Christensen and Bernardi

The Coalition’s Safe Schools debacle

In recent weeks there has been increased political and media focus on an organisation called Safe Schools Coalition Australia, and its Safe Schools program, designed to help schools be safer and more inclusive for same-sex attracted, intersex and gender diverse students, school staff and families. The program is dedicated to creating environments where all students, teachers and families can feel safe and be themselves.

Established in Victoria in 2010, the program has run nationally for two years, with bipartisan support from both sides of politics, and receives funding to the tune of $8 million annually.

It is a volunteer program, and schools have to request assistance from Safe Schools for the program to be delivered at a school.

I reported on attacks on the program in the past, by various ‘Christian’ organisations who have opposed it since its inception, seeing it as ‘homosexual indoctrination’ and ‘social engineering’.

Related stories:
Bigots upset over being called bigots (13 November 2015)
Wear it Purple, wear it proud! (28 August 2015)

However, things got much more dire over the last few weeks. On 9 February 2016, a News Limited paper, The Australian, published scurrilous and patently homophobic allegations that a ‘gay manual’ was being forced on young children in schools.

A spokesperson from our old friends, the Australian Christian Lobby, chimed in alleging the program pressured kids and ‘confuses them about their own identity,’ while Kevin Donnelly, a senior research fellow at the Australian Catholic University described the program as ‘social engineering’. No bias there whatsoever …

The homophobic panic baton was soon taken up by two of the most bigoted and homophobic members of the Coalition government, George Christensen MP and Senator Cory Bernardi, who demanded an investigation into the program, with Mr Christensen comparing the anti-bullying program to ‘grooming work that a sexual predator might undertake‘.

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, whose leadership position is entirely dependant on the support of the religious conservative faction of the Coalition, predictably and promptly capitulated and announced a review.

The review was conducted by University of Western Australia Emeritus Professor Bill Louden who, upon delivering the results of his investigations to the government, provided a private briefing to about 30 Coalition MPs on 15 March.

Professor Louden concluded there was no cause to suspend or cancel the program, although he made some minor recommendations, including on how it is delivered, and the provision of further guidance to teachers.

The religious conservative members of the Coalition were outraged by Professor Louden’s conclusions and launched blistering attacks on Professor Louden and his report, the education minister, and the program itself, including fresh pedophilia allegations by Mr Christensen against one of the creators of the program … made under the protection of Parliamentary privilege. They are now demanding the immediate suspension of funding, and a full Parliamentary inquiry into the program.

By trying to appease his bullies, by agreeing to their original demands for an utterly unnecessary review of the program, the Prime Minister has emboldened them on their bigoted, homophobic rampage.

One can’t help but conclude that these notoriously bigoted and homophobic members of the Coalition are recklessly and maliciously toying with the mental health and safety of LGBTI youth, as a precursor to their planned anti-marriage equality campaign leading up to the proposed plebiscite.

Given the vile, shrill, and deteriorating conduct of Coalition MPs and Senators on the subject of Safe Schools, wishy-washy ‘choose words carefully‘ statements from our Prime Minister no longer cut it. This situation demands leadership.

As media reports on this latest development in the debacle started to emerge, I couldn’t help myself and left comments about the matter on social media, including on a story posted to Facebook by The Sydney Morning Herald:

I was extremely curious what the public reaction to my comments would be, so I prepared the following, based on some of my earlier writings on the subject:

“It is about time for Malcolm Turnbull, and the Australian public, to draw a line in the sand with George Christensen, Cory Bernardi and their ilk.

This vile, uninformed bigotry and homophobia must not be tolerated any further. And no, I am not calling them bigots and homophobes because they are Christians, or because they oppose marriage equality, or the Safe Schools program.

I am calling them bigots and homophobes because of the manner in which they conduct themselves, and express their opposition: lies, grossly inaccurate and misleading assertions, and abusing parliamentary privilege.

Freedom of religion and speech are important cornerstones of our society, and the churches and the religious are entitled to communicate their religious doctrines and beliefs to the people.

However, those rights come with responsibilities, and have limits. To put simply, religious freedom entitles you to observe and practice your faith unhindered. It does not include a right to make things up to justify your bigotry and prejudice, and expect they will not be subject to challenge and review.

The historical privileges the churches and the religious have enjoyed for centuries enabled them to create their own alternative reality, largely unchallenged – this will be no doubt a hard habit to kick.

To demand protection for the spreading of malicious lies and misinformation goes beyond the acceptable standards of a liberal, progressive society, and the protection of religious freedom.

Such demands make a mockery of, and demean, free speech.

Opposing marriage equality or an anti-bullying program designed to protect LGBTI youth is perhaps not in itself discrimination, nor does it make you a homophobe, but making up harmful lies to lend legitimacy to your opposing views is.

Safe Schools Australia is a national organisation set up to help schools be safer and more inclusive for same-sex attracted, intersex and gender diverse students, school staff and families. They are dedicated to creating environments where all students, teachers and families can feel safe and be themselves.

Among the many services Safe Schools Australia offers perhaps the most important is the resources and support they provide for young people who want to create positive change in their schools and need support to do so. They enable and support such students to organise activities, events and groups, such as gay-straight alliances, in their schools to actively challenge homophobia and transphobia and create the kind of culture that nurtures and supports all students, regardless of their sexuality and gender identity. This is known as the Safe Schools program. This program only comes to a school if it is requested by the school.

I only wish there was such a program in place when I was at school, facing a despicable gang of little Christensens and Bernardis in the schoolyard.

