Last year you’d probably never heard of the Safe Schools Coalition (SSC) unless you actually needed it.
This week, you can’t avoid hearing about them.
There has been a lot of accusations and insinuations by politicians and lobbyists saying all sorts of things about the SSC. It has culminated in our Prime Minister announcing an investigation into SSC in response to conservative voices saying that it’s funding should be cut and the program discontinued.
In essence, the SSC exists to educate teachers about making their schools safer for lgbti students. Homophobic bullying was identified as a major problem in our schools by the latest ‘Writing Themselves In’ study conducted by LaTrobe University, and multiple studies have pointed out the vulnerability of lgbti young people to mental health problems, self-harm and suicide.
Bullying is not unique to the lgbti community. It exists in most schools and many workplaces, and there are numerous programs around to help schools deal with bullying in their communities. So why do we need an lgtbi specific program?
Most bullying is personal. It is directed by a person or group of people against another person. There is an element of this in lgbti bullying. However, there is also an element of institutional bullying and cultural bullying that must be addressed when it comes to the welfare of lgbti people.
Institutional bullying is when a school says that a young lesbian can’t bring her partner to the school formal and instead she must bring a boy. Institutional bullying says that a young transgender man, with a diagnosis of gender dysphoria and being supported by a gender clinic, is forced to used the female toilets, leading to high levels of anxiety and distress. Institutional bullying forces same sex parents to hide their relationship from a school just so their child can get the same opportunities as everybody else.
Cultural bullying happens when a society says a same sex relationship isn’t as valuable as a heterosexual relationship and limits freedoms because of it. Cultural bullying accepts bad, flawed, defective or unacceptable things being described as ‘gay’. Cultural bullying makes it harder for same sex parents to raise their children instead of being offered the same supports as everybody else.
Most bullying programs deal with personal bullying. They don’t deal with the institutional or cultural aspects of bullying.
The SSC exists to help schools not only deal with the personal bullying of lgtbi students, but also helps halt institutional bullying and transform bullying cultures into safe, affirming environments.
Of course, not all schools want to change or see the need to. Hence SSC is an ‘opt-in’ program that is not forced on any school community. Some schools acknowledge they will need to address the issues raised by SSC at some point and so sign up. Others become aware of the lgtbi students already in their community and sign up in response to current needs. If a school signs up, it is the staff members that attend the training. Those same staff members decide if the material and resources presented are suitable for their context. If any presentations are done to student bodies, it is by invitation of the school and with thorough understanding of what is being presented.
No hidden agenda. No sex education. No propaganda.
Those that oppose the program generally do so because the affirming culture being promoted by SSC clashes with their own cultural values. Put more bluntly, those that oppose the SSC do so because they don’t believe sexual or gender diversity is a natural part of the human species. They will see any diversity of this form as a defect, inherently evil in some way, and something that a young person needs to be saved from. They will also regard being gay or transgender as a choice, and fear talking about it in schools will lead to young people choosing to be lgtbi. This is simply primitive thinking that ignores the advances in medical and scientific understanding of human sexuality and gender from the last 200 years.
Another organisation under fire is Minus18, a youth lead lgtbi organisation that provides some of the resources to the SSC. If you are unfamiliar with the distress lgtbi young people go through as they navigate the hormones of the teenage years, some of what is written by Minus18 will shock you. It will seem extreme, confusing, way out of left field, and perhaps unnecessary. However, if for a moment, you could imagine yourself in the deepest pit of despair, losing all hope, and planning on ending your pain by your own hand, that ‘extreme’ resource might just offer enough hope, and ease enough pain, for you to chose life. From the stories I hear in my counselling rooms, these resources have undoubtedly saved lives.
Criticizing these resources from the position of a
white, upper class, male with a high paying job in politics, heterosexual perpetuates both cultural and institutional bullying. The SSC is not perfect, and like any program will need to go through reviews, adaptations and improvements as it rolls out in different contexts. If we need to be talking about it, then it should be to discuss ways we can improve and expand it further.
We need the SSC to protect the most vulnerable in our schools. We need the SSC to educate and change the culture of our schools. We need the SSC so every student can go to school, get an education, make life long friends, and be safe.
Prime Minister Turnbull, my hope is that the investigation reveals the great work the SSC does and that, in turn, you will become a champion for the program.
Please consider running a similar program for politicians to help erase institutional and cultural lbgti bullying in parliament.