The vitriol against the Safe Schools program reflects state-sanctioned homophobia

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Moo Baulch

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Christensen: Safe Schools like child grooming

Detailing links to online sex sites and clubs, Nationals MP George Christensen questions the Safe Schools program in Parliament.

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This week we've witnessed the Sydney Morning Herald's formal apology to the original Mardi Gras activists, known affectionately as the 78-ers. Back in 1978 following a Taylor Square rally and protest march calling for the decriminalisation of homosexuality, the Herald published the names, addresses and occupations of 104 activists who faced charges. Undoubtedly, the implications of the decision to publish those identifying details would have reverberated throughout the lives of many of the 78-ers. June 14 1978 must have been a sliding door moment for many family relationships, careers and lifepaths.

On Thursday, NSW Parliament issued its own apology supported by both sides of the house acknowledging "that the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras has as its foundation… violence and struggles". There were tears of joy in the public gallery and it's undoubtedly an opportunity for us to celebrate "the gayest Parliament in Australia" as Alex Greenwich called it. I picture multiple Mardi Gras float entries frantically incorporating references to this week's historic sorries in time for the parade in just over a week. There is much to celebrate.

But there's a sense of fear and dismay in LGBTIQ communities across the country this week too. In the very same week that formal apologies are being tabled and celebrated in NSW, federal parliament has sent out a very different message to young LGBTIQ people about the acceptance and celebration of diverse sexualities, genders and intersex.

The head of Domestic Violence NSW, Moo Baulch.

The head of Domestic Violence NSW, Moo Baulch. Photo: Peter Rae PMR

The Safe Schools Coalition has been in the public firing line, with Coalition MP George Christensen being the latest conservative politician attempting to discredit the program, bizarrely likening the anti-bullying initiative to grooming undertaken by sexual predators. 

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This follows Cory Bernadi's  vitriolic hate speech on Thursday, causing  PM Malcolm Turnbull to crumble under pressure from the extreme right and to order a review of the Safe Schools program.

Apparently permutations of homophobia are worthy of a government apology, while others are state sanctioned and sponsored.

Nationals MP George Christensen

Nationals MP George Christensen Photo: Alex Ellinghausen

At this point, I must declare I have some personal experience in these matters. I was born in the early 70s in London; I'm a Thatcher baby. I spent my formative years in a small Cornish seaside town where there were no (out) gays in the village and everyone's mum knew what you were up to on the weekend.

I knew I was different from other kids from about the age of 8. By the time I was 13, I was dabbling in drugs, suicidal thoughts and risky behaviour just as many young LGBTIQ kids do when they lack positive role models or normalising points of reference for healthy relationships. Sex and sexuality weren't taught well in English schools or talked about in those days. I'd seen plenty of drag queens and extremely camp men celebrated on mainstream television but gender diversity, intersex or any sexuality other than hetero was not on my radar.

In the late 80s in England, a thing called Section 28 began to rear its ugly homophobic head. S28 was an amendment to the local government act that stated that, "a local authority 'shall not intentionally promote homosexuality or publish material with the intention of promoting homosexuality' or 'promote the teaching in any maintained school of the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship".

S28 was hot in conservative circles at the height of the AIDS crisis in Britain. It was a knee jerk reaction by a strange coalition of fundamentalists who loudly objected to gay-friendly literature being available in school libraries – one particular example was a picture book depicting a girl who lived with her dad and his male partner. I remember seeking out the book and reading it years later. There was no nudity, no promotion of a lifestyle and certainly nothing sexy about it. It was two blokes and their kid having such subversive experiences as washing the clothes at the local launderette. Conservatives were outraged by the availability of the book in schools and insisted that it was part of a big gay conspiracy to convert the kids.

It reminds me very much of the propaganda we've heard about Safe School's work this week. Bernadi and his Australian Christian Lobby mates claim that Safe Schools is converting kids by promoting a lifestyle and "bullying children into complying with a radical program". Nothing could be farther from the truth.

Parents, teachers and anyone who has had anything to do with the development of the program knows that Safe Schools promote messages of tolerance of diversity, celebration of difference and acceptance of gender and sexuality for young people. In the last few weeks Safe Schools staff have been the target of hate mail and violent threats. This in a country that proudly calls itself secular, multicultural and a bastion of human rights.

Hate speech is not acceptable anywhere – in our schools, parliaments or communities. We have strong evidence showing that our young LGBTIQ people are increasingly exposed to horrific violence in their homes and schools and that they are targeted because of their difference. We also know that those experiences impact on young people's ability to form healthy adult relationships and make safe choices. Gay men and lesbians experience violence in intimate partnerships at similar rates to cisgender heterosexual women, for trans and intersex people international research suggests the rates are even higher.

I've been at the inaugural Australian National Research Organisation on Women's Safety conference in Melbourne while the hysteria about Safe Schools has been playing out in the media. Less than six months ago, I was over the moon that we had a new Prime Minister who identified disrespect and inequality as being at core of violence-supportive attitudes to women and girls and was willing to call it. It feels as if we are far from that public articulation now. Sadly we should probably brace ourselves for more of this state sanctioned hate speech in the lead up to any plebiscite or vote in Canberra.

Surely it's time we stopped worrying about whether two people who love each other should be able to marry and had a more sophisticated conversation about tackling the roots of violence, aggression, bullying and discrimination in our schools, families, communities and public institutions? The 78-ers fought for our right to love four decades ago.

Our young people must be pretty confused this week.

Moo Baulch is the CEO of Domestic Violence NSW.