Safe Schools: My school life would have been so different if I was told it was okay to be gay.

 After pressure from his conservative and far-right colleagues, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has launched a Parliamentary Inquiry into the Safe Schools Programme – a voluntary scheme that educates children in late primary and high school about homosexuality, trans-sexuality and gender diversity.

Toby Halligan writes for Mamamia about what school was like for him as a young man discovering his sexuality – and how a program like Safe Schools saves lives.

Watch below to see what the Safe Schools Programme is all about. Post continues after video…

Being a kid can be really hard at the best of times. Being a gay or trans or inter-sex kid though, is an entirely different experience. You almost never see yourself reflected in the world. You don’t turn up in cartoons. You don’t turn up in most stories you’re regularly exposed to. You rarely see yourself reflected in TV shows. Unless you have gay parents or your parents have a large number of gay friends, you may never meet an openly gay person until you’re much older. Which means that the possibility that you MIGHT be gay may not even occur to you.

I know that things have changed since the mid-80s but that’s what happened to me. My parents were lovely, caring people, quite open-minded, and growing up in the suburbs of Canberra was, generally, quite a pleasant, placid experience. But there were virtually no gay people, at least none that I was aware of.

The effect that has is it’s lonely. Intensely lonely. As you hit puberty and go through the attendant changes that comes with, it’s also intensely confusing. All of this by the way is before you’re exposed to homophobia. Because once you’ve gotten used to kids around you using the word “gay”, or “faggot”, or “queer”, or “poof” as a swearword, the thought that might be one of those things is deeply uncomfortable.

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The effect that has is it’s lonely. Intensely lonely. As you hit puberty and go through the attendant changes that comes with, it’s also intensely confusing. Image supplied.

Sometimes those homophobic moments come from teachers. I attended an Anglican high school and while some of my teachers had an open mind, we were taught, in Biology class no less, that homosexuality is “unnatural” and “immoral”. This had a profoundly hurtful effect on my fellow gay students and I, but it also affected all students. We all learned that gay is officially bad.

By early high school I had a clear inkling that I might be gay. But with no open discussion of homosexuality the prospect of coming out was horrifying. I eventually came out when I was 19 – 20. None of the kids in our year who turned out gay came out at school, and several that I’ve spoken to felt deeply uncomfortable about their sexuality at school.

Watch Jaimee’s story courtesy of Safe School Coalition/Minus 16. Post continues after video…

Now, let’s consider how horrifying life would have been if my parents were overtly homophobic, or overtly religious, or if I lived in a rural area (which is not to tar all rural areas, but it’s often harder to come out there).

Unfortunately, being religious or a homophobe does not preclude you from having gay, or trans, kids. There are gay Christians, gay Muslims, and gay Jews. Those gay people have a right to be taught as kids that they’re okay. They have a right to expect that the schools they attend will treat them with the same dignity and respect as everybody else. And those objecting to that and calling it “an agenda” should be condemned, by everyone. An “agenda” that promotes tolerance, understanding and respect is one that should be compulsory, especially in religious schools.

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“Gay people have a right to be taught as kids that they’re okay.” (Image via iStock)

So what about the arguments made by the religious right that talking to kids about LGBTI concepts will confuse them, or even worse, promote “conversion”?

As a general rule the LGBTI community does not aim to brainwash students, we leave that to religious groups. When people allege that explaining homosexuality will “confuse” kids they’re implying those kids might accidentally become gay. That ain’t what happens in my experience. I spent years, and years, and years, trying to trick myself OUT of being gay. Partly because being gay is hard. Much harder than being heterosexual. It’s harder to build a family, you’re subject to discrimination, and in many countries it’s a threat to your life. And partly because I had internalized the education I had received, that being gay is wrong.

It would have made an enormous difference to be told at school that it’s okay to be gay. It would have made an even bigger difference if my peer group had been told that by authority figures.

Which, by the way, is also why it’s in everyone’s interests that all kids learn about these issues at a young age, at school. Plenty of parents won’t be prepared to, or capable of, discussing these issues. Thus their children will become ignorant adults. The kind of adults who tell jokes about faggots, who behave aggressively towards trans people, who assault lesbians. The kind of adults who get fired for their transgressions or get charged with a crime or just lose friends through ignorance.

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“Their children will become ignorant adults. The kind of adults who tell jokes about faggots, who behave aggressively towards trans people, who assault lesbians.” Image supplied.

The battle Berardi and the Australian Christian Lobby are fighting was lost a long time ago. These are people who’ve compared homosexuality to animal sex, suggested gay relationships are a threat to children, and that our existence undermines our very civilisation. Asking Bernardi how gay kids should be taught is like turning to Pauline Hanson to find out whether something’s racist.

Politicians and religious leaders failed many in my generation. They failed to open their hearts and minds and recognise that while we might be different we are deserving of respect and tolerance. The result of living in a world where we’re not respected, and where understanding is in short supply, is that gay and trans people kill themselves at a much higher rate.

So that’s really the question that should asked when the Safe Schools programme is reviewed: Are the lives of young gay and trans people more important than the concerns of a religious minority? I think so. Do you?

If you are gay or transgender, and are seeking guidance or support please contact ReachOut here.

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