On 2 May, PR consultant Ben Grubb, along with a few celebrity signatories such as Troye Sivan and Missy Higgins, launched a public petition to get an ‘LGBTI focused anti-bullying program’ nationally funded by Malcolm Turnbull’s Coalition government. It was billed as ‘Safe Schools 2.0 – without the ideology’ and was from the outset a spectacular misfire that didn’t stir a single hair on a bigot’s head while managing to wound the very people it aimed to defend. The backlash was so swift that the organiser retracted it the very next day, issuing an apology.
Many fixated on use of the word ‘tolerance’ instead of ‘acceptance’, rightly excoriating it as an ugly motion of deference to bigotry. You can tolerate a bad smell, for example, but you won’t accept it. This is not a message we want to be sending to kids. Many spoke as well on the disrespect that the ill-thought out campaign showed to trans and intersex people by seemingly accepting the far right’s characterisation of gender fluidity as a politically-motivated belief, or as they would put it, a taught evil.
The campaign letter stated:
We understand and accept that programs implemented in recent history, such as Safe Schools, have become highly politicised and controversial. We wish not for controversy but for a program with a goal that everyone can agree on: an end to bullying and domestic violence in Australia.
The word I fixated on in all this wasn’t tolerance, it was politicised. It was used again in the apology, where Grubb says his aim was to ‘depoliticise’ the issue, which makes no sense whatsoever. It is easy to say that everything is political – because it is – but it also makes no sense to describe as depoliticised your public letter to politicians. This is essentially a meaningless word, except that it falsely indicates that someone, typically the victim, is to blame for making a non-issue newsworthy or by otherwise co-opting its intent. We saw this with Yassmin Abdel-Magied recently. To be accused of ‘politicising’ the already political is actually code for grandstanding. And when lives are at stake, as they are in both of these examples, it is a deeply dismissive and condescending word.
Who is it that has made queerness or transsexual people political and ‘controversial’ if not lawmakers themselves, implementing unequal and discriminatory laws? Whose work is it except that of conservative politicians like Queensland MP George Christensen, who compared the Safe Schools program to paedophilia, saying: ‘Parents would probably call the police because it would sound a lot like grooming work.’ Our bodies are inherently political, subject to laws, made the butt of jokes, erased from history, omitted or degraded or caricatured in culture. It is absolutely natural for anyone who is targeted in this way to seek to change those laws and policies, to be actively ‘political’, as opposed to passively.
This isn’t to demonise Ben Grubb, who though flawed, I’d still prefer a million of compared to the likes of Christensen, but simply to make the point that we cannot cede to the language and characterisation of the far right. We are political, and that’s our right. On a similar level, we ought not to passively accept the notion that so helped to smear the Safe School campaign, which is that it was ‘ideological’ in nature and therefore to be kept away from our kids. Truly, no one has mastered the art of turning innocuous words into something ominous like bigots have.
Bigotry being, of course, ideological in nature – it is both a set of beliefs, and a learned behaviour. Kids pick it up at home, and are informed by gendered, sexual, and racial ideas embedded in our cultural output. It is a lazy mistake to say a program teaching students about queerness, identity and gender is ideology which children should be protected from when, in reality, they are exposed to our ideological practices and leanings every day. If the TV, movies, books and music they see predominantly feature cis heterosexual Anglo people who behave in so-called ‘traditional’ fashions, this undoubtedly impacts on their beliefs, on what they find valuable and familiar.
As a bisexual man who grew up in a double bind of culturally toxic hetero masculinity – Arab and Australian – and came out of it still wanting to suck dick, allow me to assure you that what you are taught is not enough to fundamentally change who you are. It can, however, make you hate yourself. It can teach you that you deserve that hate, and to be ashamed, and to internalise that violence. Which is why the rate of suicide is so high for queer youth, particularly for indigenous kids, for people of colour and trans kids. It’s why Safe Schools is so important: hate and shame can be unlearned, the cycle of violence and silence can be broken.
So we should speak up then, and we should not let the right wing shame us for doing so with words like ‘politicised’ and ‘controversial’. And we should never, ever settle for less, because there is too much at stake. The language we use frames not just the dominant narratives of the day, but also how we see ourselves, and how we are seen. Let this be a reminder then, we have a mantra for a reason, and it is unchanged: we are here, we are queer, we are proud.