Sorry Celebs, LGBTIQ Australians Deserve A Lot More Than “Tolerance”

There's a new push to replace Safe Schools with a program with less "controversy".

safe schools

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Celebrities: What do they know? Do they know things? Let’s find out! When it comes to inclusive and progressive ways of caring for LGBTIQ youth in Australia, the answer seems like: not a lot.

Today, a boatload of Australian celebrities have released a statement and petition asking Malcolm Turnbull to reconsider the de-funding of the Safe Schools program with a new version that seeks to remove the “controversy”. Singers, actors and social media influencers such as Troye Sivan, Joel Creasey, Missy Higgins and Guy Pearce have all come together to plead for a Safe Schools 2.0, which is described as a campaign for a federally-funded school program that aims for “an end to bullying and domestic violence in Australia”.

While this sounds like an admirable goal, it comes with considerable differences to the original Safe Schools program; many of which have been labeled as regressive and counter-productive.

“Make no mistake of our request,” the letter reads. “We do not seek a program that seeks approval of the way certain members of our society live. We seek only mutual respect and tolerance.”

While well-meaning, the letter and its proposed campaign seems to capitulate to conservatives and religious groups on the idea that the original program had in some way ‘gone too far’, while also excluding trans youth from the narrative entirely. It’s a particularly cowardly slap in the face to both portions of the LGBTIQ community and to the activists who have campaigned for Safe Schools in the first place.

A Fight Worth Winning

Safe Schools has become a highly politicised battleground in the war for equal rights in Australia. It sits alongside the more publicised, symbolic and accepted fight for marriage equality, as something much more bitter and loaded. As the battle goes on, the body count of queer youth who suffer from the conflict grows.

One of the more polarising issues lies in the so-called ‘gender theory’ element of the program — namely the acknowledgement of trans people, their specific and unique issues, and the transphobia they might suffer in the schoolyard. The existence of trans identity was warped by conservative media and right-wing politicians into an ideology that was being pushed onto straight children.

The issue was flipped, and instead of being concerned about the safety and wellbeing of bullied queer and trans children, Safe Schools became rebranded as an attack on straight identity. Federal MP George Christensen went so far as to compare the program to “grooming [done] by a paedophile”.

As queer activist Sally Rugg wrote in the Sydney Morning Herald at the time, “To think that providing teachers with resources to address homophobic and transphobic bullying in their classroom might make children gay or transgender is ludicrous.”

Acknowledging the controversy around this idea, it seems that the Safe Schools 2.0 letter has tried to rebrand by removing almost all mention of trans youth and ‘gender theory’ from the program, instead focusing just on the bullying of gay kids. Make no mistake — the “politics and controversy” which the new letter seeks to remove from the equation is literally the battle for trans inclusion. The fact that this letter seems to have been put together without any consultation of trans activists or voices seems to be a warning sign in itself.

This morning Fairfax also reported that “references to ‘acceptance’ were controversially ditched from the letter so as not to alienate schools that may see accepting LGBTIQ people as inconsistent with their religious doctrine”. It’s this infuriating downgrading of totally reasonable language that shows just how much a step backwards this letter is, despite trying hard to seem otherwise.

Fuck Tolerance

Tolerance is a thin, watered-down mess of a soup when compared to the words deliberately not used by the letter. We deserve acceptance and equality. To paraphrase Harry Styles, equality and acceptance should be fundamentals; the baseline of what we expect from society towards LGBTIQ youth. Tolerance is beneath that.

Tolerance is what you hope for when you bring a new puppy into the home and you’ve got a cranky cat that mostly lives outside, and you don’t want that cat to decapitate the new puppy. Tolerance was perhaps an acceptable and admirable baseline to expect towards queer people in the ‘40s. We need to demand more now.

Not only does this sort of language pander to far-right politicians, it also completely over-prioritises the concerns of religious groups, who might feel that the existence of trans youth is antithetical to their beliefs. If we’re prioritising religious beliefs in schools, then surely they should be the ones accused of pushing an ideology.

The Safe Schools 2.0 petition might as well be a bamboo forest, because the pandering doesn’t stop there. By refusing to acknowledge acceptance of trans people and ‘gender theory’, we’re caving into straight people’s conception of acceptable queerness — which is usually non-threatening cis-gender gay men, most often loaded up with stereotypes galore. The entire point of Safe Schools, beyond pushing for the basic mental and physical safety of queer youth, is to normalise diverse and non-traditional genders and sexualities for straight teens.

Misguided celebrity wokeness seems to be becoming a hilarious trend in 2017, and it now seems to have hit Australia. The celebrities who signed this letter should really think deeply about their motivations and the people they have proposed to disenfranchise while doing so. Gods help us all, their opinions do matter.

For better or worse, these celebrities are leaders and role models in the LGBTIQ community, as well as having voices that are capable of reaching both the straight majority and politicians. Their actions should be measured carefully by themselves, and censured and criticised when needed. I am sure their hearts were in the right place, but this proposition is deeply insulting.

Feature image: Nimal Skandhakumar/Flickr CC.

Patrick Lenton is a writer and author. He tweets at @patricklenton.