Asian Australians against Safe Schools: a response

Last week, a petition was tabled in New South Wales Parliament calling for the Safe Schools program to be scrapped. It was presented by the Chinese-Australian community and contained over 17,000 signatures. Its main points of contention were that

Safe Schools contains resources that promotes a particular ideology, including gender fluidity, that is contrary to our cultural and belief system, and discriminates against children and parents from other cultures who have a view of sexual relationships involving male and female as normative, due to their families’ cultural and religious belief system.

The petition was lodged by Damien Tudehope, the Liberal member for Epping, who said that he ‘represented one of the most multicultural electorates in Sydney’. The following day the Australian ran a story reporting that similar sentiments were being expressed by the Indian and Chinese communities in Victoria.

In the Australian Parliamentary process, a petition that garners more than 10,000 signatures must be discussed – and this petition should not be an exception. That there are groups of people in Australia (including some from Asian cultural backgrounds) who hold homophobic beliefs cannot be ignored or dismissed. But also concerning is the way in which conservative politicians have used cultural groups, particularly of Asian heritage, as a line of defence in their attack on the Safe Schools program and in the discourse around LGBTI rights.

This is not the first time ‘Asian culture’ has been used as an excuse for the Liberal government’s hostility to LGBTI communities. Last year, in the wake of the successful Irish referendum on marriage equality and amidst critique that Australia was lagging behind the US and New Zealand in this area, Senator Eric Abetz cited the Asian Century and the absence of same-sex marriage legislation in Asian countries as a reason to not legalise marriage equality. During the recent federal election, Labor’s loss in Chisholm was partially attributed to a Liberal social media campaign on WeChat targeted at Chinese-Australians, which raised concerns over Safe Schools and same-sex marriage.

While the views of different cultural groups (respectfully expressed) should certainly be acknowledged, the government is hardly acting in the interests of Australia’s Asian communities.

The government and media portrayal of isolated instances of anti-LGBTI sentiment as representative of the entire Chinese or Indian cultural demographics in Australia is harmful. It reduces the myriad of individuals within a culture into a single demographic marker and ignores the complexity, diversity and nuance of views held within these communities. Now, it is not necessarily the government’s fault if a petition comes from people who validly assert themselves as the Chinese-Australian community. But the reluctance to look deeper and the quick acceptance of these expressions without further community survey points to political opportunism, and suggests a lack of recognition of Asian-Australians as diverse individuals with varying beliefs rather than a monolithic body.

Furthermore, this homogeneous gaze is an insult to the LGBTI members of these communities: people who campaign for their rights, and suffer doubly from discrimination due to race and sexuality. If conservative politicians truly had the interests of Asian-Australians at the fore, they would see it is LGBTI youth from these communities who would arguably benefit the most from the Safe Schools program. Access to mental health and wellbeing support services can be particularly difficult for newer migrants or those from non-English speaking backgrounds due to language barriers, a lack of awareness of such services, or cultural taboos when it comes to mental health. Safe Schools would do much in terms of providing accessible support for LGBTI youth from migrant communities.

The government’s quick and heavy-handed deference to ‘Asian values’ is equally problematic: it suggests that Asian cultures exist in a vacuum and are perpetually fixed. This view is reminiscent of racist Primitivist and Orientalist rhetoric that reduced the non-Western ‘Other’ to a timeless culture that existed in a separate untouched realm from the progress and cultural dialogues of the West. In a multicultural society such as Australia’s, it needs to be recognised that cultural exchange is constantly occurring. People both shape and are shaped by the cultures around them. This is not to say that certain beliefs should be patronisingly imposed upon others; but that instead of viewing the intolerance of sexual and gender diversity in various cultural communities as boundaries for Australia’s laws, politicians need to consider that perhaps the homophobia in these communities are influenced and further perpetuated by the homophobia that exists in Australia more broadly. After all, if we legally do not recognise the right of same sex couples to marry, why would we expect cultural minorities to hold views contrary to our laws?

Indeed, the suggestion that the government is protecting the interests of multicultural communities proves contradictory when viewed in a broader context. In this instance, the views of the Chinese and Indian communities have been used as a show of support, yet the perceived anti-LGBTI sentiment within other cultural groups, such as from Muslim communities, have been used by conservative politicians to justify racism and discrimination. Those on the Right constantly posit Islam in contrast to the liberal democratic values of the West, and have cited homophobia as one of the justifications for their anti-Muslim immigration platform. It’s not difficult to imagine how an anti-Safe Schools petition from a Muslim community would be received in the current climate. These contradictory responses suggest that these politicians are not really interested in the values of diverse cultures but are using select cultural communities as excuses for perpetuating their own bigotry and homophobia.

Interestingly, the fact that the homophobia from Chinese and Indian communities seems to be acceptable and even palatable holds revealing implications of how different cultural minorities are viewed. In this case, it’s hard to ignore the stereotype of the model minority at play, where Chinese-Australians are perceived as an ideal cultural minority who can be called upon when reinforcements are necessary, but are non-threatening and whose voices are largely excluded from Parliament. As the persisting arguments over 18c of the Racial Discrimination Act indicate, Asian-Australian voices are only important when they’re relevant to the Right, and quickly discarded when inconvenient.


Image: Chinese miner in traditional clothing, ca. 1900, Queensland’/Flickr


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Ella Shi

Ella Shi is a Melbourne-based community organiser and campaigner with a background in art history.

