Benjamin Law has read every single word of the Australian newspaper’s 90,000-word plus apoplectic rage against LGBTIQ-focused anti-bullying resource the Safe Schools Coalition Australia.
The hate therein drove the author, journalist and screenwriter’s brain to breaking point long before the tragic suicide, at only 13 years old, of Brisbane high-school student Tyrone Unsworth in November last year. “That was the moment where my heart broke as well,” Law tells SBS Sexuality. “It really brought home to me why Safe Schools existed in the first place.”
Unsworth was mercilessly hounded by homophobic bullies. It is telling that Murdoch’s national broadsheet failed to report on his death. Indeed, during their ongoing campaign against Safe Schools, the paper neglected to speak to any of the young people it’s designed to protect, equipping teachers and principals with the tools they need to support LGBTIQ children in their care.
“It kind of demonstrated to me that when it comes to protecting kids, for the writers at the Australian, the people who attacked Safe Schools, there’s kind of a hierarchy of kids who are worth protecting,” Law says.
Just how Safe Schools came to find itself at the nuclear heart of an ideological firestorm is the subject of Law’s in-depth investigation, Moral Panic 101: Equality, Acceptance and the Safe Schools Scandal. Published in the latest Quarterly Essay and including young queer voices, Law discussed it in conversation with fellow writer David Marr this week, courtesy of the Sydney Writers Festival.
“David’s career has been so instructive, because so much of his work has been about documenting moral panic,” Law says. “I feel like Safe Schools is just one of the latest chapters.”
Law argues that the silencing of young LGBTIQ people - a demographic with alarmingly high rates of suicide - and the assault on a resource designed to protect them, is part of a bigger picture.
“People feel a deep discomfort about the idea that kids have any cognisance or consciousness of their sexuality or gender and that to talk about it is to somehow influence kids into becoming transgender or gay,” he says. “The subtext in all of this, when you talk about the gay ideology, is that somehow you can turn kids out of their neutral heterosexual, cisgender identity into something that is abnormal and pathological. That’s a really deeply homophobic 1950s mindset that I thought was behind us.”
That viewpoint isn’t just being espoused from privileged positions by the media, where moral panic sells newspapers and accrues clicks. It’s also coming from the benches of our national parliament. “As much as we pat ourselves on the back and say, ‘wow, same-sex marriage is just around the corner, look how far we’ve come,’ homophobia and transphobia is deeply rooted into the marrow of Australian society,” Law argues. “You’ve got federal politicians who genuinely believe that the friendship they have with their cycling buddies is similar to a gay romantic relationship. Who believe that legalising same-sex marriage will allow and encourage people to marry bridges. I mean, this is patently insane.”
The political gymnastics enacted to delay marriage equality are, in this way, part of the pushback, Law says. Pointing to the $122 million “postal survey vox pop abomination,” he highlights the telling fact that, in the face of repeated surveys demonstrating that Australians are predominantly in favour, the No campaign has sought to make it about anything other than marriage. Safe Schools is on the frontline.
Addressing accusations that a specifically LGBTIQ-focused resource is somehow discriminatory, Law argues that’s ludicrous, particularly given generalised anti-bullying tools have existed for decades. “They don’t work for queer kids because they don’t address queer kids, but no one seems to care about that.”
As Law puts it in his Quarterly Essay, “When I was called a ‘ch--k,’ ‘g--k’ or – weirdly, that one time – even a ‘n----r’ at school in Queensland as a child, it wasn’t general ‘bullying.’ It was racism… When kids are called ‘f----t’ and ‘t----y’ in the schoolyard, why is it so wrong to talk about sexual and gender difference, so that these kids are rendered less frightening, and, in the process, made less frightened?”
Interviewing young trans man Mike at Open Doors, an LGBTIQ youth service in Brisbane’s Fortitude Valley, was informative. “He had his shit together. You know, his parents failed him, and his teachers failed him too. He had no safe space between home or school. The problem isn’t that he’s transgender, the problem is that we are failing children.”
Law has never suffered from a lack of support, with his mother Jenny - immortalised in his memoir-turned-SBS-series The Family Law - one of his biggest cheerleaders. “She’s amazing,” he enthuses. “She’s very cross about the whole postal survey, because she hates that basic dignity and human rights is done through a voluntary, non-binding survey, but will, of course, be voting an adamant yes.”
Though Law had reservations about coming out as gay, he says looking back now he must have subconsciously known that his mother, so open in her discussion of sex and sexuality, would have his back. That mutual respect and openness led them to co-authoring an agony aunt-style column in The Lifted Brow magazine, fielding sexual advice questions. Highlights (and lowlights) have been collected in a forthcoming book, Law School, published in October.
While at first glance its outrageously comic missives would seem to mark it out as a very different read from the Quarterly Essay, the common themes of respect, honesty, education and well-being shine through.
“Mum’s kind of shocked by her fellow old people who are so sheltered and shocked by these things,” Law reveals. “Adults are supposed to know more, but when it comes to issues of sexuality and gender identity, kids tend to self-equip in ways that outrun adults to our great shame and embarrassment.”
There are signs that teacher and principals are catching up fast. In his Quarterly Essay, Law references a Guardian report that when Education Minister Simon Birmingham announced a review of Safe Schools, 495 schools were signed up. Two weeks later, it was at 526.
“Schools have been particularly great at cutting through the bullshit,” Law says. “They need to be very practical to make sure that all kids are educated and kept safe in that process.”
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The Quarterly Essay Moral Panic 101: Equality, Acceptance and the Safe Schools Scandal is out now. Pre-order copies of Law School, published on October 4, here.