The Continuing Fight For Safe SchoolsThe Safe Schools program aims to make Australian schools safer for LGBTIQ students.

This week saw another attack on the Safe Schools Coalition, a national group of organisations and schools working together to create safe school environments for same sex attracted, intersex and gender diverse students, staff and families. Critics condemned a teaching resource, All of Us, which seeks to foster inclusive learning by increasing students’ understanding and awareness of gender diversity, sexual diversity and intersex topics.

The Safe Schools Coalition has been decried as compulsory school activism. Liberal Senator Cory Bernardi, a long-time critic, claimed that the program “encourages children to become advocates for the homosexual cause”.

As a partner organisation for Safe Schools in NSW, the NSW Gay and Lesbian Rights Lobby was extremely disappointed to see the continuation of the conservative hostility towards a program that’s role is to support schools in ensuring that they are safe places for LGBTIQ members of their community.

We emphasise that the support offered by the program is welcomed by schools, who sign up voluntarily, and has been widely praised by teachers, principals, health, mental health and family planning organisations, universities, unions and councils.

Recent comments from the Head of child psychiatry at the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists, Nick Kowalenko, confirmed that teaching students about gender diversity would help those who have suffered homophobic bullying and abuse at school. He stated that he “often” saw primary school aged children who were struggling with their gender identity, even presenting to hospital with deliberate self-harm.

The importance of the work done by the Safe Schools Coalition to these students cannot be overstated.

Research tells us that thousands of young people across Australia experience homophobic and transphobic behaviour, discrimination and isolation at school. It is not difficult to understand that such experiences have serious consequences for their health and wellbeing, attendance at school and academic achievement.

We know that that 16% of young people who identify as Lesbian Gay Bi Trans Intersex or Queer (LGBTIQ) have attempted suicide and 33% have harmed themselves as a result of widespread homophobic and transphobic harassment and violence in Australian society.

According to research, almost two-thirds reported homophobic or transphobic harassment or violence across different aspects of their lives, including in schools, families, the workplace, the streets and other public places such as the sporting field.

We also know that homophobia and/or transphobia has a serious impact on many young people’s educational experiences, with some changing schools multiple times and others dropping out of school altogether. Young people frequently witness other students who ‘come out’ at school being bullied and this results in many students keeping their sexual diversity or transgender status a secret, and this has ongoing implications for these young people’s mental health and wellbeing. Before the Safe Schools program, sexuality education in schools did not respond to the needs or experiences of young LGBTIQ people, exposing them to a range of social and health risks.

However, the program is not just targeted at young LGBTIQ people. Safe Schools works with the entire school to build a safe community where diversity is valued, the risk from all types of harm is minimised and every member of the community feels respected, included and supported.

Resources like All of Us were actively developed to impact attitudes towards LGBTIQ people and to encourage change that affirms the right of all students, staff and families to feel safe at school.

It seems that this is the part of Safe Schools that really terrifies those behind the repetitious rants against the program. They argue that encouraging students to adopt accepting attitudes towards their LGBTI classmates is part of a controversial cultural-left agenda that the broader community has not yet adopted.

We beg to differ.

The values of tolerance and respect for diversity are accepted by most Australians and have long been taught in NSW schools. Encouraging students to explore perspectives that differ from their own in an effort to foster empathy and open-mindedness is an essential part of social learning.

LGBTI students, like all students, have a right to be treated with dignity and respect at school. It is entirely appropriate that educators instil values that reflect the rights and responsibilities of students at school and seek to ensure that the classroom is a welcoming place for every student.

The conservative scare campaign is ignoring the reality that the Safe Schools Coalition is simply advocating that schools should be safe and inclusive spaces for same sex attracted, intersex and gender diverse students, staff and families and is taking positive steps to help schools to achieve that. That work, underpinned by a shared belief that all people have a right to be safe, happy and healthy and to be treated with dignity and respect, is surely a ‘homosexual cause’ that all of us can get behind.

You can supporting this program by donating to the NSWGLRL and encouraging your local school to join Safe Schools. Our young people deserve it.