Andrew Barr made an impassioned defence of the Safe Schools program on Wednesday, saying he knows enough about being gay in school to know how important it is for gay and gender-diverse teens to be told they are normal.
"Let me make some clear and definitive statements. It is OK to be gay, it is OK to be lesbian, it is OK to be bisexual or intersex, there is nothing wrong with you," he said. "You are not abnormal, you do not deserve to be discriminated against."
Mr Barr, speaking during a debate on the Safe Schools program in the ACT Parliament, said 23 public schools in Canberra – about a quarter of schools – and one independent school had joined the program, aimed at reducing bullying of gay, intersex and gender diverse students.
His message to LGBTI kids was "your rights and your feelings matter to us".
"It is an absolute definitive rock-solid statement of values," he said.
"Our message to LGBTI kids [is] that they are fine, we support them and there is nothing wrong with them and don't let any Neanderthal conservative tell you anything otherwise."
The Turnbull government is reviewing the program under pressure from conservative MPs led by Cory Bernardi.
Queensland backbencher George Christensen has likened the program to the grooming from sexual predators and described it as putting children at risk of being sexualised at an early age.
Mr Barr said some of the comments of Mr Christensen and Senator Bernardi were horrific and set the tone for the public debate if a plebiscite was held on same-sex marriage.
"The fact that the Australian Christian Lobby wants to set aside all of the protections that are there against this sort of hate speech speaks volumes for what is coming from the conservative right and the religious right in this country. It is an outrage," he said.
"These are some of the most vulnerable kids in this city and in this country and they are going to have no stronger advocate than me and this government ...
"Why? Because I know a little about what it's like to be gay, to be in the closet and to suffer bullying and discrimination in a school and an education setting in this city. All I can say is thank god a lot has changed from 1980s and early 1990s till now."
Homophobic and transphobic bullying distracted students from their learning and sapped them of their potential. They were three times more likely to experience depression and almost 50 per cent felt the need to hide their sexual orientation, Mr Barr said. It was "heartbreaking" that schools were still an unhappy place for many LGBTI teenagers, who were six times more likely than others to attempt suicide, with bullying and exclusion at school a major factor.
The Assembly passed a resolution condemning the Bernardi and Christensen comments and rejecting "homophobic and transphobic discrimination in all its forms".
The Liberals attempted to rewrite the resolution so it didn't apply specifically to gay and sexually diverse students, but to bullying of any student.
Liberal Steve Doszpot supported the federal review of Safe Schools, saying some of the material linked to the program was questionable.
As a migrant from a country most of his classmates had never heard of, he also knew about bullying at school, Mr Doszpot said. Sexual identity was not the only trauma young people faced at school. Others struggled with learning or their home lives and transphobic and homophobic bullying should not be singled out, he said.