Safe Schools can save lives and revive our movement

While much of the world is celebrating the enshrining of same-sex marriage rights into law, here in Australia politicians are debating how to better alienate LGBTIQ youth in schools.

Last month infamous bigot Senator Corey Bernardi led the attacks on a government funded program designed to make school safer for LGBTIQ youth. At the behest of Bernardi’s band of right-wing bigots, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has ordered a review of the program. Its future is now in doubt.

‘Safe Schools’ is an initiative that provides training and resources to help schools ensure they are “safe and inclusive for same sex attracted, intersex and gender diverse students, staff and families”. The program was launched in Victorian schools in 2010 under a Labor state government and extended to schools across Australia in 2014 under a Liberal federal government.

The program was prompted by horrifying statistics showing three in four same-sex attracted youth experienced bullying or abuse, including physical assault. Eight in ten of these incidents happen at school. It is well documented that homophobic bullying is a deadly problem with LGBTIQ youth six times more likely to attempt suicide or self-harm.

Now, the ultra-conservative wing of the Liberal Party has latched onto this potentially life-saving program as a pawn in its culture war. The attacks on the Safe Schools program have been largely lead by backbenchers who remain bitter about Tony Abbott’s ousting. Cory Bernardi, Eric Abetz, George Christensen and Andrew Hastie – all Abbott supporters – have delighted in whipping up homophobic hysteria about Safe Schools and trying to force Turnbull’s hand on this issue.

Turnbull came to power promising major reforms that could reinvigorate Australia’s economic fortunes. In reality, he sold himself to business leaders as a more competent salesman of the austerity policies that were Abbott’s downfall. What he didn’t account for was that people would quickly start to see through his smarmy façade. His popularity has waned even before implementing any of the anti-worker reforms he has promised to his big business backers.

Now Turnbull’s own party is riddled with the kinds of factional divisions it used to mock the ALP for. The lightning fast decision to review the Safe Schools program was an attempt to appease a disgruntled backbench, but has also resulted in a massive wave of backlash from ‘progressives’. Most importantly it has led to significant mobilisations from LGBTIQ communities and supporters.

The grassroots mobilisations to defend Safe Schools have been swift and powerful. At least 32 new schools have signed up to the Safe Schools Coalition since the review was announced. In Melbourne, A 300-strong organising meeting was potentially the largest political meeting of the LGBTIQ community since the 1980s. Thousands of people have attended rallies around the country. The presence of many union members – teachers, social workers, education support staff and health workers – at these rallies clearly demonstrates this as an industrial issue as well as a social issue.

While our community may not have met in such large numbers for decades, business and religious lobby groups have been meeting regularly to wind back the social and industrial gains we have fought so hard to win. And as the Victorian example shows, they’ve been quite successful. The exemption of religious schools in Victoria from equal opportunity laws in 2011 means that students can be expelled and school staff can be hired, fired and singled out for disciplinary action on the basis of their sexual orientation, gender identity, marital status or simply their personal views on any of these topics. This type of institutionalised prejudice and freedom to discriminate is the end goal of those attacking the Safe Schools program.

While the public backlash means Turnbull’s review will be cautious about recommending sweeping changes to the Safe Schools program, it is crucial that we build on the political momentum created within the community by these attacks. The focus of this momentum should extend beyond important initiatives like Safe Schools, to winning full protections at school and work, tackling the housing crisis facing homeless LGBTIQ youth, and stopping the attacks on public healthcare accessed by LGBTIQ people.

The rekindling of our movement in defence of Safe Schools is the perfect opportunity to reassess what we have won and what we still have to fight for. Let’s celebrate our community’s fighting spirit by building a strong political movement that can take our society and our standards of living forward, not backwards. There should be a “gay agenda”, as Cory Bernardi claims. It should be an agenda to change this system that props itself up on entrenched inequality and oppression based on class, gender, race and sexual identity or orientation.

By Chris Dite

One Comment

  1. I’ve read the Safe Schools policy and nowhere could I see that it was exclusively for LGBTQI students. It was a policy aimed at promoting inclusion to all students, particularly around bullying and harassment. It flagged a political propaganda campaign from right wing nut jobs who took an idea and appealed to the Christian moral-nazis who also jumped on the propaganda bandwagon aiding in the coalition campaign to dismantle the Labor government progressive views, the acceptance of people from all walks of life. It was also an exercise in social engineering.

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