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  1. I hope you continue to write more about Asian Australians, past, present and future, whether it be historical, political, creative, whatever. Best of luck to you. Thanks.

  2. It is deceitful for some people to gather a group of people or a group of signatures and pretend that such is the view of a community!

    I had raised such a point in my book “Out of Bounds: Journey of a migrant” (p211) published in 2010. I further pointed out, “…nevertheless, such deception could be persuasive to a gullible observer or to a nervous decision maker.” – it is dangerous and unfair!

  3. This is a very thoughtful response to the petition on Safe Schools, but I would respectfully suggest that reducing “LGBTI communities” to sexuality and gender is similarly inappropriate to the reduction of Asian and Indian communities.

    Specifically, intersex people are often heterosexual and often identify with sex assigned at birth. There’s some good material at, and also in this UN fact sheet.

    1. Thank you so much for bringing this to my attention. It’s definitely something I will give more thought to in the future. I will check out the resources you’ve mentioned.

  4. Great analysis, thank you. Who gets to speak on behalf of ‘the Chinese-Australian community’? Does such a singular entity exist anyway?

  5. The anti-homogeneity line of argument is fruitful, yet ripe for hypocrisy. It’s hard to engage in any form of identity politics without falling into that trap. I don’t disagree with the article’s conclusions, just pointing out that there’s a performative contradiction issue inherent in the analysis of stereotyping.

  6. I don’t believe that there was any mention of homophobia in their original petition. It’s what you are reading into it.
    They indicated that the SafeSchool policy should scrap material that is culturally sensitive, or it should not be distributed to their children. Indians and Chinese have been mentioned, let me assure that their children are usually quite respectful.

    If being a Fair Australian means get rid of rules and principles in any cultural or ethnic organization or school or community in a country raised initially with “love thy neighbour as yourself” policy, just to push an agenda for a minority with a raucous voice of belligerence, then we are at risk of the same imbalance -when the quiet ones are bullied into submission to erode their cultural values,heritage and diversity.
    Please allow all extremism to fade away, create mutual respect for everyone by being considerate to our neighbour and respect their beliefs too. I would recommend not bagging them with your own rhetoric.

  7. I agree with the key premise re the opportunism and selectivity involved in the very public focus on (the perceived)’Asian’ support against the Safe Schools project. But the rhetoric involved in (what arguably constitutes much of) political discourse is frequently opportunistic and selective. That is nothing new. There does, however, appear to be some generalisation in the author’s own objections: the terms ‘the Chinese-Australian community’, and ‘our cultural and belief system’ seem to refer to monolithic conceptions. Would it not be more accurate to speak of representatives from Australia’s Chinese communities?

    1. Hi Grace,

      If you’re referring to the opening paragraph, that was the wording of the petition itself (the fact that it’s a quote may have been lost in the formatting).

  8. Well now the very concept or principles of democracy come into question.
    Who is a representative of a community? The largest numbers of the community vs the proponents of the real culture. Or do we need to be represented by a different “club” of modern vs traditional?
    Numbers are used to vote. If there’s a larger number to support a perspective and they belong to The Chinese then they represent them. However if ethnic Chinese are traditional thinkers then there exists a segregated modern Chinese subset within the larger Chinese community . Now it’snt about fair go democracy but now plain statistics. Which is a whole big subject of”Who are the real Representatives”?
    So the article rather ‘attacks’ “representation” and not the actual topic of discussion, which is based on a”difference of opinion or perception”.
    The real topic I feel is expression of different opinions respectfully, without calling names and disrespect.
    No bias, no baggage no rhetoric nor bullying into submission. Proponents of conflict resolution recommend “win/win” outcome after polite discourse and mutual respect as the best solution for progress and unity.

    As every organization knows there are always multiple sides to a conflict. As any authorising body knows, there are always representatives of “Save the trees” culture vs “Get rid of the scuffed furniture” culture. The builders vs the destroyers. Forgiver vs attackers. Always have different convictions.
    Cultures are based on traditions faiths and religions, which are based on their principles. If a person wants his own convictions instead of the understood principles of a Culture or a Religion, then it is a sect (which creates its own rules based on their own conviction). But for a country whose principles are ‘a fairness’ and compassion, giving everyone a fair go requires “basic understanding” of the other side and respecting their ‘different’ rights and allowing them to express it. Their different right requires a different law giving different rights not modify existing Laws. That would be a good ‘win/win’. Call a spade a spade and not a rake.

    In an Australian family I would see the parents leading the children. The old leading the young. The traditional leading the modern. When the young become older, they become the traditional to their children. And life goes on. But they call themselves a family, living with forbearance. Coping with the differences.
    If SafeSchools are ‘creating a new homogenized culture of modernist thought’ without permission from parents who are paying the bills, there is definitely their voice to consider. They are also representatives of their own families concerned for their children. If there’s a legal age when children turn to adults that is when sexuality and maturity occurs. Hold on, is that true? There are now complaints from scientists that not everyone matures at the legal age……and sigh! there are opinions and differences and yet another conflict.
    Schools will never find opposition if they stick within their area of teaching mutual respect and taking time to understand, and living in peace.
    Don’t focus on the negatives focus on the positives. …. Whatever is pure, whatever is holy whatever is good dwell on those things.
    I consider myself an Australian if I show that ‘love thy neighbour’ respect to my neighbour and live at peace and harmony with all – do you?

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