In March, Tony Abbott proudly proclaimed that it’s his agenda that Malcolm Turnbull is taking to the election. But there’s at least one exception—when it comes to attacking LGBTI youth, Turnbull has gone further than Abbott dared.
In their last days, the Rudd government provided funding for the Safe Schools program, a student and teacher resource designed to curb homophobic and transphobic bullying in schools.
The actual program was launched by the Abbott government in 2014. In early 2015, the Coalition’s arch-conservative right-wing voiced concerns in a party room meeting. According to The Saturday Paper, it was both Abbott and then Education Minister Christopher Pyne that stopped attempts to alter or axe the program.
But when George Christensen did the same this February, Turnbull caved immediately, announcing a review. Subsequently, the program, in the words of a boasting Christensen, has been “gutted”. It will now be voluntary, not available in primary schools, and require parental consent. Much of the content has been stripped back to the bare bones. And, come 2017, it will no longer receive any funding at all.
In order to preserve his leadership, Turnbull has been prepared to give the homophobic right of the party a massive win.
The Australian Christian Lobby’s scare campaign labels Safe Schools “a radical program that encourages kids to explore gender theory and sexual practices”.
They were horrified that students might be asked to imagine they were gay or of a different gender in a role play, or that transgender students might use the toilets they want to, or wear the uniform they choose to.
Recalling the old homophobic slur of gay men and gay teachers as sexual predators, Christensen even likened Safe Schools to “paedophile grooming”.
Behind it all is simply the assumption that being gay or trans is abnormal, and that anti-homophobic education will encourage people to come out (and that that’s a bad thing).
It reflects the right-wing’s abiding concern to protect traditional gender roles and the heterosexual nuclear family from the push for same-sex marriage and transgender rights.
The supposedly radical, “age inappropriate” content of the program includes booklets like OMG I’m Queer, now banned from primary schools. It features explanations of the differences between biological sex and gender, and true stories about coming out, being outed by others, dealing with depression, and finding happiness in accepting yourself.
NSW Liberal Premier Mike Baird considers this terrifying, “How on earth can our children be looking at this?” he asked ABC Radio. His support for killing Safe Schools comes after the NSW ban on schools screening Gayby Baby last year.
Programs like Safe Schools can mean the difference between life and death. School is the most unsafe place to be LGBTI in Australia.
La Trobe University’s most recent 2010 Writing Themselves In Again report on LGBTI youth found that rates of abuse have been rising since 2000. What’s so “troubling”, they write, “is the ubiquitousness of the abuse”, which creates “an everyday culture of harassment which young people accept as their due”, with no “expectation of bystander support or redress”.
Sixty-one per cent of young people reported verbal homophobic abuse. Eighteen per cent reported physical abuse. The detail makes for shocking reading. One respondent wrote that he had “fag cut into my back in three places then fuck here with a arrow pointing to arsehole across my butt”, he was “then held and repeatedly abused with sticks”.
Eighty per cent of the abuse happened in schools. As well as physical and verbal abuse, there were other, more subtle forms of torture—rumours, social exclusion, cyber-bullying, graffiti.
As Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews rightly pointed out on Q&A, the idea of parental consent for Safe Schools is absurd when 24 per cent of LGBTI young people have suffered abuse in the home.
There’s a clear link between abuse, and self-harm and suicide. LGBTI youth are six times more likely to attempt suicide than their heterosexual peers.
The Victorian and the ACT Labor governments will keep the program going in its original form, and federal Labor has opposed the attacks.
Adam Bandt, Greens MP for Melbourne, has offered to distribute Rainbow flags for schools. Hundreds have attended snap demonstrations, while a huge number of academics and health professionals have signed statements. The teachers’ unions need to support teachers all over Australia to teach the original program. Statements are not enough.
What scares the homophobic underbelly of the Liberals and the Christian right is that accepting LGBTI young people also means challenging the homophobic status quo more widely. It means same-sex marriage and full equality. That’s why opposing the attack on Safe Schools is so important.
By Amy Thomas