The National Curriculum Review Fails to Support LGBTI Students

The Final Report of the Review of the Australian Curriculum, conducted by Ken Wiltshire and Kevin Donnelly, was released on Sunday 12 October 2014, accompanied by the Commonwealth Government’s Response (both documents can be found at the following link: <http://www.studentsfirst.gov.au/review-australian-curriculum ).

Based on initial reporting (including this article by Samantha Maiden in The Sunday Telegraph <http://www.dailytelegraph.com.au/news/nsw/teenagers-should-be-given-lessons-on-sex-and-drugs-national-curriculum-report-states/story-fni0cx12-1227087475187 ), you could be forgiven for believing that the outcome of the Review was, overall, a positive one for LGBTI students, with a commitment to include content relevant to their needs.

Unfortunately, however, a closer examination of the Final Report, and the Government’s Response, reveals that it is nothing more than another missed opportunity, yet another failure to ensure that the national Health & Physical Education (HPE) curriculum caters to the needs of all students, including those of different sexual orientations, gender identities and intersex status.

To understand just how far short of this standard the ‘Wiltshire & Donnelly’ Review falls, we must first look back at the development of the HPE curriculum. Drafted by the Australian Curriculum, Assessment & Reporting Authority (ACARA) during 2012 and 2013, the HPE curriculum was subject to two rounds of formal public consultation, before the current draft was submitted for the consideration of COAG Education Ministers late last year.

Despite a number of submissions highlighting the HPE curriculum’s failure to genuinely include LGBTI students and content (including two from yours truly: <https://alastairlawrie.net/2013/04/11/submission-on-national-health-physical-education-curriculum/ and <https://alastairlawrie.net/2013/07/30/submission-on-redrafted-national-health-physical-education-curriculum/ ), and even after some minor tinkering around the edges (with a couple of welcome references to ‘homophobia’ and ‘transphobia’ added), the current draft of the HPE curriculum does not guarantee that all students will learn what they need to know to be comfortable in who they are, and to stay safe.

In particular, as I made clear in my submission to the National Curriculum Review itself, the draft HPE curriculum:

  • Has significant problems in terms of terminology – for example, it does not even use the words ‘lesbian’, ‘gay’ or ‘bisexual’ once in the entire document.
  • Includes a fine-sounding commitment to student diversity that is almost immediately undermined by allowing “schools flexibility to meet the learning needs of all young people” – and which is especially poor when compared with the first draft that clearly stated that “same-sex attracted and gender diverse students exist in all Australian schools”.
  • Does not ensure students receive comprehensive sexual health education – with no year band descriptions providing a minimum level of information about sexually transmissible infections, and no references to condoms either, and
  • Completely excludes HIV and other BBVs, like hepatitis B and C – despite the fact that, more than 30 years into the HIV epidemic in Australia, the number of transmissions is rising (with one potential cause a lack of comprehensive and inclusive sexual health/BBV education for students).

[NB My full submission to the National Curriculum Review is available here: <https://alastairlawrie.net/2014/03/13/submission-to-national-curriculum-review-re-national-health-physical-education-curriculum/ ].

The choice to appoint noted homophobe Kevin Donnelly (see my letter to Minister Pyne calling for Mr Donnelly to be sacked on that basis: <https://alastairlawrie.net/2014/01/11/letter-to-minister-pyne-re-health-physical-education-curriculum-and-appointment-of-mr-kevin-donnelly/ ) to review what was already a poor document was obviously a major concern.

And I will be the first to admit that the Final Report of the National Curriculum Review, including its recommendations about the HPE curriculum, is not as bad as was initially anticipated. But just because it did not live down to some exceptionally low expectations, does not mean that the outcome for the HPE curriculum, and its potential impact on LGBTI students, was in any way positive.

The first major failing of the National Curriculum Review’s approach is that it appears to concede, without mustering much opposition, that, far from being a national minimum standard, the HPE curriculum is essentially optional.

For example, it notes that “one jurisdiction said it would refuse to implement the content in sexual orientation” (which appears to be Western Australia), while “a few schools are implacably opposed to the inclusion of such material [sexuality education] and some have refused to teach it”, and “[o]ne organisation claimed they would not teach it as prescribed as it did not fit in with their religious values.”

Presumably, that final organisation was the National Catholic Education Office (NCEC), with the Final Report noting that “the submission by the NCEC signals that Catholic schools reserve the right to implement the Australian Curriculum according to the uniquely faith-based and religious nature of such schools: For example, as usual in all Catholic schools, the new Health and Physical Education Curriculum will need to be taught in the context of a Personal Development program informed by Catholic values on the life and personal issues involved” (emphasis in original).

Which means that Catholic Schools – which now account for more than 1-in-5 students across Australia – (presumably) Western Australian schools, and select other schools, have all refused to implement a document that wasn’t even genuinely LGBTI-inclusive to start.

The second major failing, or in this case potential failing, of the National Curriculum Review’s approach is that it supports “the need to reduce the amount of content overall”, noting that “[s]ubmissions and consultations and the opinion of the subject matter specialist suggest that it is overcrowded and needs some slimming down and some restricting of year-level content. Some of the content could well be addressed more in school-based activity.”

Indeed, one of its key recommendations is that “[t]he core content should be reduced and a significant portion should become part of school-based curriculum…” While this recommendation isn’t explicitly linked to LGBTI-related content, there is now a real risk that, in finalising the HPE Curriculum, either at the COAG Education Ministers meeting in December, or subsequently during 2015, what little LGBTI-inclusive material there is may be on the chopping block. This is something that will need to be monitored closely in coming months.

The third major failing of the National Curriculum Review in this area is that, rather than mandating that every student, in every school, receives a minimum level of LGBTI-related education, it instead supports ever greater levels of ‘flexibility’ in terms of what is delivered in the classroom (noting that that the original HPE curriculum already supported ‘flexibility’ in this area).

