a space… to discover who you are in Christ, and to test your faith in real life,” Veta Youth says.

 

In a now-amended statement on its website Generate Ministries said: “The key to the program is the local ministry supervisor and the peer group supervisor… this is often the local minister, Chaplain.”

 

When contact about the possible breach, Generate Ministries said it only intended for chaplains funded under a separate NSW wellbeing program to offer the course. However that program also forbids chaplains from proselytising.

 

There are countless other examples of chaplains engaged in proselytising behaviour. Perhaps just as concerning is what is not considered proselytising, and therefore deemed acceptable, with then-Education Minister Simon Birmingham telling Senate Estimates that proselytising is only ‘attempt[ing] to convert someone to a particular religion or belief’ and that quoting the Bible is not necessarily proselytising.

 

I am sure many parents with children attending public schools would be horrified by that distinction.

 

To some extent, it is difficult to blame chaplains for engaging in this behaviour. Telling them not to proselytise – when that activity forms such a central part of their identity, their ‘mission’ – is like telling News Corp columnists not to engage in culture wars. It is their raison d’etre, and they will continue to do so for as long as they draw breath (and expel hot air).

 

The fault instead lies with the Howard Liberal-National Government who first funded this program, and all subsequent Governments who have extended it, knowing that employing chaplains in schools will inevitably lead to proselytising to children, irrespective of what any guideline might say.

 

You will own your share of that blame if you do not abolish the National School Chaplaincy Program in your first Budget as Treasurer, expected in April 2019.

 

The fourth problem is a much more fundamental one, and that is, if the aim of the program is to promote student welfare, the National School Chaplaincy Program is a poorly-designed, and ineffective, approach.

 

It is an opt-in program, and even then the funding provided does not pay for a full-time position (with schools expected to fundraise to supplement the Government’s grant). Given the people hired must satisfy a religious test, it is also not open to all of the best-qualified people for the role,[ii] meaning some students will inevitably end up with second-rate support.

 

In short, it is a half-hearted attempt to address what is a genuine challenge.

 

If the Morrison Liberal-National Government was actually serious about student welfare, it would provide funding for school counsellors in all schools, and employ people based on their qualifications not their religious beliefs. If you are not prepared to do that, it is clear student welfare is not the primary focus of the program, and it must therefore be abolished.

 

My fifth and final concern is a much more personal one and that is, as a long-term advocate for the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) community, the National School Chaplaincy Program is inherently dangerous for LGBTI students.

 

This is not to say that all chaplains are homophobic, biphobic, transphobic or intersexphobic. I am sure there are many who are genuinely inclusive and respectful of all students irrespective of sexual orientation, gender identity or sex characteristics.

 

However, I am saying there have been too many examples, over too many years, of people employed under the National School Chaplaincy Program being harmful to young LGBTI people. In some cases, the organisations providing chaplains across different schools are themselves explicitly homophobic and transphobic.

 

For example, from 2014: ‘Citing a survey from gay rights organisation All Out, Senator [Lousie] Pratt said “students described chaplains helping them to ‘pray the gay away’ and advising them to sleep with a member of the opposite sex to ‘correct’ their same sex attraction”.’

 

And this, from 2015‘The school chaplaincy program in NSW is dominated by Generate Ministries, which lodged a submission to an Australian Human Rights Commission inquiry into religious freedom stating homosexuality is “a serious sin”.’

 

How could any LGBT student attending a school with a Generate Ministries chaplain ever feel comfortable seeking support from their supposed school welfare officer when that person thinks they are intrinsically sinful?

 

Meanwhile, from last year‘In one disturbing case, a transgender child was forced into seven sessions of chaplaincy counselling at her religious school – without her parents’ knowledge – in a bid to stop her from transitioning…

 

Canberra’s response [not to take action against gay conversion therapy] belies the fact that gay conversion ideology has been quietly pushed in schools as part of the federal government’s chaplaincy program.’

 

There are plenty of other examples of the National School Chaplaincy Program being the source of homophobia and transphobia. This is shameful, but not nearly as shameful as the fact taxpayers’ money – money from people like me – is being used to inflict these harms on young LGBTI people.

 

It is your moral responsibility, as Treasurer, to cease funding for a program that, rather than improving student welfare, contributes to the mistreatment of some of the most vulnerable members of society.

