Culture

The Safe Schools Debate Reminds LGBT Australians Of When Our Childhood Bullying Was Ignored

"When I look at Turnbull’s actions I also see the muted bigotry of a teacher who, while sympathising with you, can’t quite bring themselves to discipline the bully."

This piece was originally published on Medium, republished here with permission of the author. 

The Safe Schools debate in Parliament takes us back to the playground. Cory Bernardi, George Christensen and their supporters claim to be motivated by belief in traditional gender roles and family choice.

Let’s consider another reading: here is a powerful group carefully but ferociously dismantling something of significance to vulnerable people. This is the behaviour of bullies.

The debate reminded me that LGBT and non-LGBT people see the world differently. Straight allies might think the review is merely Turnbull’s attempt to preserve Safe Schools while appeasing the Right. There’s probably some truth in that view. But when I look at Turnbull’s actions I also see the muted bigotry of a teacher who, while sympathising with you, can’t quite bring themselves to discipline the bully.

Since the review was announced our community has been furious and anxious but we also knew what was coming. We would be asked to limit our claim to safety to accommodate the insecurities of our bullies.

The changes to Safe Schools proposed by Simon Birmingham last Friday may seem reasonable to someone who isn’t queer. But that’s the point: these are the kind of actions taken by people who care about LGBT people but have never considered what homophobia or transphobia might feel like.

Allowing parents to exempt their children from the Safe Schools program says respecting our dignity is optional. Parents would never be able to opt-out of anti-racism classes. Safe Schools will no longer feature a pledge to be an ally of LGBT classmates because it might alienate students from religious backgrounds. Yet can you imagine the Commonwealth Government implementing an expert review into a pledge to tolerate students of all religions? Or the deserved anger those faith communities would feel if such a pledge was described as intellectual totalitarianism?

The long history of LGBT Australian activism has often involved accepting a different, ‘special’ definition of equality. Feigning gratitude is exhausting.

The Turnbull government has not committed to fund this program beyond 2017 but it will invest in an expensive, unnecessary plebiscite on same-sex equality. The LGBT community cannot be expected to leave our vulnerable youth behind in our fight for equality. It puts us back in the place of the gay boy who, in an act of self-protection, distances himself from a targeted trans classmate. (It is telling that recommended changes target material relevant to trans and intersex children: those most in need of solidarity, support and resources.)

Most fundamentally, we cannot be expected to respond to slurs with silence. The charges laid against the Safe Schools program are demonstrably false. It does not refer children to porn websites or sex toy stores. If you don’t believe me, you can read the entire Safe Schools program, because it is available online. The fact the lies of the Coalition’s conservative fringe have been so widely circulated speaks to the residual bigotry of the media. Some of the newspapers who ediorialise in favour of same-sex marriage still seem willing to uncritically air old tropes of gays indoctrinating children with smut.

Of course, it’s important to note that not every LGBT child is bullied, traumatised or suicidal. On some level I‘ve been bothered by the assumption that this program is justifiable only because queer youth are dying. That argument implies needs of LGBT children should be met not because they children in need, but because the alternative is death.

But all queer childhoods are difficult. It can mean turning up to school one day, when you are very young, and facing a form of hatred that is inexplicable to everyone involved. Children will do this to you; adults may abide it. As you come to understand yourself, your bullies grow into their bigotry. They seem know your vulnerabilities as well as you do. They countervail your desire for self-expression. In many cases the situation improves (or at least high school ends) but the consequences endure. While my LGBT friends and I have great lives we still carry these experiences with us.

That’s precisely why the last few weeks have been so emotional for LGBT Australians. Some of my friends have described it as re-traumatising. To hear elected politicians say that it dangerous for children to learn about our lives recalls the high school homophobe who viewed your very presence in their classroom as a form of moral contamination. When you have grown up in a society that ideologically heterosexual and cisgendered, the claim that Safe Schools is “ideological” can leave you lost for words.

It is a reminder that we can reach a place of safety — be out to ourselves, our family, our friends — and yet still have the very nature of who we are called into question.

I cannot imagine what that review period was like for LGBT schoolchildren. A small gesture of affirmation — a policy rolled out in a handful schools across the nation — has been arbitrarily suspended, withdrawn, amended. Again, however, I doubt they’ll all be surprised: a queer childhood can involve anticipating these moments. (An example: the supportive friend who suddenly draws away.)

I do not think Malcolm Turnbull is a homophobe. In the smiling photos of him and Lucy at the recent Mardi Gras he seemed relaxed. Too relaxed. We’re glad you aren’t Tony Abbott, but merely being unbigoted isn’t leadership.

Anti-bullying education involves telling all children that they must not be a bystander. The Prime Minister should heed that lesson. He must stand up to the ignorant elements of his own party and ensure that every child feels safe in our schools.

Daniel Swain has opted to donate his writer’s fee to the Minus18 Foundation, Australia’s national organisation for LGBT youth. You can donate to Minus18 here