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.