 

**********

 

As I have outlined above, the only reason the National School Chaplaincy Program remains constitutional is because successive Commonwealth Governments have chosen to circumvent decisions of the High Court.

 

It is possible the program is unlawful under state and territory anti-discrimination laws, because it actively discriminates on the basis of religious belief, and it would likely fall foul of any new Commonwealth Religious Discrimination Act.

 

The National School Chaplaincy Program also suffers from an insurmountable internal contradiction, where people whose primary purpose is to proselytise are politely asked not to. It is unsurprising that many fail to obey this direction.

 

It is a poorly-designed, and ineffective, student welfare program; if Governments were actually serious about student welfare they would fund qualified counsellors in all schools. The National School Chaplaincy Program is also dangerous, and harmful, to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex students.

 

While these may sound like challenges, they also represent an opportunity for you, as Treasurer, to make perhaps the easiest saving of a quarter of a billion dollars that anyone could ever make. The only question is whether you are up to the task.

 

Thank you in advance for taking this submission into consideration.

 

Sincerely

Alastair Lawrie

 

cc Bill.Shorten.MP@aph.gov.au Chris.Bowen.MP@aph.gov.au

 

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Treasurer Josh Frydenberg, who could save $247 million – or continue to fund the discriminatory, harmful and wasteful National School Chaplaincy Program.

 

Update: 12 April 2019

Treasurer Frydenberg handed down the Commonwealth Budget on Tuesday 2 April 2019. Unfortunately, although perhaps not unexpectedly, the Treasurer and the Morrison Liberal-National Government have decided to continue funding for the National School Chaplaincy Program, with $61.4 million committed for each of the next four years.

However, while not unexpected, it remains a disgraceful decision, and an unjustifiable waste of $245.6 million in taxpayers money, on a scheme that is discriminatory against people who are not christian, and inherently harmful for LGBTI students in particular.

With a federal election now scheduled for Saturday 18 May 2019, it is up to the Australian public to vote out a Government that prefers to subsidise the religious indoctrination of children rather than genuinely support student welfare.

 

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

 

Footnotes:

[i] In the states and territories where religious belief is a protected attribute, noting that New South Wales and South Australia currently do not prohibit religious discrimination in their anti-discrimination laws.

[ii] I am not suggesting that all people currently hired as chaplains do not have appropriate student welfare qualifications, but I am saying that, by excluding a large proportion of people because of their religious beliefs (or lack thereof) the talent pool of people hired must inevitably be significantly diminished.

Invisibility in the Curriculum

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.

 

Did you know that the NSW Personal Development, Health and Physical Education K-10 Syllabus does not require schools to teach students what lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex mean, or even that they exist?

 

The NSW Education Standards Authority reviewed the PDHPE curriculum in 2017 (see my submission to that consultation here), and released its consultation report and final K-10 syllabus in early 2018.

 

It is now being progressively rolled out in NSW classrooms, with full implementation by the start of the 2020 school year.

 

This is despite the fact the new PDHPE curriculum is entirely unfit for the 21st century, contributing to the ongoing invisibility of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) content, and therefore of LGBTI students.

 

This can be seen in a number of ways. The first, and perhaps most important, is in its use – or, more accurately, lack of use – of the terms lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex themselves.

 

In the 138 pages of the syllabus, these words occur three times each.[i] However, two out of these three appearances are found in the document’s glossary – with a definition of each term, and then as part of the broader definition of LGBTI people.

 

But teachers do not teach the glossary to their students. Instead, they are only required to teach the content for each year stage of the syllabus. And the terms lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex can be found only once in the prescribed content, together on page 96:

 

‘investigate community health resources to evaluate how accessible they are for marginalised individuals and groups and propose changes to promote greater inclusiveness and accessibility eg people in rural and remote areas, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex people (LGBTI), people from culturally and linguistically diverse (CALD) backgrounds, people with disability.’

 

The problem with this is that LGBTI comes after ‘for example’ and therefore even referring to LGBTI people in this exercise is, on a prima facie reading, optional.

 

This issue – the status of content that appears after ‘eg’ in the syllabus – was raised, by myself and others, during the consultation process. The answer at the time was that whether this information was taught was at the discretion of the school and/or teacher. This appears to be confirmed in the consultation report, which states on page 18 that:

 

‘The content defines what students are expected to know and do as they work towards syllabus outcomes. Content examples clarify the intended learning. Teachers will make decisions about content regarding the sequence, emphasis and any adjustments required based on the needs, interests, abilities and prior learning of students.’