For example, in one particularly telling paragraph it notes “[o]ther schools, including Christian schools, have advised us that they are comfortable with the inclusion of such content [sexuality education] in the health and physical education curriculum, provided there is flexibility so that they are able to teach it at the age level they deem appropriate, and by mature teachers rather than younger ones who may feel challenged in this arena. We think this is the way forward.”

Which, upon analysis, is actually a pretty bizarre statement – not just because it shouldn’t matter how old a teacher is, as long as they are appropriately qualified, but also because the National Curriculum Review is essentially agreeing to schools disregarding the evidence of when it is best to provide sexuality/sexual health education to students. Instead, the Review supports allowing schools to teach this content at whatever age they wish, without any justification, and presumably delaying it beyond the age at which it would be most valuable.

The recommendation in this area goes even further: “[t]he two controversial areas of sexuality and drugs education should remain, but schools should be given greater flexibility to determine the level at which these areas are introduced and the modalities in which they will be delivered…” (emphasis added). Which means that even how sexuality education is taught is apparently negotiable.

The net outcome of the National Curriculum Review, at least as it concerns Health & Physical Education, is this: A curriculum that already largely excludes LGBTI students and content, is, in practice, essentially optional, with at least one jurisdiction, one religion-based school system, and other individual schools all opting-out. What LGBTI-related subject matter there is remains under threat as the content is ‘slimmed down’ in coming months, while those religious schools that do teach ‘sexuality education’ will have the ‘flexibility’ to choose when it is taught, how it is taught and even by whom it is taught.

Which, to me at least, sounds like the exact opposite of what a national curriculum should be – and demonstrates just how big a missed opportunity this entire process has been.

A national Health & Physical Education curriculum should be a document that recognises that, no matter what state they reside in, and irrespective of the type of school they attend (government, religious or private), all LGBTI students have the fundamental right to an inclusive education.

The existing HPE curriculum does not even come close to recognising that right, and the Final Report of the Australian Curriculum Review will not deliver it, either. That is why we must give the ‘Wiltshire & Donnelly’ Review a fail – because it fails to support LGBTI students.

Two final points. First, at least one of the explanations for why the National Curriculum Review has ultimately failed LGBTI students lies in the fact that it actively bought into the notion that the area of ‘sexuality education’ is somehow controversial. Well, that is simply not true.

Just because there are people who disagree with something does not make it controversial. Just because some governments, religious organisations, individual schools and even some parents do not think students should be taught material because it is LGBTI-inclusive, does not mean their opinion is valid.

None of their individual or collective prejudices about sexual orientation, gender identity or intersex status trump the rights of LGBTI students to hear about themselves in the classroom, and to be taught that who they are is okay. Nor do the so-called interests of these groups override the need to reduce the number of suicides of young lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex people, an ongoing tragedy in schools and communities across the country.

Which brings me to my final point. Some people believe that the inclusion of the following paragraph indicates that the Curriculum Review is supportive of LGBTI students:

“Expert medical opinion is clear that, along with the earlier maturation of young people, there is currently a serious crisis – including youth suicides – occurring in Australian society in this domain as a result of a lack of forums and spaces where young people can discuss such issues, including sexuality. The school setting, on the assumption that the curriculum is balanced and objective in dealing with what are sensitive and often controversial issues, offers one of the few neutral places for this to occur.”

Of course, I agree with the majority of this statement (reference to ‘controversial’ aside) – as would many advocates operating in this area. But, if you are to raise the spectre of youth suicide, and LGBTI youth suicide in particular, but then fail to deliver a document that would do anything to tackle this crisis, then, Mr Wiltshire and Mr Donnelly, your words aren’t just hollow and tokenistic, they are offensive.

Ken Wiltshire & Kevin Donnelly's National Curriculum Review has failed LGBTI students around the country.

Ken Wiltshire & Kevin Donnelly’s National Curriculum Review has failed to support LGBTI students around the country.

10 Things I Hate About Marriage Inequality. #7: Because Sometimes it Overshadows Other Important LGBTI Issues

In a similar way to reason #9 (“Because sometimes I feel guilty for having #firstworldproblems”), one of the things that frustrates me about marriage equality is that this issue has come to dominate domestic LGBTI politics to such an extent that it can, and has, overshadowed other important issues.

Now, that is not necessarily a criticism of marriage equality campaigners, including Australian Marriage Equality. They have done a fantastic job of promoting marriage equality and ensuring that, over the past 12 years, it has gone from what could be described as a ‘minority concern’, to one of widespread acceptance across the Australian population (even if our parliamentarians are taking far too long to catch up).

It is also not to dismiss the fact marriage equality is an important issue in and of itself – obviously, as someone who is engaged themself, I understand the emotional pull at the heart of this issue which compels so many people to take action (and any regular reader of this blog would note the high volume of posts which relate to the denial of this right, not just in Australia but around the world).

But, and this is a big but, I am not sure that this completely justifies the disproportionate attention, and in some cases, disproportionate energy, which has been given to the issue of marriage equality by our community, especially over the past four or five years.

That statement might be a little bit controversial, so allow me to provide some context before you make up your mind. Let’s compare, for example, the community response (both our own, and the broader Australian community) to marriage equality with that regarding three other important LGBTI issues.

In April 2012, the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Social Policy and Legal Affairs inquiry into two marriage equality bills conducted an online survey – to which 276,437 Australians responded (including more than 177,000 people in favour).

In subsequent months, the related Senate Standing Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs Inquiry received a record number of formal submissions – approximately 79,000, with roughly 46,400 people taking the time to write in support of a Marriage Act that does not discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity and intersex status.

Around the same time, the Gillard Government was preparing legislation which would, for the first time ever, provide anti-discrimination protections under Commonwealth law on those exact same grounds.

