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Safe Schools program: why zealots are trying to drag us back to the dark ages

Ideological crusaders are trying to create a culture of fear around the Safe Schools program and so far, it's working.

Imagine being 12 years old and seeing your name scrawled across a school toilet door next to the word "faggot." Or being beaten up and spat on by a gang of classmates who discovered you were a "tranny." What if you were kicked out of your football team because you weren't "masculine" enough?

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These are just some of the real life school experiences young people have shared with me over the past few years.

We may pride ourselves on being the country of the "fair go" but in 2016, bullying of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) children remains rife in our schools. It makes the relentless and vicious attacks against a program set up to protect those children even more abhorrent.

As Malcolm Turnbull yesterday caved into his party's religious right and announced an investigation into the Safe Schools Coalition one thing became clear: we are in the midst of a culture war. And vulnerable children are being used as cannon fodder.

In a Coalition party room meeting on Tuesday, February 23, Senator Cory Bernardi called for the program to be defunded, claiming it was being used to "indoctrinate children into a Marxist agenda of cultural relativism."

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Liberal senator Cory Bernardi told the partyroom Safe Schools may 'indoctrinate kids with Marxist cultural relativism'.

Liberal senator Cory Bernardi told the party room Safe Schools may "indoctrinate kids with Marxist cultural relativism". Photo: Alex Ellinghausen

It follows repeated attacks from the Australian Christian Lobby, that says the national program – which aims to make schools safer and more inclusive for same-sex attracted and gender diverse students – is part of a "political ideology" to "promote queer sexuality".

Leaving aside the irony of the religious right crying foul about "indoctrination" in the classroom while they happily champion taxpayer-funded religious schools and a $245 million chaplaincy scheme, let's look at the facts.

The Safe Schools Coalition was not pushed upon an unwitting education system by "gay activists". It was set up in Victoria in 2010 in response to requests from teachers to help them support a growing number of LGBTI students who were wrestling with their identity.

It has the backing of beyondblue, the Australian Secondary Principals Association, the Australian Education Union and the Australian Council of State School Organisations.

Adding to teachers' concerns were alarming statistics from La Trobe University's 2010 Writing Themselves In study which revealed 75 per cent of LGBTI young people had experienced physical or verbal homophobic bullying. Eighty per cent said the abuse happened at school.

These students are up to six times more likely to attempt suicide and self harm than their peers. For this reason, Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews has championed the program, last year fulfilling an election promise to spend $1 million rolling it out in every state secondary school.

On Monday he hit out at the "extreme Liberals" saying it wasn't the structure of the program that offended them but the kids who needed it.

 

Wow.The Liberals now plan to “investigate” (meaning: ultimately shut down) the Safe Schools Coalition, a program that...

Posted by Daniel Andrews on Monday, 22 February 2016

He may have a point.

Until recently the Coalition government backed the scheme, which has almost 500 member schools across Australia and receives $8 million of federal funding.

At its 2014 national launch in Melbourne, then Parliamentary Secretary for Education Senator Scott Ryan said in an impassioned speech that creating a safe and supportive environment for students was "simply the right thing to do."

So why is a program designed to prevent children from being bullied, that has enjoyed bipartisan political support since inception, suddenly being painted as an attempt to brainwash young people into adopting the "gay lifestyle"?

And why did a Safe Schools teachers' resource, publicly launched in November by a federal education department executive amid zero controversy, reappear this month as a breathless front page "exclusive" in The Australian under the headline "Activists push taxpayer-funded gay manual in schools"?

One word: plebiscite. As the nation prepares for a costly and unnecessary poll on marriage equality, the key objective for extreme right-wingers and religious groups is to create a culture of misinformation and fear.

They know that with 72 per cent of the public supporting the right of same-sex couples to marry, it is a vote they will likely lose. So they are going all out to muddy the water. And it's working.

In August the NSW government banned the screening in schools of Gayby Baby – a documentary about children of same-sex parents – after another News Ltd front page declared parents were outraged at the film being shown in class time.

A still from Maya Newell's film <i>Gayby Baby</i>.

A still from Maya Newell's film Gayby Baby.

It was later revealed the school had received no complaints from parents and the attack had been led by a Presbyterian minister who had seen his scripture classes at the school slashed.

Last week, in a move that hopelessly backfired, a group who have shown support for the Australian Christian Lobby's views, attempted to hijack a same-sex school formal run by LGBTI youth group Minus 18 by buying up tickets to prevent students from attending.

These are desperate acts from ideological crusaders who refuse to accept that the inequality they have built their privilege on is in its death throes.

But fear is a powerful emotion. If you can scare conservative voters into thinking the by-product of equality is a world in which their children will be forced into some sort of state-sanctioned gay induction camp, facts are no longer necessary.

For the record, Safe Schools does not teach children how to be gay. It encourages young people to be themselves without fear of persecution or judgment, and fosters empathy for those who are different to them.

There is no "gay manual" because sexuality is not something that can be learned. Any suggestion to the contrary is a deliberate attempt to deny the very existence of LGBTI people.

We cannot let the march of equality be held to ransom by a powerful minority of religious zealots who dress up their bigotry as concern for children.

If Malcolm Turnbull is a true 21st century leader he must have the political and moral courage to stand up to those who seek to drag us back to the dark ages.

In doing so he will send a powerful message to every child who lives in fear, that they are OK exactly as they are.

Jill Stark is an Age senior writer.

jstark@fairfaxmedia.com.au

Follow Jill on Twitter

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