THE Federal Government’s recent Review of the Australian Curriculum appropriately acknowledges the “serious crisis — including youth suicides — occurring in Australian society… as a result of a lack of forums and spaces where young people can discuss… issues including sexuality”, but fails to take sufficient measures to support some of the most vulnerable students.
LGBTI young people continue to face rates of suicide and depression far higher than their peers. The 2010 national study Writing Themselves In 3 highlights the high rates of verbal and physical abuse which LGBTI young people continue to experience, the strong correlation between such abuse and instances of suicide or self-harm, and the fact that 80 per cent of young people who have experienced abuse cite school as a site where the abuse has taken place.
While a statement in the latest draft of the Health and Physical Education curriculum acknowledging the needs of same-sex attracted and gender diverse students is welcome, a recommendation in the report that “schools should be given greater flexibility to determine the level at which [the areas of sexuality and drug education] are introduced, and the modalities in which they will be delivered” is concerning.
The report acknowledges that “some submissions were completely opposed to the inclusion of any sexuality education at all in the curriculum, and one jurisdiction said it would refuse to implement the content in sexual education”.
Taken as a whole, the inclusion of appropriate material in addressing homophobia and transphobia is, at best, subject to the whims of individual jurisdictions, and at worst, entirely optional.
There are two competing sets of rights at play — the rights of schools to teach according to their values (religious or otherwise), and the right of (often vulnerable) young people to be free from discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity or intersex status. Both deserve consideration, and the report acknowledges the difficulty many teachers have in addressing issues of sexuality, more so when that sexuality is non-traditional.
Yet the cost of prevarication on the part of schools and teachers can be counted — to be blunt — in the lives of the young people we have lost, and will continue to lose, while we wait for stronger action.
We must, and can, do better.
The situation is complicated by laws — both state and federal — which exempt religious educational institutions from anti-discrimination laws that would otherwise protect LGBT people, provided their conduct “conforms to the doctrines, tenets of beliefs of that religion or is necessary to avoid injury to the religious susceptibilities of the adherents of that religion”. (This is Section 37(1)(d) of the federal Sex Discrimination Act 1984. The law is similar in many states in Australia. Interestingly, religious exceptions in federal law do not apply to intersex people.)
Religious schools remain free to discriminate against, or expel, LGBT students. This is no longer appropriate.
If it is true, as sometimes claimed, that such powers are used rarely and with sensitivity, this begs the question as to why they need to exist in the first place. Moreover, the negative impact of homophobia and transphobia on young people is not always experienced through direct acts of intolerance from authority, but often through silence and invisibility which result from exposure to a school environment — and a legal system — in which it is acceptable to ignore them.
It is no radical suggestion to ask that these laws be changed. Indeed, religious exemptions are far narrower and more appropriate in countries like the UK and New Zealand (under conservative governments, it should be noted), as well as in Tasmania.
When historic anti-discrimination protections on the grounds of sexual orientation, gender identity and intersex status passed Federal Parliament in 2013, the one area removed from the ambit of religious exemptions was the provision of Commonwealth-funded aged care services. It was held that vulnerable elderly people should have the right to be free from discrimination, regardless of the aged care services they used.
If we can protect our elderly, we can also protect our youth.
Despite these challenges, there is good news too. The establishment of the Safe Schools Coalition Australia through the Foundation of Young Australians has seen 200 schools (and growing) across the country commit to providing a safe, supportive learning environment for LGBTI young people.
Access to supportive schooling should not be selective. The Review of the Australian Curriculum says that “all Australian students deserve access to a world-class curriculum that encourages diversity”. Indeed, and the emphasis is on all.
Every student counts.
Justin Koonin is the convenor of the NSW Gay and Lesbian Rights Lobby. Visit: glrl.org.au
**This article was first published in the January edition of the Star Observer, which is available to read in digital flip-book format. To obtain a hard copy, click here to find out where you can grab one in Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane, Adelaide, Canberra and select regional/coastal areas.