These protections were contained, along with a range of other measures, in the Human Rights and Anti-Discrimination (HRAD) Bill 2012. The Exposure Draft of that legislation was considered by the same Senate Committee, and a still ‘healthy’ 3000 submissions were made (although, it has to be pointed out, many did not address the specific issue of LGBTI anti-discrimination but were in fact about other aspects of the Bill).

The HRAD Bill was eventually replaced by the Sex Discrimination Amendment (Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity and Intersex Status) Bill 2013, which, as the name suggests, focused exclusively on LGBTI protections. When it too was considered by the Senate Standing Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs, in June 2013, just 90 standalone submissions were made. Nine. Zero. Or about 0.11% of the total submissions on marriage equality, to the same Committee, just 12 months prior.

To choose another example – during 2012 and 2013 the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA) drafted the national Health & Physical Education curriculum, something which had the potential (or should have anyway) to help young lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex students in classrooms around the country.

Except, as I have written previously, the first draft of that curriculum did not even mention the words lesbian, gay or bisexual, erroneously included trans* and intersex in the same definition (and even then only referred to them in the glossary!) and essentially ignored sexual health and HIV.

That draft was open for public consultation from December 2012 to April 2013. In four months, 279 online surveys were completed, as well as 99 formal written submissions. Removing submissions from organisations (mostly from non-LGBTI health and education groups), there were exactly 14 submissions from individuals to that public consultation. One. Four.

In 2014, the HPE curriculum, together with all other subject areas, were referred by the then Commonwealth Education Minister, the Hon Christopher Pyne MP, to homophobe Kevin Donnelly for yet another review. The grand total number of written submissions to that inquiry – of which only a small number would have focused on LGBTI exclusion from Health & Physical Education – was approximately 1,500.

One final example. Again, at the same time as the marriage equality parliamentary debates and the Sex Discrimination Act inquiry were going on, the Senate Standing Committee on Community Affairs was holding its own inquiry on the involuntary or coerced sterilisation of people with disabilities in Australia. One of the key issues examined by that inquiry – perhaps not to begin with, but certainly by the end, primarily as a result of the hard work of groups like OII Australia – was the involuntary or coerced sterilisation of intersex people.

Now, the intersex community might be small in number, even within our own community (see Notes) – but there is no denying this issue looms large in terms of all of the human rights abuses perpetrated against any member of the LGBTI community in Australia, at any point in our history. So, it was perhaps disappointing that the entire Senate inquiry – and not simply for the Report focusing on intersex issues – received just 91 standalone submissions.

But, as we have seen above, that is simply one part of a frustrating overall trend. The entire number of submissions to two LGBTI anti-discrimination inquiries, two reviews of the HPE curriculum, and an inquiry examining the coerced sterilisation of intersex people, is less than the number of submissions to one state-based same-sex marriage inquiry (NSW, in March 2013, received 7,586 submissions), let alone the 79,000 submissions to the 2012 Senate marriage inquiry.

Of course, simply counting submissions in this way doesn’t necessarily reflect other work undertaken, by a range of groups, with respect to anti-discrimination protections, the curriculum or intersex rights – much of which happens behind the scenes.

As indicated above, the high volume of submissions to marriage equality inquiries is also a testament to the hard work of groups like Australian Marriage Equality (and others, including GetUp!), in terms of mobilising the community.

There are also other advantages enjoyed by the issue of marriage equality (it is part of a clear, single-issue global movement, in recent years at least has emerged as part of the cultural zeitgeist, it is a much simpler yes/no policy question), not enjoyed by some of the other issues identified.

And it is much easier to report on – the images of brides and grooms either being denied legal equality, or enjoying newly-won rights, makes marriage equality a very ‘photogenic’ issue. The fact our opponents have given consistently outrageous comments also makes reporting on ‘conflict’ in this area much more straightforward for journalists.

It is even arguable that the disproportionate focus on marriage equality may actually be necessary in order to achieve such a significant and, until recently, almost unimaginable, social change.

And yet, when I reflect on the level of commitment which goes into marriage equality, compared to other important LGBTI issues, I find myself sometimes lamenting that we do not put the same level of energy, and dedicate the same level of time and resources, into the latter.

So, by all means I encourage you to support – or continue to support – the important work that Australian Marriage Equality does (to find out how to get involved, go here).

But, at the same time, it would be great if more people would also support some of the other organisations that, in addition to working on marriage equality, also advocate on a range of other LGBTI issues, which are no less important to the long-term health and well-being of our community. They include:

The NSW Gay & Lesbian Rights Lobby

The Victorian Gay & Lesbian Rights Lobby (<http://www.vglrl.org.au )

Transgender Victoria (<http://www.transgendervictoria.com ) and

OII Australia – Intersex Australia (<http://oii.org.au )

Those are four groups that I am or have been involved in, or have worked with – but there are a range of other LGBTI advocacy groups in states and territories around the country worthy of your support. Because, while marriage equality might be an important thing, it is not and never has been the only thing.

The national Health & Physical Education curriculum will have an impact on young LGBTI people for years, if not decades.

The national Health & Physical Education curriculum will have an impact on young LGBTI people for years, if not decades.

Notes

  • The reference to the comparative size of the intersex population is absolutely not meant to suggest that the issues it confronts does not count (as a member of another, albeit slightly larger, minority group, that is obviously not a rational position to hold), but it has been included here because it could partly explain why less people would have made a submission to this inquiry. Nevertheless, the scale of injustice involved in the sterilisation (and other unnecessary medical interventions) of intersex people without consent, in Australia, TODAY, means it is something we all should be concerned about.
  • It should also be noted that, when people were presented with a simple way of expressing their concern about the national Health & Physical Education curriculum – via a Change.org petition – at least 6000 people added their signature in less than a month. Obviously, people do care about other issues, including those listed above, so different groups also need to learn better how to engage on these issues, and translate that innate or latent support into concrete actions.

Submission to Australian Human Rights Commission’s Inquiry into Self-Harm and Suicidal Behaviour in Children

The National Children’s Commissioner at the Australian Human Rights Commission has initiated an inquiry into intentional self-harm and suicidal behaviour in children and young people.