Among many other respectable and mainstream organisations, Beyond Blue, Australia’s leading mental health support organisation, works closely with Safe Schools Australia because they identified the significant effects homophobic and transphobic bullying has on the mental health of the LGBTI community, including LGBTI youth.

Homosexuality does not cause mental health problems – bullying, homophobia, transphobia, social exclusion, and anti-LGBTI hatred and violence do.

Religious conservatives have been maliciously accusing the Safe Schools program of promoting ‘radical sexual experimentation’, by encouraging the acceptance of gender and sexual diverse children. The people and organisations involved tend to deny even the existence of transgender people or sexual orientation, and consider them mere social constructs, which is perhaps one of the most psychologically harmful approach to LGBTI youth.

The very idea that a young person can be ‘propagandised’ into turning homosexual is ridiculously outdated and contrary to the most basic scientific understanding of sexuality we have.

This idea is right up there with the harebrained suggestion that a gay person can be ‘turned’ straight by ‘praying the gay away’. Anyone who suggests that it is possible to do so is either terribly misguided, downright evil, or just plain stupid.

The main ammunition of these people and organisations ranges from innuendo to misinformation, and malicious lies, but they dare to call for a ‘respectful debate’. While they may think they are ‘entitled’ to their beliefs and opinions, which is in itself debatable, they are certainly not entitled to their own facts.

Beliefs and opinions in the absence of tested and verifiable evidence are just plain old bigotry and prejudice.

I should also point out that not all religious people share the views expressed by George Christensen, Cory Bernardi, and some others, in respect of LGBTI matters. For example, one of the biggest national surveys on the issue of marriage equality, conducted by Crosby | Textor in 2014, found that the majority of those who identified with major religions in fact support marriage equality, including Catholics, Anglicans and non-Christian religions.”

So far, the public reaction has been very much in line with what I expected. The majority of those who engaged with my comment had liked it, and I received a few very positive comments.

Of course, others have been less than gracious about my views:

I attempted to engage with some of those who commented negatively, but only where I thought I may be able to elucidate the conversation.

For example I responded to the concerns expressed by Elizabeth Sbeghen with the following:

“Thank you for your response Elizabeth Sbeghen. My understanding of the Safe Schools program comes from studying their website (http://www.safeschoolscoalition.org.au/what-we-do). Perhaps in Queensland the program is run slightly differently.

I understand your point about the issue being ‘bullying’. Full stop. In an ideal world bullying would be addressed as such, ensuring that no one is singled out on the ground of their gender, race, disability, sexual orientation, or gender identity.

Unfortunately, statistics show (https://www.beyondblue.org.au/who-does-it-affect/lesbian-gay-bi-trans-and-intersex-lgbti-people/factors-affecting-lgbti-people) that our current methods of dealing with bullying have failed LGBTI youth in particular.

In fact, people whom one would expect to provide support, such as parents and teachers, were, and sometimes still are, the ones doing the bullying of LGBTI kids, because of their ‘different sexualities,’ such as sexual orientation or gender identity.

You are also right, some teenagers are probably very well informed on LGBTI issues and could teach us adults a thing or two. And they are – as I understand, young people were and are involved in developing the Safe Schools program, and they are also often instrumental in delivering some of its components at their schools on a voluntary basis.

However, as LGBTI elders we would be amiss if we ignored the plight of LGBTI youth, and condemned them to the same bullying we had suffered ourselves, without adding our voices in support of the Safe Schools program.

Ignoring the plight of the young members of the LGBTI community would have shades of religious institutions ignoring the systematic abuse of children in their care for decades – it would be a dismal failure of our moral leadership.”

Elizabeth didn’t respond.

I also tried to address the concerns expressed by Yvette Marr, that the role-playing, empathy exercises included in the program were akin to ‘grooming’:

“Hi Yvette Marr,

What you are referring to is ‘role-playing,’ an ’empathy exercise,’ which is a long-established and well-accepted teaching method used in a wide variety of circumstances, designed to allow participants to put themselves in another person’s shoes.

During such exercises people are often more sensitive to what that person, the ‘other,’ may be experiencing in their day-to-day life, and hopefully become less likely to tease or bully them.

By explicitly teaching students to be more conscious of other people’s feelings, such exercises help to create a more accepting and respectful environment.

Empathy is a key trait to successful integration into society, and smaller groups. Children (and adults) benefit greatly from empathy, as it contributes to educational and professional success.

Working in corporate environments, and in various educational context, I participated in many such ’empathy exercises,’ over the years.

For example by placing myself in the position of women, indigenous Australians, refugees, disabled people and a range of other minority groups, in particular social scenarios, to gain a better understanding of the issues they face, and the different life experiences they have.

http://www.opencolleges.edu.au/informed/features/empathy-and-learning/.”

Unfortunately, Yvette did not appear to be convinced by the position I put forward:

Marr 3

The harsh and indisputable reality is that some people will simply never accept marriage equality, tolerance, let alone acceptance, towards the LGBTI community, or in some extreme cases even the existence of LGBTI people.

However, based on a succession of public polls showing an ever-increasing support for marriage equality, it is apparent that people like that are a minority. Admittedly, a very vocal and apparently disproportionately powerful minority.

The most important question those conclusions raise is how much longer a liberal, progressive, secular democracy like Australia is willing to continue to allow the denigration of LGBTI people, and the denial of fundamental rights and liberties to their fellow LGBTI citizens, on the basis of the nonsensical objections of that minority?!

The answer to that question is here: A poignant question answered with brutal clarity (25 March 2016)

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