• Protesters attend the Hands Off Safe Schools Rally in Melbourne on March 10, 2016. (Getty Images)Source: Getty Images
If ever we needed a reminder not to take safer schools for granted, a little history can provide. Without Safe Schools, everyday Australian teenagers are at risk of learning that society condones hatred, writes Elizabeth Sutherland.
By
Elizabeth Sutherland

25 Oct 2016 - 10:56 AM  UPDATED 25 Oct 2016 - 10:56 AM

This year, Victorian schools have had access to specialist resources to teach LGBTI history for the first time.  The US first observed Lesbian and Gay History Month in October 1994. 22 years later, Australia now has our own LGBTI History Month, complete with resources linked to school curriculum produced by Safe Schools. We must learn about and honour the activists and leaders who have given so much to make life better for LGBTI people in Australia. Even more importantly, we need to remember that the rights we’ve won (and the rights - like marriage - that feel tantalisingly close) must be vigilantly guarded, because the past has been filled with blood and tears.

Coinciding with LGBTI History Month, SBS has launched its extensive and ground-breaking project to tell the devastating truth about what has been dubbed the ‘gay hate decades’, Deep Water. The drama series and podcasts have been a triumph, but to me, the most riveting element of the project was the documentary aired last Sunday night about the Sydney murders of around 90 gay men, and the dismal failure of NSW Police to protect the gay community.

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If ever we needed a reminder not to take safer schools for granted, a little history can provide. It is only 26 years since Sydney teacher Wayne Tonks was murdered in his home, days after he reported homophobic taunts from students. Across the road from the school where Tonks worked, another man - Richard Johnson - had been bashed to death by a gang of teenagers who lured him to a toilet block only five months before. I can only imagine the fear that Wayne Tonks must have felt, showing up to work day after day as a closeted gay teacher, knowing that some members of his student cohort had been involved in at least one brutal hate crime. Bashings and killings of gay men and trans women occurred in every city of Australia during this period, and they were often carried out by youths. Those of us who were in high school in those decades can well remember chilling ‘jokes’ about ‘poofter bashing’ as part of the reason we hid in the closet. The 1980s and '90s in Australia were far from the enlightened and fabulous time that nostalgic music videos suggest. What’s more, the threat of homophobia and transphobia can hardly be considered a thing of the past when justice is still elusive for the majority of these victims.

Proof that prejudice is still alive and well is not hard to find. Sadly, while some Australians sat down last Sunday night to watch Deep Water: The Real Story, another section of the population was watching the Channel 7 Sunday Night program which pilloried the Safe Schools program and perpetuated misinformation about its content. Again and again, critics of the Safe Schools program ignore the fact that independent reviews have found Safe Schools resources to be age-appropriate and relevant to curriculum. Instead, lobbyists for a vocal minority of Christians repeat their unfounded fears in the media, putting LGBTI children and families at risk. The Sunday Night program was full of misinformation, including claims that five-year-olds are taught sexual content (they aren’t) and that all kids will be encouraged to be trans (that’s not even possible). It is outrageous that at a time when we should be bringing to light the history of violent homophobia and transphobia that Australia has swept under the rug for decades, we are instead experiencing another push to wind back the progress that’s been made. One need only consider that the Australian Christian Lobby had called for laws against hate speech to be repealed in order to mount their plebiscite ‘No’ campaign to see that for some people, bigotry has never gone out of fashion.

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What the Deep Water documentary shows, above all else, is that when society rejects and vilifies a group of people, violence is an inevitable consequence. As Rick Feneley - journalist and expert on the Sydney hate crimes - argues, it is not only the NSW police and the ‘gay bashers’ who are to blame for the deaths of these men. Instead, it is the broader society which allowed the perpetrators to feel that attacking gay men was a sport, and which sat silently while the police force remained mired in homophobic misconduct. Widespread violence carried out with impunity must have tacit or explicit social support. For those of us in the queer community who have grown up with homophobia (and sadly, many, with the threat or reality of violence), the advent of anti-bullying programs and better resources to help LGBTI young people is a revelation. And it’s literally life-saving. This is why we - that is, LGBTI young people, their families, teachers, and other members of school communities - need Safe Schools. Without systems in place to make it clear that LGBTI lives matter just as much as cisgender, heterosexual lives, we are at risk of vilification and even violence.

Perhaps even more importantly, without Safe Schools, everyday Australian teenagers are at risk of learning that society condones hatred. They are at risk of growing up with a stunted view of humanity and the misconception that it is their right to enforce narrow norms of behaviour. Current school students are future employers, voters, parents and leaders. Schools have a role to play in shaping their values and guiding their actions. The message of Deep Water resonates today not only because it is our recent past, but because it is a warning about the present and the future.

In 2016, does Australia not wish to be a proud secular nation with inclusive and open-minded ideals? As a nation we need to commit to owning up to our violent history and working towards a safe future. To do that, we need Safe Schools. 

Watch Deep Water: The Real Story in full at SBS On Demand or right here: