Bully for you, Piers Akerman

Along with thousands of other Melburnians, I attended a rally for marriage equality two Saturdays ago. Like many other people, including Rowena Allen, Victoria’s Gender and Sexuality Commissioner, I was there with my family. On an ordinary Melbourne day we caught an ordinary Melbourne tram and had ordinary Melbourne dumplings for lunch before strolling through the city with some friends.

I am a suburban high school teacher but I like to think I’m not too ordinary, and I don’t think my daughter and my partner are cookie-cutter types. But we are in many ways a typical family, and we are part of the growing number of rainbow families blooming in Australia. On the tram into the city we could have been any family going anywhere – except for the handmade sign our daughter was holding. She coloured in rainbow texta herself and wrote in her best grade two efforts. It read: let my mums get married.

As has been made clear this week, the existence of queer parents is inextricably tied to the marriage equality debate in this country. Conservative columnist Piers Akerman latched onto this with a spectacular lack of tact when he pilloried a 12-year-old girl, calling her ‘not normal’, in the Daily Telegraph. Akerman was ostensibly reacting to the proposed screening of the PG-rated, much-anticipated documentary Gayby Baby at Burwood Girls High in Sydney. What Akerman biliously claimed – that parents were having their rights trounced by the school’s decision to screen the film – has since proved to be spurious. As reported by the Guardian, Burwood Girls High never received any parental complaints, because the parents were happy for their children to view the documentary. Unfortunately, what could have remained a mismatch between media reporting and educational practice became a feature of policy when the NSW education minister Adrian Piccoli weighed in, declaring that ‘during school hours we expect them to be doing maths and English and curriculum matters … this movie is not part of the curriculum’. In an extraordinary move, the minister interfered with the day-to-day educational programming of schools with a summary ban on the screening of the film during class time.

There is no doubt that Piccoli’s move – which has been backed by Premier Mike Baird (who nonetheless ‘supports tolerance’) – was a political decision made to appease the Christian right and others who fear that making queer families visible amounts to pushing the pink sparkly Gay Agenda wheelbarrow. It was certainly not a pedagogical decision. In fact, Gayby Baby is a documentary film which is being offered to schools precisely because it meets a range of curriculum outcomes. It was one of the films offered in this month’s Melbourne International Film Festival Schools Program, in part because of its applicability to the national curriculum, particularly in English, health and physical education, and media studies. An education pack for schools and teachers is in development. Furthermore, the screening aligns with the Safe Schools Coalition, an evidence-based and Victorian government-funded program that is in the process of being rolled out nationally. As such, the film is hardly valueless as a classroom resource.

What has also been overlooked by the NSW government in their rush to appear to be in favour of education rigour over perceived social agendas is that the proposed screenings of this film have been organised around Australia by student groups and the dedicated teachers who support them. Student-run diversity alliance groups are present in many schools in 2015, and it is these groups, along with school leadership, who have organised to participate in Wear It Purple Day, this Friday 28 August. Dictating how and when these events can run is a direct impingement on the autonomy of student-led groups and, indeed, of schools themselves.

Education professionals – that is, teachers, school management, and curriculum developers – are the rightful decision-makers when it comes to choosing how class time is best spent. Controversies over school texts and activities played out in the tabloid press don’t have pedagogical knowledge and experience behind them. It is, therefore, blatant ideological posturing for an education minister to side with portions of the media over the decisions of individual school leaders and teachers, particularly when this belies an obvious ignorance of the national curriculum.

Schools that have taken the decision to show the age-appropriate documentary Gayby Baby as part of their program have done so for sound reasons. Such decisions involve planning and care, and the expertise of teachers – the same expertise that is behind the promotion of Book Week activities or anti-bullying workshops or author talks or sports carnivals and any of the hundreds of co-curricular programs and events run in schools each year. None of these deserves to crumple under the shrill protest of a few detractors. If the education minister decided to restrict an extension class to reading On the Origin of Species outside of school time because some commentators thought it pushed an anti-Christian agenda, there would be rightful outrage. This is a similar capitulation to the views of a few at the cost of educationally sound decision-making.

It is this bowing under the so-called pressure of a few complaints that makes me fear the consequences of a plebiscite for the Australian LGBT community. Right-wing commentators and politicians trying to ingratiate themselves with talkback audiences shouldn’t be making pedagogical decisions. And what’s more, these same people shouldn’t be making legislative decisions.

The evidence is already in: not only do the majority of Australians support marriage equality, but research consistently shows that loving same-sex parents are as effective, or more effective, than heterosexual parents. We know what the positive story is. We also know the negative story: research shows that young queer Australians are six times more likely to try to take their own lives. Continued stigmatisation of LGBT people is life threatening, and it’s inexcusable.

The appropriate course of action is now legislation to clear the way for marriage equality. The High Court has decreed that this is a matter for parliament. Resorting to a glorified poll will simply wrest the responsibility from where it rightly lies and give voice to whoever is loudest. I fear that Akerman and his ilk will fill our media with exactly the kind of stigmatising rubbish that Australian schools are trying to combat through initiatives like Wear it Purple Day and Gayby Baby screenings.

The fight for marriage equality is about asking for same-sex relationships to enter fully into the public sphere. The time for grudgingly tolerating what happens behind closed doors is past. Australian children of queer parents, and indeed queer Australian children, are long overdue entry into the equal status now enjoyed by their peers in over twenty other nations.

Dictating that school students only be shown a documentary about children growing up in rainbow families after school amounts to saying that acknowledging the existence of such families is optional and extra-curricular. It sends the same message as delaying marriage equality: you can be LGBT, but only on the fringes. Full social acceptance is not on the curriculum. Neither of these outcomes is satisfactory.

Ultimately, neither the NSW or federal governments support my daughter’s (or all children’s) right to live free from bullying and stigmatisation – and that’s a fail from me.


Elizabeth Sutherland

Elizabeth Sutherland is a teacher and writer. She lives with her daughter and wife-in-waiting in Melbourne.

More by Elizabeth Sutherland ›

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate.

Related articles & Essays

Contribute to the conversation

  1. I’m a high school teacher too, and one of the most offensive things I hear children call things they don’t like is ‘gay’. They know not to use racist taunts, but homophobic ones are still seen as fine by many students. I chewed out a year seven class for using ‘gay’ as a derogatory term only yesterday, explaining that sexuality whether gay or straight isn’t good or bad it just is.
    When the Education Minister and the Premier capitulate to a vocal minority it really makes the job of teachers who have to consider the rights of all students, not just the straight students so much harder. What this says to LGBT students is, be gay, but leave it at the school gates, meanwhile your straight classmates are not only not told the same thing, they are free to explore their relationships with no government sanction or hysteria. What a way to remind LGBT students that they are not normal.
    Surely this film would fit well into the health curriculum under sex and relationships?

    1. ” What a way to remind LGBT students that they are not normal.”

      Sorry this sentence should read
      What a way to remind LGBT students that they are not “normal”.

  2. Funny how the one, at the time, seemingly controversial representation, usually filmic, gets seized upon in such situations as this, and therafter the wonder is what was that all about? (Plug: Tom Tilley on Hack gave this contretemps a good clear airing, in his usual infussed fearless manner.)

  3. I shouldn’t wade into this because i know what will come back at me! Elizabeth, its an interesting article you write but I shudder when i read “same sex parents are as effective or more effective than hetero parents” and then follow up with “majority of Australians support..’ and finally your comments on right wing commentators and politicians. Can anyone believe anymore that it is possible for a lot of people to have NO view on this whole debate. Yes, that’s right. I go to bed at night and think nothing at all about same sex marriage. And believe it or not 99% of the people i work with, play sport with, and associate with are the same. The only people jumping up and down about this topic are the Left and the Right – and both accuse each other of having the numbers and having the great mass of australia beghind them. Do not assume what’s written on twitter and seen on ABC represents Australias view of the world. Do something different, show respect to those who disagree with you, no matter how right wing you believe they are – follow Nelson Mandells’s example rather than Mark Latham’s!

    1. Chris, you have every right to “not care or not think” about the issue of gender equality. Many, many ‘out there’, don’t care. This is obvious because discrimination and abuse continue – to many thousands of people around the world. Sadly, if we don’t say “stop the abuse, stop the negative messages, it is every person’s right to be ‘who they really are’ …..”, then we are adding to that person’s misery! As long as you understand that, Chris, you are tacitly agreeing to that misery.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *