The Safe Schools Coalition agenda taken up by about 500 schools in this country to promote understanding of gender and sexual diversity is a brilliant insight into the ideological campaigns now transforming cultural values in Australia through capture of institutions.
This is a highly political exercise. The progressive political class is aggressive in its promotion and defence of this agenda, moralistic about the program’s intrinsic value and, perhaps most remarkably, contemptuous in dismissing the critics of this program — parents and politicians — by branding them as homophobic and extremists.
The Turnbull government’s lightning-fast review of the program was delivered to Education Minister Simon Birmingham’s department yesterday. It will be assessed over the weekend. Depending on the extent of changes recommended by the independent review, the government may respond as early as the end of the coming week.
It is guaranteed to become a test of Liberal Party values under Malcolm Turnbull. Tony Abbott, who did nothing about the program as PM, has called it “social engineering” and wants the funds scrapped. Turnbull says his government will protect children at school but judge criticism on merit.
The Safe Schools constituency is mobilised and waiting. Any significant revision to the program will lead to Turnbull being attacked as weak on bullying, as well as for betraying vulnerable students and bending before conservative extremists.
Yet the defects in this program make it indefensible as it stands. This raises a pivotal question: are parents in Australia at the stage where they accept gender fluidity as an ideology to be inculcated into their children through the school system? It is a divisive and potentially explosive issue.
The Safe Schools program builds on a Victorian model pioneered by the Foundation for Young Australians and Gay and Lesbian Health, and derived from research done at La Trobe University. It is funded by the Victorian government, and an $8 million contribution made by the former ALP federal government continued during the Abbott-Turnbull era. The aim is to combat homophobic and transphobic bullying and abuse and support lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex students. The extent of support for the program is immense — Labor and the Greens have a deep emotional attachment, the Coalition has continued the program, state educational establishments are supportive, the numbers of staff trained in the program has reached 13,000, and 362 academics recently defended the research basis of the program and the need to combat sexual bullying.
As Birmingham examines the review from Bill Louden, emeritus professor of education at the University of Western Australia, the external pressure on the Turnbull government to minimise changes will be hefty. Louden will have assessed some of the critiques of the program, notably the efficacy of materials for students in years 7 and 8.
The real critique of the program, however, is more substantial than the terms of reference for Louden’s review. This is much more than an anti-bullying program. Most people know an anti-bullying program when they see it. But this is something else — a pervasive and radical ideological agenda. Indeed, it does not even pretend to be anything less.
Senior ALP figures Bill Shorten, Penny Wong and Kate Ellis and other politicians stridently defending the program and attacking its critics are misleading at best and deceptive at worst. The materials, literature, instructions and recommended class activities are pervasive in their ideological content and often extraordinary in the activities they recommend for years 7 and 8 students. This story is a case study in hijack: how a program of social and sexual engineering was inducted into the school system by a lobby that won huge institutional support. The program is legitimised by a need whose validity is beyond question: preventing the bullying of LGBTI students.
In many ways the program is the purist example of the disruptive cultural and power changes sweeping through Australia. Its content would have been inconceivable 10 years ago. It reflects a transformation in thinking about sex and gender, the collapse of traditional and religious norms, the confidence of the progressive class that its moment has come, and the ability of a minority lobby to seize the ascendancy and command a majority position.
Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews has said the intention is to make the program compulsory in all Victorian high schools. The state sent confused messages this week, but the policy remains. Rarely has the ugly face of state power been so apparent. If enforced, no school would be allowed choice or the freedom to dissociate from the gender ideology.
A reading of the materials shows this ideology is relentless and explicit: gender is not a binary male-female stereotype but a process of self-expression and “how you feel inside” and “may change over time”. Gender should not be reduced to the question “is it a boy or a girl?” because “there are a whole range of human bodies that are somewhere between”.
The philosophy is that “it’s up to the individual to describe what gender identity fits them best”. There are many such identities; it is a process of self-selection.
From this it follows that classes should not be divided into boy-girl groups for any activities. Such stereotypes should be avoided. The program says that “phrases like ‘ladies and gentlemen’ or ‘boys and girls’ should be avoided”. When speaking about individuals, assumptions about gender identity must not be made. All students must use the pronoun that individuals prefer or use gender-neutral pronouns “such as ‘they’ (singular) or ‘ze’ ”. These are to be the new and universal standards.
Fluidity in gender matches fluidity in sexual identity, which means young people “can be attracted to a whole spectrum of masculinity, femininity, both or even none”. Components that make up sexual identity “can be thought to sit anywhere on a spectrum between ‘female’ and ‘male’ ”. In dealing with others, you never assume people are straight. Graphics are used to illustrate that sexual identity is best seen as falling somewhere on a broad spectrum.
Gender fluidity is promoted as a worthwhile and desirable choice for young students. The program’s aim is to integrate gender and sexual diversity across the curriculum and it is assumed this is a step towards healthy living.
Lesson two involves sex role playing: students imagine they are 16 and going out with somebody, one half of the class with someone of the same sex and the other half with the opposite sex.
Class discussions are recommended to combat the malaise of “heteronormativity” — a belief system based on heterosexuality. Students are urged to avoid reinforcing this mindset with questions such as whether a new baby is a boy or a girl. The ideology is that “reducing heteronormativity in schools can have good outcomes for everyone”.
The program advises that one in 10 people are same-sex attracted, up to one in 25 people are transgender or gender diverse, and about one in 60 are born with unisex bodies. These figures, used to justify the program, are high and heavily contested.
It is hard not to conclude there is a sinister aspect to the program. To prevent bullying of LGBTI students the entire view of gender is being transformed in the school.
The deliberate purpose is to weaken or break down or question the settled view of gender that many young people and students possess. This is presented as an unqualified good and a necessary step in the health of all students. The schools that embrace this ideology are rewarded as being inclusive, as opposed to schools that resist. At all points student activism is encouraged.
In dealing with transgender experiences students are encouraged to consider what makes them female or male.
“Most students will mention their genitalia,” the program says. “Extend the discussion by asking students what it would mean in terms of their gender if they were to lose that part of themselves.”
The purpose is to tutor students that sex is the body you are born with while gender is what you self-select: hence the need to imagine what is it like without your genitals.
In the lesson on bisexual experiences students are asked to imagine a line running through the classroom. Each student must move to a position on this line according to whether they agree or disagree with a series of propositions on how to avoid stereotypes. “Ask students to explain why they have chosen their position on the line,” the manual says. At the same time “any offensive or hurtful comments” need to be addressed.
Just reflect on the opportunity for intimidation and pressure in this activity. It equates with another activity in which students must stand and sit down only when they have given the appropriate answers to a set of questions.
Students and teachers are tutored about being a good “ally”. This means supporting LGBTI students when they come out, not using the wrong pronoun and avoiding giveaway phrases such as “that’s so gay”. Students are asked to write and sign their own “ally’s pledge”.
They are asked to brainstorm initiatives to make LGBTI students feel more comfortable, the aim being to expose examples of homophobia and transphobia and how to combat them.
Students are encouraged to ask their principal to sign up to the Safe Schools Coalition program. They are urged to give their school a makeover with posters, reward those teachers who are LGBTI allies with stickers so everyone knows, paint a rainbow crossing at the school entrance, press LGBTI students and their allies to have a “safe space” in the school to meet, and ask for gender-neutral toilets in addition to girl and boy toilets.
The aspiration is a change in the outlook and character of the school. These programs for students in years 7 and 8 are presented as supporting “core outcomes” of the curriculum for health and physical education.
Any reasonable reading of the material highlights the extent to which students would be pressured into accepting the gender and sexual norms of the program.
The outstanding feature among high-profile politicians backing the Safe Schools agenda is their unqualified endorsement. The demonisation of opponents is extreme. While Liberal senator Cory Bernardi has been rightly attacked for his unacceptable comments, far worse remarks from Victoria’s Premier are ignored.
When the Turnbull government announced its review, Andrews said: “I’m sick of Liberal politicians telling our kids there’s something wrong with them — when there isn’t.”
In short, if you want to review or criticise the program, that means you are attacking kids.
Shorten branded Bernardi a “homophobe” for criticising the program. Opposition education spokeswoman Ellis attacked Turnbull for pandering to “views of extremists”. ALP Senate leader Wong said: “This is a Labor program, we funded it in government, it’s a program designed to address the terrifying statistics of self-harm, of abuse, of discrimination and of bullying of same-sex attracted and transgender kids.”
Amid defenders of the program it is hard to discern any concession whatsoever that there are problems with this program.
There is no serious sign of respect for parents who have reservations. Just the reverse — they are patronised and insulted by indirect linkage as extremists and homophobes.
It is hard to find another example where the political class has been so arrogant in its imposition of a new and far-reaching agenda.
Let’s confront the truth: there is a process of intimidation at work. It reminds of the mother on the ABC television’s Q&A program a few weeks ago, upset her son was encouraged to cross-dress, reduced to saying, “but it was a science class”.
There is no doubt the cultural norms are changing. This program constitutes dramatic evidence. But the progressives have overreached — their arrogance and intolerance and on vivid display.
Turnbull, however, will find this a difficult issue to manage. And any politician asserting this is just another anti-bullying program is naive or engaging in a gross deception.
by Paul Kelly Editor-At-Large Sydney