 

In practice, LGBTI people appear just once in the entire NSW PDHPE K-10 Syllabus, as part of an exercise about marginalised groups and inclusiveness, but schools and/or teachers can choose to remove even this most cursory of references.[ii]

 

This marginalisation, and exclusion, of LGBTI content and students is simply not good enough.

 

Another cause of the curriculum’s problems can be found if we return to the glossary, and inspect the definition of sexuality:

 

‘A central aspect of being human throughout life. It is influenced by an interaction of biological, psychological, social, economic, political, cultural, ethical, legal, historical, religious and spiritual factors. It is experienced and expressed in thoughts, feelings, desires, beliefs, attitudes, values, behaviours, practices, roles and relationships.’

 

On a philosophical level, this is actually quite an inclusive and even progressive view of the complexity of human sexuality. But on a practical level, the absence of specificity in this definition undermines any obligation for schools and/or teachers to teach about real-world diversity of sexual orientation.

 

This lack of prescription means that, on page 96 – which is the only place in the general syllabus where ‘sexuality’ appears not following an ‘eg’ (and therefore is the only reference that isn’t optional)[iii] – content to ‘explore external influences on sexuality and sexual health behaviours and recognise the impact these can have on their own and others’ health, safety and wellbeing’ does not necessarily include lesbian, gay or bisexual sexualities.

 

It is a similar story in terms of gender,[iv] with the glossary definition (‘Refers to the concepts of male and female as well as the socially constructed expectations about what is acceptable for males and females’) not particularly useful in ensuring students learn about the diversity of gender identities. There also do not appear to be any references to non-binary or gender diverse identities.[v]

 

These definitions of sexuality and gender, and how they are employed throughout the syllabus, could be interpreted by some supportive schools and teachers to include lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender subject matter. But there is absolutely nothing that ensures schools and/or teachers must teach this content.

 

This erasure, or invisibilisation, of LGBTI people in the NSW PDHPE K-10 Syllabus is nothing short of homophobic, biphobic, transphobic and intersexphobic.

 

Which makes it somewhat ironic then that there are more references to homophobia and transphobia in its content than there are to LGBTI people.

 

On page 77: ‘describe forms of bullying, harassment, abuse, neglect, discrimination and violence and the impact they have on health, safety and wellbeing, eg family and domestic violence, homophobic and transphobic bullying, racism, cyberbullying, discrimination against people with disability.’

 

And on page 88: ‘propose protective strategies for a range of neglect and abuse situations, eg family and domestic violence, bullying, harassment, homophobia, transphobia and vilification.’

 

Although note of course that both times homophobia and transphobia appear after an ‘eg’, meaning whether they are taught in these contexts remains optional (and obviously neither of these sections explicitly refers to biphobia or intersexphobia either).[vi]

 

Another major problem with the new NSW PDHPE K-10 Syllabus is its approach to sexual health.

 

There are only two compulsory references to sexual health in the content of the syllabus, one of which we have already seen (on page 96: ‘explore external influences on sexuality and sexual health behaviours and recognise the impact these can have on their own and others’ health, safety and wellbeing’).

 

The other reference, on page 95, describes ‘identify methods of contraception and evaluate the extent to which safe sexual health practices allow people to take responsibility for managing their own sexual health.’

 

There are two problems with this statement. First, it puts the emphasis on ‘contraception’ when sexual health, and LGBTI sexual health especially, is a much broader concept. Second, it does not specifically mandate that schools and teachers instruct students about sexually transmissible infections (STIs).

 

In fact, quite astoundingly, the only reference to STIs in the general syllabus,[vii] on page 84 (‘identify and plan preventive health practices and behaviours that assist in protection against disease, eg blood-borne viruses, sexually transmissible infections’) makes teaching about them optional. The only time the term HIV even appears in the entire document is in the glossary.[viii]

 

In terms of STI-prevention, it seems the NSW PDHPE syllabus has actually gone backwards from the previous 2003 document, which at least prescribed that students learn about:

 

‘sexual health

-acknowledging and understanding sexual feelings

-expectations of males and females

-rights and responsibilities in sexual relationships

-sexually transmitted infections, blood-borne viruses and HIV/AIDS’ as well as to

‘identify behaviours that assist in preventing STIs, BBVs and HIV/AIDS and explore the interrelationship with drug use.’[ix]

 

**********

 

The aim of the PDHPE K-10 Syllabus is explained on page 12 of the document:

 

‘The study of PDHPE in K-10 aims to enable students to develop the knowledge, understanding, skills, values and attitudes required to lead and promote healthy, safe and active lives.’

