The current furore over the Safe Schools program, as well as recent criticism of similar programs that operate in the corporate sector, highlight just how far behind the times many Australian commentators and politicians are in relation to the broad aims of social inclusion that underpin societies that are similar to our own.
In the UK, Canada, New Zealand, and many European countries, policies and practices that foster the inclusion of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) people have been part of the civil fabric of these societies for many years.
Social inclusion, according to Australian Human Rights Commission president Gillian Triggs, “is about people being able to fully participate in society...and making sure that no one is left out”.
Sadly, there are currently forces in politics and the media here in Australia who would prefer to see LGBTI people left out of certain opportunities and support structures that are available to other citizens, and not just in relation marriage and anti-bullying programs.
Where these attitudes come from is a complex discussion. However, discriminatory attitudes are often based in fear and ignorance. Once people take the time to walk in the shoes of another person, the empathy and compassion they experience usually moves them to a place of understanding and acceptance.
This is essentially what the Safe Schools program tries to achieve.
However, it’s not just young people that should have access to these learning experiences – it’s important that adults also have opportunities to appreciate how their attitudes and actions impact on the lives of others.
This has been recognised for many years by the corporate sector both here in Australia and overseas, with many organisations embracing inclusion practices which help employees respect and appreciate differences in sexual orientation and gender identity as well as cultural background – especially in relation to indigenous cultures – age, gender, and disability.
Indeed, every day, more and more organisations across Australia are teaming up with ACON’s Pride In Diversity and Pride In Sport programs to provide frameworks of support for LGBTI people in workplaces, in schools and universities, and on the sporting field.
The reasons that organisations choose to operate a system that supports diversity and inclusion – including better staff recruitment, retention and engagement, improved service delivery and increased financial returns – are all underpinned by an understanding that an employee, student or player who feels supported and included will be more productive and achieve better outcomes.
"The reasons that organisations choose to operate a system that supports diversity and inclusion... are all underpinned by an understanding that an employee, student or player who feels supported and included will be more productive and achieve better outcomes."
Once again, this is the aim of the Safe Schools program.
So the intent behind the schools participating in the Safe Schools program is ultimately not that different from those behind the inclusion programs currently in place across the workplaces of many of Australia’s leading business, cultural and sporting organisations.
In fact just last week, six major Australian sporting codes, including Australian Rugby Union, National Rugby League, Australian Football League, Football Federation of Australia and Cricket Australia, all signed up to a national benchmarking framework to evaluate their efforts to better include LGBTI people within their organisations.
Further, thanks to all the publicity surrounding the Safe Schools program, there has been a significant increase in the number of schools wanting to become involved in the initiative.
No doubt this will cause some consternation among conservative politicians and commentators, but the reality is that more and more people and organisations across Australia are signing up to create a society where everyone belongs.
Inclusion and diversity programs, such as Safe Schools, Pride In Diversity and Pride In Sport, play an important part in the evolution of our national culture, helping make our society more compassionate and our economy more competitive.
"These programs are the key to ensuring that the benefits of a truly inclusive society – improved mental health, better social cohesion, increased economic productivity – flow through not only to LGBTI people and their families, but to all Australians."
As such, it is vital that they are accessible to people at all stages of their lives, for young people in schools through to adults in workplaces, in universities and on the sporting field.
These programs are the key to ensuring that the benefits of a truly inclusive society – improved mental health, better social cohesion, increased economic productivity – flow through not only to LGBTI people and their families, but to all Australians.
So when it comes to bringing people together, we may not be as progressive as Canada, the UK or New Zealand, but it seems more and more of us are willing and, thanks to inclusion programs, able to learn.
Justin Koonin is the president of LGBTI health organisation ACON.