Marrickville Town Hall was transformed into a school assembly hall on Tuesday night for the Skools Out homophobia in schools forum. The event was chaired by community activist Vanessa Wagner, who appeared wearing a severe pleated skirt and puffy blouse. Chalkboards bore the slogans Diversity is a Class Act and Expel Homophobia. The stage was set for the sharing of personal experience and discussion of far-reaching change.

One of the speakers, 19-year-old Vikki Fraser, recently completed studies at a high school in Campbelltown. She has since returned to her school as a member of a committee developing strategies to combat homophobia. The principal has been very supportive, and the committee has received funding from the Department of Education to purchase resources.

To some extent my school might be the exception, she admits, but we hope that it becomes the norm. Younger students often come up to me and tell me that what we are doing is great.

There has been a lot of positivity, said Wagner, who became involved because of her interest in social justice. She criticised high school personal development classes -“ a curriculum of only 25 hours -“ as coming too late. By that stage you are reworking over a bad education.

The forum was jointly organised by the NSW Attorney-General’s office and the Anti-Discrimination Board. The second part of the evening was a panel discussion with representatives from Twenty 10, the Depar-tment of Education and teachers’ unions.

Chris Puplick, president of the Anti-Discrimination Board, spoke about the exemptions given in NSW anti-discrimination legislation to private schools and religious organisations. These organisations are not exempted from the provisions on racism and sexual harassment, he said. The fact that they are allowed to discriminate on the basis of sexuality establishes a hierarchy of discrimination, he said.

A representative from the Anti-Violence Project complained that the burden of combating homophobia falls to gay and lesbian community organisations, which simply don’t have the resources. Publicity campaigns such as the poster campaign featuring prominent football players are not a panacea -¦ they chip away at the edges of homophobia.

Wagner further suggested a scoring of schools on human rights -“ not just on homophobia, but on a broad range of issues. Attendees at the forum were handed a report card to fill out on their school experience.

There are plans to extend the fight against homophobia in schools beyond the forum. The 2002 Mardi Gras parade will include a Skools Out float. We want it [the float] to be an ideal school where everyone is accepted, said Jackie Braw, gay and lesbian liaison officer to the Attorney-General.

It’s getting so exciting -“ we’ve been getting calls from all over the country, says Braw. Young people and teachers are particularly interested. People from places as far away as WA have expressed lots of support, saying it’s fantastic that we are organising something like this. It makes them feel less isolated.

Anyone wanting to participate in the Skools Out float should contact Margaret Kaye at the ADB on 9268 5524.

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