 

Unfortunately, the more than 100 pages of the new syllabus which follow that statement make clear that it does not, and cannot, promote healthy, safe and active lives for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex students. After all, it is impossible for students to learn everything they need to be safe when they cannot see themselves in the curriculum.

 

This document represents a complete derogation of duty by the NSW Education Standards Authority, and Education Minister Rob Stokes and the Berejiklian Liberal-National that have overseen them.

 

They have also failed in their duty to keep all students safe, LGBTI and non-LGBTI alike, given the paucity of sexual health information, and specific content around sexually transmissible infections, in the syllabus.

 

To some extent it is perhaps a little unfair to single out NSW for these failures, because they are not alone in responsibility for them.

 

As this author has previously written, the national Health and Physical Education curriculum (which provides the framework for the NSW syllabus) developed earlier this decade by the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA), also abjectly fails to take the needs of LGBTI students seriously.

 

Despite repeated calls for him to intervene, then-Commonwealth Education Minister Christopher Pyne refused to take action to make LGBTI-inclusive content a priority either.

 

Ensuring that all teachers, in all schools, provide health and physical education content that is inclusive of all students and their needs has been placed in the ‘too hard basket’ by educational authorities, and Ministers, at multiple levels of government over multiple years.

 

It seems they would prefer to pretend LGBTI students do not exist rather than to take on the influence of religious schools and others who see anything that promotes the view that LGBTI people are part of the natural, beautiful diversity of humanity as some sort of ‘radical agenda’.

 

In this respect, the exclusion of LGBTI content from the NSW PDHPE K-10 Syllabus shares a lot in common with the current debate about the exceptions to anti-discrimination law that allow religious schools to discriminate against LGBT students, something the NSW Government has also ruled out fixing.

 

As with that issue, the losers out of the new PDHPE curriculum are the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex kids who have the right to learn about themselves, and to receive the information they need to keep themselves safe, but who are instead being made to feel invisible.

 

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NSW Education Minister Rob Stokes has overseen the development of a PDHPE K-10 Syllabus that is almost completely silent on LGBTI issues.

 

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

 

Footnotes:

[i] The term bisexual actually appears four times, with an additional appearance in the glossary in the definition of ‘same-sex attracted’, alongside ‘homosexual’ in its only appearance.

[ii] This interpretation – that teaching the examples which are included in the content is optional – is supported by page 24 of the consultation report, which states: ‘The content is presented to be inclusive and provide the flexibility for delivery based on the context and the ethos of schools. Schools will make decisions about the scope and range of examples to illustrate the diversity of groups in Australian society.’

[iii] There is a separate reference to ‘sexuality’ that is not optional on page 119 in the Life Skills section, for students with special needs, although it does not specifically refer to diversity of sexual orientations.

[iv] The definition of sex on page 135, described as ‘The biological characteristics that define humans as female or male. While these sets of biological characteristics are not mutually exclusive, as there are individuals who possess both, they tend to differentiate humans as males and females’, also does not ensure students learn about variations of sex characteristics.

[v] The definition of transgender or trans on page 137 states ‘A general term for a person whose gender is different to their sex at birth’.

[vi] As an aside, it must surely be difficult to teach students about homophobia and transphobia when the syllabus doesn’t require instruction about the terms lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex in the first place.

[vii] At a minimum the Life Skills content for students with special needs makes teaching about sexually transmissible infections mandatory (on page 119: ‘recognise issues of safety in relation to sexual relationships, including contraception, sexually transmissible infections’).

[viii] In the glossary definition of sexually transmissible infections: ‘Any infection that can be passed from one person to another during sexual activity. Sexually transmissible infections include chlamydia, herpes, gonorrhea, syphilis, genital herpes, scabies, pubic lice, hepatitis and HIV.’

[ix] On page 27 of the 2003 PDHPE 7-10 Syllabus, here.