Submissions are due on Monday 2 June: you can find more details here: <https://www.humanrights.gov.au/intentional-self-harm-and-suicidal-behaviour-children and send your submissions to nccsubmissions@humanrights.gov.au

As you would expect, my submission has focused on the particular issue of youth suicide amongst young lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex people. As with other submissions, I would be interested in feedback about what I have written.

Thanks, Alastair

Ms Megan Mitchell

National Children’s Commissioner

Australian Human Rights Commission

Email: nccsubmissions@humanrights.gov.au

Sunday 1 June 2014

Dear Commissioner

SUBMISSION TO INQUIRY INTO INTENTIONAL SELF-HARM AND SUICIDAL BEHAVIOUR IN CHILDREN

Thank you for the opportunity to provide a submission to your inquiry into intentional self-harm and suicidal behaviour in children.

This is an incredibly important topic, and I congratulate you, as National Children’s Commissioner, for utilising your position to shine a spotlight on this national tragedy.

I write this submission as an individual, and not on behalf of any organisation. I also write this as a gay man, and someone who, as a teenager, experienced significant mental health issues, including depression and suicide ideation, because of the severe homophobia that I experienced, particularly in high school.

Given this perspective, in this submission I will focus on the over-representation of young lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) people in intentional self-harm and suicide.

I will also make five recommendations for how to help reduce this over-representation, although obviously this is not an exhaustive list of all the possible ways in which LGBTI youth suicide may be tackled.

Please find my submission attached. I am of course willing to be contacted to discuss anything contained in this submission, at the details below.

Sincerely

Alastair Lawrie

SUBMISSION TO INQUIRY INTO INTENTIONAL SELF-HARM AND SUICIDAL BEHAVIOUR IN CHILDREN

I welcome the acknowledgement, in the Call for Submissions released on 22 April, that self-harm and suicide is a particular issue for LGBTI children and young people.

In particular, the Call for Submissions cites the 2013 Growing Up Queer report, by the Young and Well Co-operative Research Centre, in finding that, of 1,032 children and young people aged 16 to 23, 41% of participants had thought about self-harm and/or suicide, 33% had harmed themselves and 16% had attempted suicide.

These are truly shocking figures – especially that 1 in 6 young lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex Australians had attempted suicide. However, despite being shocking, they are not particularly surprising, especially as they replicate similar findings in a range of studies over the past 15-20 years.

The over-representation of self-harm and suicidal thoughts amongst same-sex attracted and gender diverse/questioning young people has been confirmed in all three Writing Themselves In reports, produced by the Australian Research Centre in Sex, Health & Society at La Trobe University in 1998, 2004 and 2010, respectively.

The over-representation of mental health issues within the broader LGBTI community, including among its young people, has also been confirmed by both the original Private Lives: A report on the health and wellbeing of GLBTI Australians study in 2005, and Private Lives 2, released in 2012 (also produced by the Australian Research Centre in Sex, Health & Society).

As well as knowing that intentional self-harm and suicidal behaviour disproportionately affects LGBTI children and young people, we also know the cause – the pervasive homophobia, biphobia, transphobia and anti-intersex prejudice which LGBTI youth experience, within their families, amongst their peers, in the media/culture, and especially in their schools.

As reported in Growing Up Queer, “[f]or many, rejection, alienation, bullying, and harassment often led to depression, suicidal ideation, and attempted suicide. Some participants spoke openly about multiple suicide attempts as a result of negotiating their sexual/gender orientation at school, at home, and in their broader communities” (page ix).

The Writing Themselves In 3 study also found a direct link between verbal abuse and physical abuse with thoughts of self-harm. As noted on page 51: “ [a]lmost double the number of young people who had been verbally abused (40%), in comparison to those who had experienced no abuse, had thought of self-harm (22%). Three times those who had been physically abused (62%), in comparison to those who reported no abuse, had thought of self-harm.”

Writing Themselves In 3 also confirmed that “[t]he most common place of abuse remained school with 80% of those who were abused naming school. This continues the trend of increased levels of reported homophobic violence in schools (69% in 1998; 74% in 2004)” (pix, emphasis added).

By knowing the problem – the over-representation of LGBTI children and young people in intentional self-harm and suicidal behaviour – and the cause – the pervasive homophobia, biphobia, transphobia and anti-intersex prejudice which confronts young people, including (but not limited to) at school – we must start to consider the solution.

What are the best ways to protect LGBTI children and young people from discrimination, bullying and abuse on the basis of their sexual orientation, gender identity or intersex status? And what are the best ways to actively promote positive views of, and self-esteem and mental health within, LGBTI children and young people (noting that these are not necessarily the same question)?

The following are five reforms which I believe, if adopted, would help to reduce the continued over-representation of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex young people in self-harm and suicide:

Recommendation 1: Remove anti-discrimination exemptions/exceptions which allow religious schools to discriminate against LGBT students

As indicated above, one of the key areas where LGBTI children and young people are discriminated against is in their schools. Unfortunately, in most states and territories in Australia, religious schools enjoy legal protections which allow them to actively discriminate against LGBT students (and, it should be remembered, to discriminate against LGBT teachers and even parents too).

NB I have excluded intersex students for the remainder of this particular discussion given I understand the two jurisdictions which have explicit intersex anti-discrimination protections – Tasmania and the Commonwealth – do not allow religious exceptions to these protections.

These exemptions allow religious schools to expel LGBT students, to tell same-sex attracted and gender-diverse/questioning students that they are somehow ‘wrong’, ‘unnatural’ or even ‘sinful’, to prohibit certain behaviours or actions on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity, and to ignore the educational and emotional needs to young LGBT people in general.

