Invisibility in the Curriculum

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]

 

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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.

 

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.

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Letter to Paul Lynch re LGBTI Anti-Vilification Reform

In June, NSW Shadow Attorney-General Mr Paul Lynch MP introduced the Crimes and Anti-Discrimination Legislation Amendment (Vilification) Bill 2016. Details of the Bill can be found here.

 

In short, the legislation seeks to implement the recommendations of the Legislative Council Standing Committee on Law and Justice’s 2013 Inquiry into Racial Vilification Law in NSW.

 

Importantly, in doing so the Bill ignores the Report’s (implicit) approach to treat racial vilification differently from the other forms of vilification currently prohibited by the Anti-Discrimination 1977: namely homosexual, transgender and HIV/AIDS vilification.

 

Just as importantly, however, the Bill fails to update the definitions of these grounds, and also fails to extend anti-vilification coverage to bisexual and intersex people in NSW.

 

The following is my letter to the Shadow Attorney-General about his Bill, sent before the return of State Parliament next week (Tuesday 2 August 2016).

 

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Mr Paul Lynch MP

Shadow Attorney-General

100 Moore St

Liverpool NSW 2170

liverpool@parliament.nsw.gov.au

 

24 July 2016

 

 

Dear Mr Lynch

 

LGBTI Anti-Vilification Reform

 

I am writing to you about your Crimes and Anti-Discrimination Legislation Amendment (Vilification) Bill 2016 (‘the Bill’), currently before NSW Parliament.

 

Specifically, I am writing to congratulate you on what is included in the Bill, while also encouraging you to amend the Bill to address other inadequacies within the NSW anti-vilification framework.

 

First, to the positives. I welcome the fact that the Bill removes one of the more bizarre and, in my opinion, completely unjustifiable aspects of the NSW Anti-Discrimination Act 1977 (‘the Act’) – that the penalties for the offences of serious racial and HIV/AIDS vilification are different to, and slightly higher than, the penalties for the offences of serious homosexual and transgender vilification.

 

By consolidating these offences in one place – the proposed new section 91N of the NSW Crimes Act 1900 – your Bill would ensure there is no difference in severity in how these offences are treated by the Government, and therefore avoids sending the signal that some forms of vilification are worse than others.

 

I also welcome the fact you have avoided one of the key pitfalls of the Legislative Council Standing Committee on Law and Justice’s Inquiry into Racial Vilification Law in NSW, which, given it exclusively focused on racial vilification, only suggested changes to the laws surrounding one of the four existing attributes that attract anti-vilification protection.

 

Were these recommendations to be implemented in their entirety (and no other changes made), it would exacerbate, rather than remove, the inequality in treatment between serious racial vilification and the three other current grounds (homosexual, transgender and HIV/AIDS vilification).

 

I further support the substantive amendments proposed in your Bill, including:

 

  • Removing the requirement for the Attorney-General to give consent to prosecution for any vilification offence
  • Extending the time within which prosecutions for vilification offences must be commenced from 6 months to 12 months (addressing a flaw in the current Act highlighted by the case of Simon Margan v Director of Public Prosecutions & Anor [2-13] NSWSC 44)
  • Adopting the recommendation of the Law and Justice Standing Committee report that recklessness is sufficient to establish intention to vilify
  • Clarifying which public acts constitute unlawful vilification
  • Providing that vilification applies whether or not the person or members of the group vilified have the characteristic that was the ground for the promotion of hatred, contempt or ridicule concerned, and
  • Ensuring that the President of the Anti-Discrimination Board refers vilification complaints to the Commissioner of Police where the President considers that the offence of serious racial, transgender, homosexual or HIV/AIDS vilification may have been committed.

 

In terms of the proposal to replace ‘incitement’ with ‘promotion’ within the definition of vilification itself, while I have not had the opportunity to examine this amendment in great depth, on a prima facie basis it appears reasonable.

 

Finally, I agree with your decision to relocate the offence of serious vilification to the Crimes Act 1900, for the reasons outlined in your Second Reading Speech:

 

“Certainly, the legal effect of a provision should be the same whether it is located in the Crimes Act or in the Anti-Discrimination Act. However, there is significant symbolism in the provision being located in the Crimes Act in the new section 91N. And symbolism, as everyone in this Chamber knows, is important.”

 

Now, I will turn my attention to the shortcomings of the Bill and, unfortunately, in my opinion they are significant.

 

Specifically, while what the Bill includes is to be welcomed, it is flawed because of what it excludes. It fails to address one of the main problems of the Anti-Discrimination Act 1977, which is that it only protects some parts of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) community, and not others.

 

As I have detailed elsewhere (see “What’s wrong with the NSW Anti-Discrimination Act 1977?”), the out-dated terminology used in the Act means that only lesbian, gay and transgender people are protected (and even then not all transgender people are covered).

 

Meanwhile, there is still no anti-vilification protection for bisexual people, or for intersex people, in NSW (with the absence of Commonwealth LGBTI anti-vilification laws only compounding this problem).

 

In my view, the limited coverage offered by the NSW anti-vilification framework is an even greater problem than those issues identified by the Standing Committee on Law and Justice’s Inquiry into Racial Vilification Law.

 

As such, I believe this issue should be addressed before, or at least simultaneously to, those provisions contained in your Bill. Otherwise, the differential treatment of groups within the LGBTI community would only become further entrenched.

 

For these reasons, I strongly encourage you to consider amending your Bill to ensure that all sections of the LGBTI community are protected against vilification. To achieve this, you may wish to incorporate the definitions included in the historic Commonwealth Sex Discrimination Amendment (Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity and Intersex Status) Act 2013.

 

This would involve:

 

  • Replacing the current protected attribute of homosexual with ‘sexual orientation’ (and which would therefore cover bisexual people)
  • Amending the protected attribute of transgender to the more inclusive term ‘gender identity’, and
  • Introducing the new protected attribute of ‘intersex status’.

 

If you are interested in pursuing these changes then I also encourage you to consult with the LGBTI community, and its representative organisations, beforehand (to ensure that any consequential difficulties are avoided).

 

To conclude, and despite the issues described above, I genuinely welcome the provisions contained in the Crimes and Anti-Discrimination Legislation Amendment (Vilification) Bill 2016. However, by extending the scope of vilification offences to protect bisexual and intersex people, I sincerely believe you would significantly improve your legislation.

 

Thank you for your consideration of this letter. I am of course happy to discuss any of the issues raised at the contact details provided below.

 

Sincerely,

Alastair Lawrie

 

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NSW Shadow Attorney-General Paul Lynch