If the Safe Schools furore hadn’t already peaked in recent weeks, it may have now reached fever pitch with nation-wide protests this week.
Safe Schools has been caught up in what could only be described as a train wreck of events. Knee-jerk, hyperbolic criticism of the program came first. This snowballed and paved the way for a fast-tracked review of the program. The review has led to immediate changes to some of the content and a proposed funding end date of 2017.
These changes have now been met with intensified fury, more petitions have been raised on both sides, hundreds of scathing media statements released, protests mobilised across the country, and now protesters have trashed Cory Bernardi’s office in revenge, intimidating his staff and family members.
What could have been an opportunity for meaningful dialogue and ultimately the improvement of a valuable program has turned into an all-out culture war.
The upheaval has polarised the public and demonstrated group think of mass proportions. Unfortunately the debate has created heat, but failed to shed much light on the actual issue at hand – whether this program can reduce bullying of diverse students.
Last week, I opened my email to an excerpt from the Safe Schools’ “OMG I’m Queer” brochure, to find a quote that illustrated how a father responded to his bisexual son: “Scott, you like boys and girls, I like Asian women. Neither of us can help that, it’s just who we are.”
Proponents of the Safe Schools program argue that this content speaks the language of young people. It is not clear, though, whether this is a justification for racially objectifying Asian women, or perhaps it’s a rationale for the program encouraging students to download crude posters from Minus18: “GROSS! BEING STRAIGHT IS JUST A PHASE” and “I DON’T MIND IF YOU’RE STRAIGHT, JUST DON’T FLAUNT IT IN PUBLIC”.
Undoubtedly a number of the features of the program are highly pertinent and valuable. But basic questions remain. Definitions for genitals are replaced with “your wibbly, wobbly bits” – this is an approach strongly condemned by health practitioners. Discussions on sex and sexual consent fail to emphasise (or even mention) the required age for consensual sex.
Through its content developer and collaborator, Minus18, Safe Schools links students to information on binding breasts, tucking penises, taking hormones, online “dating” services, guides to conceal porn use, even links to various hardcore sex shops featuring all kinds of pornographic content (these are only in cached form after recently being deleted).
Across the media, government and academia this program has been repeatedly touted as world leading, brilliant, effective, life saving, evidence based, and one that works. Despite these claims, there is little substantiation. For instance, why is this program fetishising Asian women? This kind of exoticisation has long been demonstrated as harmful to the women and girls it affects. Moreover, pornography has come under harsh criticism from the medical profession for its proven damage in sexualising children and increasing childhood sexual crime. Some of the complex concepts are also undoubtedly far beyond childhood understanding.
The Safe Schools “All of Us” program asks students to define themselves using categories like genderqueer, non-binary, agender and cisgender. Safe Schools developer Minus18 further educates students on being pansexual, allosexual and demisexual. These are all concepts that have recently emerged from the disputed world of queer theory.
Queer theory divides academics, even those in the LGBT community. Yet it is rapidly being ushered in from sociology departments into school classrooms. Far from being taught as one theory of gender, it is being presented as a fact of life, an unchallengeable truth.
In the UK, parents are speaking out against this trend too, in the words of Jemima Lewis: “I want my children to be open-minded about gender and sexuality. I want them to have the run of the dressing up box, from Cinderella to Spiderman … I want them to steer clear of pigeonholes. And right now, gender politics seems to me nothing but floor-to-ceiling pigeonholes.”
Does instructing children to take up new gender categories (all loosely based around standard stereotypes of feminine and masculine) resolve stereotypes of gender? The endless classifying, defining and categorising new forms of gender appears incompatible with ending stereotypes and promoting neutrality.
It is unlikely that in their initial criticisms of Safe Schools, conservative backbenchers realised they would open up a debate that has been raging for years across the globe, on what is an intensely divisive topic – gender.
“The problem for me is the fact we are unable to critique or even question this program at all … we are expected to buy it wholesale. This unequivocal support for a program that has not been evaluated is only doing a disservice to those who want to end discrimination,” mused an academic associate who wishes to remain anonymous.
Indeed, in academia – where theories are readily criticised and deconstructed – gender theory has become universally accepted doctrine. Those who so much as question it are liable to be banned, petitioned against or publicly condemned.
Peter Tatchell – a lifelong pioneer of gay rights – was recently barred from speaking at a university after daring to support free speech around gender.
Safe Schools has come to represent a microcosm of a much wider divide. The refusal to engage in honest debate, the violent responses, and the shutting down of any form of critique are all factors that may partly explain the calls to scrap the program.
The furore over Safe Schools has sorely neglected the key concern: what educational program will actually best support students? To answer this question the program should be comprehensively scrutinised and strengthened, rather than scrapped.
Ending gendered bullying is a vital task that requires far more than demands with an all-or-nothing authoritarian approach. Anti-bullying programs should begin by practising what they preach – supporting plurality, diversity and tolerance towards differences.
Laura McNally is a psychologist, author and chairwoman of the Australian branch of Endangered Bodies, an international initiative that promotes acceptance of one’s body.
By: Laura McNally
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