An example of this discrimination was found in the ‘Statement of Faith’ by the Penrith Christian School, which stated that: “[w]e believe that homosexuality and specific acts of homosexuality are an abomination unto God, a perversion of the natural order and not to be entered into by His people” and “[w]e believe the practice of attempting to or changing ones gender through surgical and/or hormonal or artificial means is contrary to the natural order ordained by God.”

These statements came to light, and attracted significant public scrutiny, only after the then Opposition Leader, the Hon Tony Abbott MP, launched the Coalition’s education policy there during last year’s election campaign. But, it must be pointed out that there is absolutely nothing unlawful for this school, or others like it, to adopt these principles, or to enforce policies based upon them to the detriment of the LGBT students in its classrooms.

This is because in NSW, section 56(d) the Anti-Discrimination Act 1977 states that anti-discrimination coverage for lesbian, gay and trans* people does not protect them against “any… act or practice of a body established to propagate religion that conforms to the doctrines of that religion or is necessary to avoid injury to the religious susceptibilities of the adherents of that religion.”

In an absolutely extraordinary extension of these exceptions, the NSW Act also explicitly excludes all “private educational authorities” (including non-religious bodies) from having to comply with any obligation not to discriminate on the basis of homosexuality (section 49ZO(3)) and transgender status (section 39K(3)).

Sadly, despite only being introduced last year, Commonwealth anti-discrimination protections on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity are also fundamentally undermined by the granting of wide-ranging exemptions to religious organisations.

As well as an equivalent clause to NSW’s section 56(d) – section 38(1)(d) of the Sex Discrimination Act 1984 exempts “any… act or practice of a body established for religious purposes, being an act or practice that conforms to the doctrines, tenets or beliefs of that religion or is necessary to avoid injury to the religious susceptibilities of adherents of that religion” (although not in relation to aged care) – the Commonwealth Act also includes the following in section 38(3):

“Nothing… renders it unlawful for a person to discriminate against another person on the ground of the other person’s sexual orientation, gender identity, marital or relationship status or pregnancy in connection with the provision of education or training by an educational institution that is conducted in accordance with the doctrines, tenets, beliefs or teachings of a particular religion or creed, if the first-mentioned person so discriminates in good faith in order to avoid injury to the religious susceptibilities of adherents of that religion or creed.”

In practice, both Commonwealth and NSW law gives effective carte blanche to religious schools to discriminate against, and ignore the genuine needs of, LGBT children and young people. If we are genuinely interested in the mental health and welfare of young lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Australians, then these exceptions must be removed.

Those who would argue against such a proposition cite ‘freedom of religion’ as somehow trumping the right of LGBT people to live their lives free from discrimination. Indeed, the then shadow, and now Commonwealth, Attorney-General, Senator the Hon George Brandis, made exactly that argument on the ABC’s QandA program in June 2013.

As I have written on numerous occasions, I strongly disagree with that argument – I do not believe that religious exemptions should extend beyond the appointment of religious office-holders or the conduct of religious ceremonies. I certainly do not believe there should exist a broad right for religious organisations to discriminate against LGBT people in public life.

However, even if some form of religious exemption or exception were to continue in the public sphere, it is incredibly difficult for anyone to make the case that the ‘freedom’ of a religious school to discriminate should override the ability of a young lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender student to receive their education free from such discrimination – something which is and should be recognised as a fundamental right.

These are vulnerable young people, who, in the vast majority of cases, are in the process of discovering or accepting their sexual orientation and/or gender identity. In nearly all cases, they do not decide which school they attend, including whether it is religious or not (a decision which is normally made for them by their parents, often without specific knowledge of their child’s sexual orientation or gender identity). In many cases, they are also not open about their sexual orientation or gender identity at school, meaning that they are not even in a position to advocate on their own behalf when they encounter such prejudice.

In short, I think it is simply untenable to argue that the freedom of a religious school to discriminate trumps the right of LGBT students not to be discriminated against, especially when the consequence of this discrimination includes an increased risk of mental health issues, including depression, self-harm and most tragically suicide. This not a contest of equal rights, no balancing act is required – the rights of the students should always win.

In the past week, there has been discussion in the United States about trying to ‘balance’ two other supposedly competing rights – the Second Amendment ‘right to bear arms’, with the right to personal safety of others. As part of that discussion, Samuel Wurzelbacher (aka Joe the Plumber) wrote to the parent of one of the young people murdered in the Santa Barbara mass shooting and said:

“I am sorry you lost your child. I myself have a son and daughter and the one thing I never want to go through, is what you are going through now. But: As harsh as this sounds – your dead kids don’t trump my Constitutional rights.”

 

Mr Wurzelbacher’s comments have, quite understandably, attracted heavy criticism in the US, as well as around the world. From an Australian perspective, where more restrictive gun control laws have existed since the Port Arthur massacre in 1996, it is tempting to adopt a certain smugness, and look down upon the level of public debate in the US that such a comment is even possible.

But, in some respects at least, we are prepared to strike a similar bargain here when it comes to the deaths of LGBTI children and young people. We know that they are significantly over-represented in suicide numbers, and we know that the discrimination that LGBTI students experience in school is a major contributing factor to these suicides.

Yet, as a society, we are willing to turn a blind eye to this, and say that religious freedom, and specifically the ‘freedom’ of religious schools to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity, is more important than the lost lives of these young people. In effect, our current anti-discrimination law says that ‘dead LGBT kids don’t trump the rights of religious schools.’

It is time we recognised, and remedied, this situation. It is time we removed anti-discrimination exemptions and exceptions which allow religious schools to discriminate against LGBT people.

Recommendation 2: Amend the National Health & Physical Education Curriculum to be genuinely LGBTI-inclusive

One of the key issues to emerge from both the Growing Up Queer, and Writing Themselves In 3 reports, is the absence, or comparative lack of, a genuinely LGBTI inclusive curriculum, especially with respect to Health & Physical Education.

