Photo: Eddie Jim, via The Age
A strong defence of Australia’s Safe Schools program in Quarterly Essay has thrown petrol on a smouldering controversy. Benjamin Law, a gay journalist working for the Fairfax press, the author of “Moral Panic 101: Equality, Acceptance and the Safe Schools Scandal”, cannot understand what all the fuss is about.
Law feels that the Murdoch press in Australia has been crusading unfairly against a program which could save lives. He claims that Safe Schools has been turned into an ideological battleground in which homophobic zealots have been lobbing hand grenades into safe spaces for LGBTQI kids.
His essay opens with the sombre story of Tyrone Unsworth, a 13-year-old Queenslander who was bullied at school for being gay and effeminate and ended up committing suicide. “Australian queers are impatient for change, seeing one kid’s suicide attempt as one too many,” Law writes.
And, quoting American-British author and journalist Andrew Solomon, Law insists that “It seems right to prioritise each child’s mental health over a system that makes universal predictions about what should constitute happiness or what values are healthy.”
In short, the point of Law’s rambling essay is that if a Safe Schools program keeps gay, lesbian and transgender kids happy and safe from bullying – or even just one of them — it’s worthwhile. Nothing else matters.
While Law’s contribution to the debate will soon sink beneath the waves, it deserves to be examined a bit more closely to understand how supporters of Safe Schools think. For all his faults, he is sensitive and passionate and deserves a hearing.
Tragic stories trump statistics. Although Law is a journalist, there are few facts in his account of the controversy. How many LGBT kids are there in the nation’s schools? What ages? How much bullying is there? How much homophobic bullying is there? How solid are the figures? What do the teachers say? What do the parents say? What do the experts say? You need facts to justify your point of view in democratic politics.
The lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans lifestyle is happy, wholesome and life-affirming. He quotes Roz Ward, the firebrand activist who founded the Safe Schools program:
“Being gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender or intersex is joyous! Make no mistake, it’s the experience of homophobia and transphobia that can destroy lives and often leads to depression, anxiety and poor mental health … the message in the beyondblue campaign seems to be that there are a few people who were born gay, and you should try to be nice to them because they can’t help it. It makes [it] clear that homophobia is wrong, but it does nothing to affirm that being gay is good.”
The material in the Safe Schools program is utterly innocuous. What has made Safe Schools radioactive in the current debate is the teaching materials designed by Ward and others, with videos of older LGBT high school kids explaining their lives and orientation. Lesson plans for students explain that “Heteronormativity describes a belief-system that reinforces that same sex attracted, intersex, and gender diverse people are somehow less ‘normal’ than everyone else.” There’s no point in debating this, only to note that Law is bewildered by critics of the program. “Most worldly adults would consider it all pretty tame, bordering on wholesome,” writes Law.
Critics have not listened to the stories of LGBT children. Hostile media accounts have drowned out the voices of troubled students in a sea of ideological rhetoric. Since early in 2016, “The Australian – self-appointed guardian of the safety of children – spoke to not a single school-aged LGBTIQ youth. Not even one. Later, queer teenagers who followed the Safe Schools saga told me the dynamic felt familiar. At school, it’s known as bullying. In journalism, it’s called a beat-up.”
Parents do not deserve to have a privileged voice. A fundamental assumption of opponents of Safe Schools is that a child’s parents know best. But Law seems to believe that this is seldom the case. “Here’s the uncomfortable reality: parents don’t always know best … should parents’ wishes for their kids take priority when those wishes compromise that kid’s wellbeing?” He believes that parents and the rest of us should trust them. And he concludes with an appeal to have confidence in whatever identity children adopt:
“New generations are courageous enough to bring their own perspectives, asserting themselves and being vocal about what they need. We should help them in that task. Victorian Labor MPs are right: Safe Schools should be implemented in every school. By doing that, we will show we’re mature enough to acknowledge that sometimes, to our embarrassment and shame, it’s adults – not children – who are least equipped to understand, accept or process new realities about the world in which we live. Maybe we should start trying. We’re supposed to be the grown-ups, after all.”
Law’s essay shows that two radically opposed world-views are facing off, with no possibility of compromise. Law and the LGBTQI lobby believe that only thing that matters is giving children the freedom to adopt whatever sexual identity they like. Most parents believe that education in sexual matters is ultimately their responsibility.
Can the conflict be resolved? Is there common ground for discussion? Unhappily, the answer seems to be No. Opponents of Safe Schools question the figures about the number of children who are affected, the number and cause of suicides and the intensity of bullying at school. But Law just isn’t interested in discussing facts – he appeals to raw emotion.
Which shows in the tweet he directed at critics of an essay which on homophobic bullying: “Sometimes find myself wondering if I’d hate-f*** all the anti-gay MPs in parliament if it meant they got the homophobia out of their system.”
A rational argument, anyone, anyone?
Michael Cook is editor of MercatorNet