In 1976, Greg Weir was told by the Queensland government he couldn’t teach in Queensland schools. He was a qualified teacher, but also the spokesperson for his local Homosexual and Lesbian Group. As Val Bird, then Queensland’s Minister for Education, explained in parliament, ‘student teachers who participate in homosexual and lesbian groups should not assume they would be employed by the Education Department on graduation’. Weir’s case was taken up by the Australian Union of Students (a precursor to today’s National Union of Students). As historian Clive Moore describes, Weir ‘became a catalyst in developing awareness of gay and lesbian issues all over Australia’. Weir later led a fight to win anti-discrimination legislation designed to protect LGBTIQ teachers in public schools.
If Weir were entering the workforce today, he would be doing so in a climate where Prime Minister Scott Morrison has condemned ‘gender whisperers’ in schools, urging that we ‘let kids be kids’. Morrison’s comments, referring to teachers trained to identify and help transgender students in schools, tapped into the same moral panic propagated through the Safe Schools scandal in 2016.
Now, the battle around gender and sexuality at school has intensified with the leak of the Religious Freedom Review proposals.
But the debate hasn’t quite gone as the homophobes and transphobes may have hoped. It has quickly become clear that the idea of expelling gay students is publicly unpopular and unpalatable to a majority of the population. Morrison is facing a day of reckoning in the Wentworth by-election, a seat that recorded a Yes vote of 80.8 per cent in the marriage equality survey.
The debate has quickly turned into pressure to change existing laws in all states and territories – except Queensland, Tasmania, and the Northern Territory – that already allow non-government schools to discriminate against students. In every state and territory except Tasmania, teachers can be discriminated against.
At first, the outrage was focused on the review’s recommendation that schools be allowed to expel ‘gay’ children (with lesbian, bisexual, transgender, intersex, and queer children conspicuously missing from this language). The ‘Ruddock Review’ recommends enshrining the ability for schools to discriminate federally, which would override states that currently have greater protections in place, effectively working to cement the right to discrimination. As Rodney Croome writes, LGBTIQ teachers and students lucky enough to live in states with greater anti-discrimination protections would see those eroded if these changes were ever adopted.
Yet, as public opinion swings behind LGBTIQ students and teachers, Morrison is trying to end the debate by promising a slight change to the existing law that would prevent gay students being expelled. Labor initially supported this change, but did not support changing the law for teachers – however, as we go to press, Labor has promised to change the law allowing teachers to be ‘sacked or refused employment because of their sexual orientation’.
There are many unanswered questions about how much protection will be offered by amending existing exemptions, and whether these protections extend to gender diversity as well as sexuality.
There is quite clearly an opportunity to push for an end to the exemptions in toto – to make sure all LGBTIQ students and teachers are covered by anti-discrimination law in all cases of discrimination. And there is also an opportunity for the LGBTIQ movement to go on the offensive, and to draw attention to the elephant in the room: the Safe Schools program.
Part of what underlies this debate is that the Yes campaign for marriage equality in 2017, in its most formal organised form (under the banner The Equality Campaign), emphasised LGBTIQ equality in private family life, rather than broader public life. The campaign quite explicitly decided not to defend Safe Schools, gender diversity, or to confront the homophobia and transphobia stirred up by the No campaign. As one highly circulated GetUp! advertisement stated, ‘Marriage equality is not linked to the curriculum. Kids learn their values at home, from their parents.’ Indeed, the organised Yes campaign spent much of the postal survey reassuring the public that marriage equality would not lead to more LGBTIQ-positive schooling.
While the No campaign evoked the ghostly figure of Safe Schools by offering such warnings as ‘Kids in year seven are being asked to role-play being in a same sex relationship’, the Yes campaign refused to engage. This left space open for attacks around schooling: in his first days in government, Morrison told Alan Jones that the Building Respectful Relationships Victorian school program makes his ‘skin curl’ because it involves ‘role playing’ people in same-sex relationships.
Now, we can see that this strategy was based on the mistaken assumption that extending LGBTIQ rights into school playgrounds was not going to be a popular move. It was also tied up with an assumption that marriage equality was the last major legislative hurdle in the campaign for equal rights. Not only did such a view ignore the significant obstacles still faced by trans and non-binary people in the legal and medical systems, it quite clearly ignored the discrimination faced by LGBTIQ students and teachers in non-state schools that is now, belatedly, on the radar.
Fear campaigns around teachers, young people, gender and sexuality have a long history in Australian politics. In 1978, when Whitlam’s Royal Commission on Human Relationships recommended the decriminalisation of homosexuality, Fred Nile commented:
It is a blot on society the discredited ‘Royal’ Commission on Human Relationships has recommended that homosexuality (sodomy) be legalised and that homosexuality (sodomy) be taught in our state schools by selected homosexuals!
At the time, ‘selected homosexuals’ in the Gay and Lesbian Teachers and Students Group created and distributed a booklet for Victorian schools titled Young, Gay and Proud. The booklet presented a positive view of gays and lesbians, encouraged young people to come out to trusted friends, and included information about sex. Much like the Safe Schools material used decades later, Young, Gay and Proud was controversial. Christian groups and conservative politicians campaigned against the booklet and it was essentially exorcised from classrooms. The Victorian education minister at the time told secondary school principals they must ensure that ‘books seeking to foster homosexual behaviour are not available to children with[in] the school library’.
Just as George Christensen linked Safe Schools to paedophilia in 2016, homophobic bigots in Australia have, historically, linked LGBTIQ teachers and gender and sexuality school programs to threats to children. In 1980 a group called the Concerned Parents Association (CPA) claimed, in a pamphlet entitled ‘They’ve Got Your Kids’, that teachers were introducing students to ‘homosexuality, incest, bestiality, paedophilia’. Another group, the Committee to Raise Education Standards claimed, in their 1982 pamphlet ‘The Continuing Homosexual Offensive. Next target: Anti-discrimination’, that decriminalisation of homosexuality and anti-discrimination laws would frighteningly lead to validating LGBTIQ lifestyles and would create greater numbers of LGBTIQ people.
As historian Stephen Angelides has noted, when anti-discrimination laws were first introduced in Australia, homophobic pushback often involved insinuations that such laws would lead to children being ‘recruited’ into the ‘homosexual lifestyle’. Morrison’s talk of ‘gender whisperers’ evokes a similar fear of children being recruited into a ‘trans lifestyle’. These notions of the dangerous adult who teaches children about gender and sexuality have been a defining feature of Australian anti-LGBTIQ bigotry.
It is this same bigotry – shrouded in the same moralism – that drives the desire of some on the right to cement the ability for schools to discriminate today. We now have an opportunity to deal that bigotry a big blow. Our response must be clear: let LGBTIQ kids be LGBTIQ kids, and long live the gender whisperers.