For example, Growing Up Queer reported that “[p]articipants indicated that sex education at school was heteronormative and focused on reproductive sex only. It was perceived as irrelevant to their needs.” Further, “[p]articipants noted that whilst they received no education about queer sexualities their identities were often ‘sexualised’, with teachers and peers making assumptions about their sexuality and treating them differently on the basis of these assumptions” (pix).

Writing Themselves In 3 confirms this comparative lack of attention: “[s]exuality education was not provided at all to 10% of participants, and when it was, only 15% found it useful. It was clear that quite conservative messages emphasizing heterosexual sex and danger are the norm in most Australian schools with a far smaller number providing messages inclusive of SSAGQ youth” (pxi).

Of course, LGBTI people and content should be visible across multiple parts of the school curriculum (including, for example, history and politics), rather than arbitrarily confined to Health & Physical Education (HPE). Nevertheless, if LGBTI students and issues are excluded from, and made invisible in, the HPE curriculum, it is difficult to imagine them being included elsewhere.

I also agree with the statement in Growing Up Queer that “[y]oung people’s access to comprehensive sexuality education in primary and secondary schooling is a right, and is central to sexual citizenship and the fostering of health and wellbeing in all young people” (pix).

Over the past two years, a new National HPE curriculum has been developed by the Australian Curriculum, Assessment & Reporting Authority (ACARA). Unfortunately, all three versions of the HPE curriculum – the original consultation draft released in December 2012, the revised consultation draft in mid-2013, and the version that was noted but not yet endorsed by COAG Ministers in December 2013 – have comprehensively failed to deliver a genuinely LGBTI-inclusive document.

For example, in none of the three versions of the HPE curriculum have the words lesbian, gay or bisexual even appeared (although, on a slightly more positive note, the most recent version of the HPE curriculum does at least include the words transgender and intersex, and, unlike an earlier version, actually distinguishes between the two).

Despite lesbian, gay and bisexual being the most common forms of identification for people whose sexual orientation is ‘not heterosexual’, these terms have never appeared in any version of this document. This is an appalling exclusion, making young people with diverse sexual orientations even more invisible in the school environment than they already are.

The aspirational ‘student diversity’ statement at the beginning of the document, which attempts to highlight the needs of ‘same-sex attracted, gender diverse or intersex’ students, is also undermined by the inclusion of a sentence noting that it “is designed to allow schools flexibility to meet the learning needs of all young people, particularly in the health focus area of relationships and sexuality” (emphasis added) and another that “[a]ll schools communities have a responsibility when implementing the HPE curriculum to ensure that teaching is inclusive and relevant to the lived experiences of all students” (emphasis added).

Both of these statements appear to leave the decision whether, and in what way, schools will include LGBTI students and content up to the schools themselves. In the first instance, whether LGBTI students and content are included at all is too important to be left to the ‘flexibility’ of the school itself.

Second, and far more importantly, the reference to ‘lived experiences’ could be argued to leave a loophole for schools to assert that, unless students first identify themselves or disclose their status as LGBTI, they do not exist in the eyes of the school and therefore the school does not have a responsibility to include them or content relevant to their needs.

This approach – apparently leaving it up to students to ‘come out’ before they are entitled to receive vital health information, despite the fact that doing so can, in many Australian jurisdictions, lead to the potential expulsion of that student, let alone other personal consequences for the student with their family or friends – fundamentally undermines the concept of health, and health education, as a universal human right.

There are multiple other problems in the draft National Health Physical Education Curriculum – including a lack of comprehensive sexual health education, and the complete absence of any references to Sexually Transmissible Infections (STIs) and Blood Borne Viruses (BBVs) such as HIV or viral hepatitis.

For more detail on the problems of the national HPE curriculum, and its exclusion of LGBTI students and relevant content, please see my submission to the ‘Students First’ review of the National Curriculum, provided at Attachment A (link here: <https://alastairlawrie.net/2014/03/13/submission-to-national-curriculum-review-re-national-health-physical-education-curriculum/ ).

This review, initiated at the request of the Commonwealth Education Minister, the Hon Christopher Pyne MP, is not due to report to him until 31 July, 2013. It will then be considered by Commonwealth and State and Territory Education Ministers at their next COAG meeting, scheduled for 12 December 2014.

That means there is still time to argue for a genuinely LGBTI-inclusive Health & Physical Education curriculum. There remains an opportunity for individuals and organisations, including the Australian Human Rights Commission, to call for a document that does not simply entrench the existing exclusion and invisibility of LGBTI students in classrooms around the country, but actively tries to provide for the needs of all students, including those with diverse sexual orientations, gender identities and those who are intersex.

I urge you, as National Children’s Commissioner, to intervene in this process, and call on the people undertaking the Students First Review, as well as Commonwealth, State and Territory Education Ministers, to amend the national Health & Physical Education curriculum to serve the needs of all students.

Such amendments are vital to help include lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex students, and content relevant to their needs. Doing this would help reduce the isolation experienced by LGBTI children and young people, and therefore contribute to lower mental health issues overall, including reduced intentional self-harm and suicidal behaviour.

Recommendation 3: Ensure all schools & school systems adopt pro-active programs against homophobia, biphobia, transphobia and anti-intersex prejudice

Combatting the homophobia, biphobia, transphobia and anti-intersex prejudice which LGBTI children and young people experience in schools, and which causes mental health issues such as self-harm and suicide, is not just about anti-discrimination laws (which in some cases can be reactive, rather than pro-active), or implementing an inclusive curriculum, but it also includes ensuring the entire school environment is ‘safe’ for these students, because often what happens outside the classroom is more important than what happens inside.

This can be achieved through the implementation of comprehensive programs tackling homophobia, biphobia, transphobia and anti-intersex prejudice in as many schools as possible, in as many states and territories as possible, and in as many different types of schools (government, private and religious) as possible.

