Squeamishness will not solve the problem of homophobia

As an openly gay politician, Andrew Barr might be said to have a better understanding of homophobic bullying in the school yard than most. His passionate defence of the Safe Schools program in the Legislative Assembly this week was unsurprising, therefore, even if his description of the program's opponents (Neanderthal conservatives) raised eyebrows in some quarters.

What began as an ostensibly apolitical anti-bullying program designed to promote acceptance and understanding of children dealing with questions of sexuality and gender has become a political hot potato, as the Chief Minister's comments attest. Last month, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull ordered a review of the partly Commonwealth-funded program, apparently after concerns were raised in the Coalition party room that it was the equivalent of "social engineering", and that it risked prematurely sexualising children.

An initiative of Safe Schools Coalition Australia (which calls itself a "national coalition of organisations and schools working together to create safe and inclusive school environments for same-sex attracted, intersex and gender-diverse students, staff and families"), the program has been embraced by about 500 schools across the country. Most are in Victoria, where the Andrews Labor government has said it will make the program mandatory in all schools except independent ones by 2018. Around a quarter of ACT public schools, and the Canberra Girls Grammar school, have signed up as well.

In the culture wars which have become an enduring aspect of Australia's political landscape, social conservatives and social progressives need few incentive to rush to arms. And in a case such as this, when accusations of cultural Marxism are being hurled (the Safe Schools architect, La Trobe University academic Roz Ward, has described the Commonwealth marriage act as "state-sponsored homophobia") and insults traded over who is really "standing up for kids", responses are likely to become heated.

More agnostic observers might wonder why, when public schools already have extensive and detailed policies on bullying, racism and sexual harassment (the ACT Education Directorate website lists at least six) programs explicitly aimed at LGBTI children are necessary.

If the Safe Schools program appears to some to be case of attention-seeking exceptionalism, it's an inescapable fact that homophobia remains widespread in many schools – even as it has receded somewhat in the general adult community. The bullying and stigmatisation of children uncertain or confused about their sexuality explains in large part why the LGBTI community experiences higher than normal rates of suicide and depression.

Changing attitudes and supporting young LGBTI adults to enable them to live full and satisfying lives is not just good social policy – its's an expression of a society with respect and equality at its heart. And petty disputes over who should be the self-appointed guardians of children's morality only delay matters – as does disagreement over when precisely children should be taught about sexuality and relationships.

Adults may find sex and relationships difficult topics to wrestle with. Children, fortunately, are not so unwise that they can't be trusted with the facts.