In recent weeks, conservative commentators and spokespeople for the religious right have been falling over themselves to insist that “nobody wants to expel gay kids from school.”

The debate has been ignited by the issues around ‘religious freedom’ arising from the Ruddock Report, and the electorate’s awakening to the fact that laws exist allowing faith schools to expel LGBTI students and sack LGBTI teachers.

The general community has been shocked by the revelation that special exemptions to anti-discrimination laws exist for church schools, and the backlash has taken many faith schools by surprise, even where the exemption wasn’t being used.

In rushing to defend faith schools, religious conservatives and their allies are arguing that despite the existence of the law – nobody actually wants to expel gay students.

Current Prime Minister Scott Morrison said this. Former Prime Minister John Howard said this. Former CEO for Christian Schools Australia Stephen O’Doherty said this. Managing Director of the Australian Christian Lobby, Martin Illes said this. Catholic Archbishop for Sydney Anthony Fisher said this. And so too have a host of conservative journalists.

The remarkable thing to note here is that only a few years ago, very often these same people, and certainly their cohorts, denied the very existence of gay kids.

Even in recent years, any attempts by community groups and educators to get same-sex awareness training into classrooms, or anti-LGBTI bullying programs on the agenda for school curricula, were met with howls of condemnation by religious conservatives and anti-gay groups.

In the 1989, in my home state of Western Australia, they succeeded in pushing parliament to pass a law which made it a criminal offence: to promote or encourage homosexual behaviour as part of the teaching in any primary or secondary educational institution.”  This was repealed in 2001.     

Nationwide, discussion around same-sex attraction in schools has commonly been denounced as “sexualising children,” anti-bullying programs attacked as “promoting a gay lifestyle” and blasted as  “trying to convert kids to homosexuality.”

There was utter denial that LGBTI students existed, or at the suggestion they might be hiding in the closet. Any assistance put forward for LGBTI kids was attacked as “proselytising,” and “recruiting.” Children were described as “innocent” and “too young and impressionable to know what they are.”

Suddenly, all of that horrible, hateful, rhetoric of denial has been swept away. Suddenly, even Conservative Prime Ministers and Catholic Archbishops accept without question that gay kids exist.

This is a profound shift, and worth celebrating. It has only been possible because of the advocacy, visibility and storytelling of the LGBTI community. We can no longer be silenced, made invisible or told we are too young to know better.

But this also poses a huge dilemma for religious conservatives. If gay kids exist (they do), then this seriously challenges the notion that sexuality is a choice. And if it’s not a choice (it isn’t), then maybe discrimination against LGBTI people, including teachers is a bad thing too?

When the religious conservatives succeeded in pushing Marriage Equality to a postal survey, this wasn’t because of any grand ideal around democratic process, but because they believed they could win.

The No campaign seriously believed it could create enough fear and doubt in the minds of Australian voters that a majority would go against reform. They believed this because they live in a small bubble with like minded people, and are not in touch with mainstream voters.

Which is why they were taken aback by the 62 per cent Yes vote. In the wake of this, conservative MPs have had to reassess their awareness of LGBTI issues, or at the very least, come to grips with the fact that a clear majority of Australians are relaxed and comfortable with same-sex couples and their families.

They are also more aware that many of their constituents have gay kids. And some of those kids are still at school.

This shift in language and awareness being shown by conservative voices is a wonderful example of social change in action. This is a significant turning point in our cultural and political history. It didn’t happen by accident, and would not have happened without the grassroots campaigners working in schools, and especially those brave LGBTI kids who spoke up and called for recognition and change.

The shift holds out hope for further change to come, especially the final acceptance by the religious right that same-sex attraction and gender identity are not choices and discrimination against LGBTI people is never acceptable. Write it on your calendar: 2018, the year that gay kids came into existence.      

Brian Greig is a former Democrats’ Senator, and a veteran LGBTI advocate.

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