An example of such a program is the Safe Schools Coalition of Victoria, an initiative that has already achieved 131 member schools, trained 4,555 staff, and reached 20,557 students (data from www.safeschoolscoalitionvictoria.org.au)

From the Safe Schools Coalition Victoria (SSCV) website:

“Safe Schools Coalition Victoria (SSCV) is a coalition of schools and individuals dedicated to creating safer educational environments where every family can belong, every teacher can teach, and every student can learn.

 

“Working in partnership with the Victorian Department of Education and the Department of Health, Safe Schools Coalition Victoria (SSCV), is a ground breaking program that aims to make all schools safe and supportive places for same sex attracted, intersex and gender diverse (SSAIGD) students, teachers and families.

 

“The first initiative of its kind in Australia, SSCV was founded as part of Gay and Lesbian Health Victoria within the Australian Research Centre in Sex, Health & Society at La Trobe University in 2010. We work together with an active network of member schools across all age groups in the government, independent and faith-based sectors.

 

“This coalition model allows us to reach thousands of teachers and school staff to raise awareness and build the skills and confidence needed to actively support gender and sexual diversity in the classrooms, corridors and schoolyards of Victoria…”

 

The SSCV model supports member schools in a variety of ways including staff and student audits, professional learning, resources and consultations.

Unfortunately, a small-scale pilot project, targeting homophobia in NSW government schools from 2011 to 2013 – called ‘Proud Schools’ – was abandoned, seemingly without explanation, at the beginning of 2014 by the State Education Minister, the Hon Adrian Piccoli MP. At this stage, I am not aware of any specific initiative which has replaced it, leaving a significant gap this year where an anti-homophobia program should be.

However, I am aware that the Foundation for Young Australians will be launching a national version of the Victorian model – the Safe Schools Coalition Australia – at a national symposium in Melbourne on Friday 13 June 2014 (details here: https://www.etouches.com/ehome/87262).

It is unclear which State and Territory Governments are supportive of this new national initiative, which is being funded by the Commonwealth Department of Education (announced by the previous Government ahead of last year’s election). It is my sincere hope that all State and Territory Governments support the rollout of the Safe Schools Coalition Australia, and that as many schools as possible join.

This includes government, private and religious schools, as well as geographically diverse (metro, regional and rural/remote) schools, because it should not matter what school an LGBTI child or young person attends, or where they live, they have a fundamental right to an inclusive and supportive education.

I would also expect the Australian Human Rights Commission, and you as National Children’s Commissioner, to be supportive of different schools and school systems adopting pro-active programs against homophobia, biphobia, transphobia and anti-intersex prejudice, as another way to improve the mental health of young LGBTI people around Australia, and thereby help to reduce the over-representation of LGBTI youth in self-harm and suicide statistics.

Recommendation 4: Ban ex-gay or reparative therapy

The practice of ‘ex-gay’ or ‘reparative’ therapy involves organisations, usually religious, offering so-called ‘counselling’ to help transform people who are lesbian, gay or bisexual into being heterosexual, and in some cases to attempt to transform people who are trans* into being cisgender. NB I am unaware of the use of reparative therapy with respect to intersex people, and so have omitted intersex from this discussion.

Ex-gay or reparative therapy attempts to change a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity because of the belief that being lesbian, gay, bisexual or trans* is somehow ‘wrong’, ‘unnatural’ or ‘sinful’. There are three main problems with ex-gay or reparative therapy.

First, there is absolutely nothing wrong, unnatural or sinful with being lesbian, gay, bisexual or trans*. Differences in sexual orientations and gender identities are entirely natural, and this diversity should be accepted and celebrated. Any attempts to prevent people from being LGBT simply demonstrate the homophobia, biphobia and transphobia of the people running ex-gay organisations.

Second, there is absolutely no scientific evidence to support these practices. Sexual orientation and gender identity cannot be ‘changed’ through these interventions. Indeed, the Australian Psychological Society, Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists and Pan American Health Organisation all note that reparative therapy does not work, and recommend against its practice.

Third, and most importantly, not only is ex-gay therapy based on homophobia, biphobia and transphobia, as well as discredited ‘pseudo-science’, but it is also fundamentally dangerous. Reparative therapy takes people who are already vulnerable, tells them that they are inherently wrong, and asks them to change something about themselves that cannot be changed. Inevitably, it leads to significant mental health problems, including self-hatred, depression and tragically, in some cases, suicide.

The people that run ex-gay organisations are guilty of inflicting psychological and sometimes physical damage on others. When it involves children and young people, it is nothing short of child abuse.

Fortunately, the practice of ex-gay or reparative therapy is far less common in Australia than it is in the United States. In recent years, the number of organisations which provide this ‘counselling’ here has also declined. Nevertheless, ex-gay or reparative therapy still exists in Australia, it still damages and breaks people, and it still requires an appropriate policy response.

Given the level of harm that is perpetrated by these people, I believe Australian jurisdictions should introduce legislative bans on ex-gay or reparative therapy. This should include the creation of a criminal offence for running ex-gay therapy, with an aggravated offence for running ex-gay therapy for people under the age of 18. This is necessary to send a signal that these homophobic, biphobic and transphobic practices are no longer tolerated in contemporary society, and especially in the case of minors.

Finally, while at this stage I am not aware of evidence linking registered medical practitioners with these discredited practices, there is evidence overseas that some counsellors, psychologists, psychiatrists or other registered medical practitioners either practice ex-gay therapy themselves, or will refer patients to ex-gay organisations. Any medical practitioners found to be engaging in these practices in Australia should also receive additional sanctions, including potential deregistration and civil penalties.

 

 

Recommendation 5: Fund a national media and social media campaign against homophobia, biphobia, transphobia and anti-intersex prejudice

 

The first three of the recommendations above specifically target schools, not only because research has shown that schools are a major source of the discrimination and prejudice which LGBTI children and young people experience, but also because schools provide an opportunity to exert significant influence in terms of improving social attitudes and directly reducing homophobia, biphobia, transphobia and anti-intersex prejudice.

However, it should be remembered that a) not all discrimination and prejudice originates in schools and b) it is also unfair to expect that schools themselves, acting alone and somehow magically separated from the rest of society, can overcome these serious ills on their own.

It is also important to note that, while 80% of young people in Writing Themselves In 3 identified school as a site for physical or verbal abuse, significant numbers of young LGBTI people also nominated other places in their lives where they are subjected to discrimination and prejudice.

For example, more than 40% cited a social occasion as a place of abuse in 2010 (and like schools, this was an increase from the 1998 and 2004 surveys), and almost 40% indicated they had been abused on the street (although this was down on previous surveys). Meanwhile, approximately a quarter indicated they had been verbally or physically abused at home on the basis of their sexual orientation or gender identity.

It is also not hard to find numerous examples, in the media and culture more generally, of the everyday homophobia, biphobia, transphobia and anti-intersex prejudice, which all LGBTI people are subjected to, but which have a particular impact on LGBTI children and young people.

For example, just in the last month, we have witnessed an NRL player describe another player as a “f—ing gay c—t”, which was subsequently defended by a prominent national columnist, in an article titled “NRL bosses are totally gay”, as somehow not being homophobic. We have had a TV host rant about NFL footballer Michael Sam simply kissing his male partner live on air (describing it as “annoyingly gratuitous”), a Senator-elect tweet that being gay as a ‘lifestyle’ and link it with promiscuity, as well as a State MP indicate his belief that same-sex parenting would hurt that couple’s children.

That is just a small sample of the ‘slings and arrows’ of homophobia, biphobia, transphobia and anti-intersex prejudice which LGBTI Australians are exposed to all too frequently. For many of us, while such comments are offensive, and sometimes hurt, they do not necessarily lead us to self-harm, or cause significant emotional and mental anguish.

Nevertheless, for those who are already vulnerable, including some adults, but especially for young people who may still be coming to terms with being LGBTI, hearing such messages can directly cause harm, and contribute to or worsen existing mental health concerns. This harm is exacerbated if these negative statements are all that the young person hears with respect to being lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or intersex, and are not balanced or countered with equivalent positive messages.

Which is why I believe there would be utility in the Commonwealth Government directly funding a large national media, including social media, campaign against homophobia, biphobia, transphobia and anti-intersex prejudice. But rather than simply tackling the ‘negative’, I think such a campaign should also express a positive message about diversity of sexual orientations, gender identities and intersex status – sending the message that being LGBTI is natural, and that heterosexual, cisgender and LGBTI young people all deserve equality, and equal dignity in all aspects of life.

While there have been some great initiatives at state government level in this regard, as well as some excellent work by relevant not-for-profits/NGOs and even individuals (with campaigns like Victoria’s No to Homophobia, and the Beyond ‘That’s So Gay’ work of Daniel Witthaus), the involvement of the Commonwealth could bring benefit, both in terms of scale of resources, and by reaching LGBTI children and young people across Australia.

Of course, any such campaign would need to be co-ordinated with LGBTI organisations, as well as organisations that work in the mental health sector. But most important would be the involvement of young LGBTI people themselves.

The media and social media campaign would need to be designed so as to be relevant to young people, not just those that are LGBTI, but also to their non-LGBTI peers, in order to increase their own understanding and lessen any bullying or harassment of their friends and classmates. Young LGBTI people (and certainly people much younger than myself) would be best placed to advise on how to make such a campaign work.

I would also point out that I have made this particular recommendation in response to term of reference number eight in the Call for Submissions (namely “[t]he feasibility and effectiveness of conducting public education campaigns aimed at reducing the number of children who engage in intentional self-harm and suicidal behaviour”).

I acknowledge there are particular sensitivities in designing campaigns which specifically target those already at risk of self-harm and suicide, with the possibility that the campaign itself triggers particular negative responses. I am not an expert in this area and so am not in position to suggest whether, and if so how, an appropriate campaign could be designed that focused directly on LGBTI children and young people and that explicitly discussed self-harm or suicide – I am sure other individuals and organisations who are experts in this area will be doing so much more effectively in their own submissions.

But I do believe that an overarching campaign, which addresses the root cause of much of those problems – the homophobia, biphobia, transphobia and anti-intersex prejudice which young LGBTI people experience everyday – would provide its own additional benefits in terms of long-term mental health improvement.

Those are the five key recommendations that I would like the Australian Human Rights Commission, and you as the National Children’s Commissioner, to focus on in terms of examining how to reduce the disproportionate effects of self-harm and suicide on LGBTI children and young people.

Obviously, that is not an exhaustive list. There are other areas which are worthy of examination, including considering whether LGBTI people should be protected against vilification in the same way that Commonwealth law currently protects against racial vilification (through section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act 1975).

I believe there would also be benefit in considering how best to fund, on a secure and ongoing basis, LGBTI community organisations to deliver services to young LGBTI people at risk, as well as how to ensure that mainstream mental health and general health services are inclusive of, and respond to the needs of, LGBTI children and young people. But once again, I would expect that other individuals and organisations will be much better placed to make submissions with respect to those topics.

In conclusion, I would like to express my thanks to the Australian Human Rights Commission, and to you as National Children’s Commissioner, for choosing to initiate an inquiry into intentional self-harm and suicidal behaviour in children and young people.

The rate of youth self-harm and suicide amongst all of Australia’s youth, including but not limited to young lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex youth, is truly a national tragedy.

I appreciate the opportunity to make a submission to this inquiry, and look forward to seeing the Final Report in the Commissioner’s 2014 Statutory Report to Commonwealth Parliament.

Alastair Lawrie

Sunday 1 June 2014

NB Given the issues raised in this submission, I include below the same contact details for help included on the Commission’s call for submissions:

National Help and Counselling Services
Lifeline – 24 hour crisis support and suicide prevention

Kids Helpline – counselling service for children and young people aged 5 to 25 years

Headspace – counselling and referral service for young people aged 12 to 25 years

ReachOut.com – online youth mental health service