LGBTQ advocates have slammed NSW and Tasmania's decision to drop out of the Safe Schools anti-bullying and education program, claiming it sends a message that the government doesn't care about queer kids.
The NSW government announced over the long weekend that it would not continue with the Safe Schools program after its federal funding runs out in June. On Tuesday, Tasmania said it would follow suit. The program is billed as an anti-bullying program, educating young people at schools about LGBTQ issues, promoting tolerance and understanding, and giving resources for young people to find help and counselling if needed.
It was a Gillard government program, but launched in 2014 under the Abbott administration. However, it wasn't until 2016 that it caught the eye of conservative politicians, journalists and identities, sparking sustained, wild claims from opponents that the program was "ideological brainwashing".
It was branded "sexual indoctrination", likened to paedophiles "grooming" children, Tony Abbott called it "social engineering", and some even claimed it was responsible for an "epidemic" of young children reporting as transgender.
As a supportive opinion piece in Fairfax Media this week read: "if more young people came out as transgender because of Safe Schools, it worked". The program was designed to support LGBTQ youth, as well as educate their non-LGBTQ peers, making children feel more comfortable and confident to express themselves fully. It is a key plank of the Safe Schools program, sparked by the shocking health statistics around young queer kids.
- LGBTQ people are between three and 14 times more likely to commit suicide than heterosexual Australians;
- One in six young LGBTQ people have attempted suicide, one in three have self harmed;
- One in five lesbian, gay or bisexual Australians are currently experiencing depression, more than triple the national rate, while one in three experience an anxiety condition.
At school age specifically, the numbers get more worrying. Among teenage boys, 40 percent wouldn't want a same-sex attracted person as a friend, 60 percent had witnessed first-hand someone being bullied for their sexuality, and a quarter believe calling someone a "homo" or "dyke" is OK. Up to 80 percent of LGBTQ teens have experienced homophobic language at schools and one quarter had experienced physical abuse at school.
These are statistics collected and collated by the Australian Bureau of Statistics, depression organisation beyondblue, Suicide Prevention Australia and various reputable universities across the country.
Despite Victoria, Western Australia and the ACT committing to continuing Safe Schools after federal funding expires this year, the NSW government said it will replace Safe Schools with a broader anti-bullying program -- the details of which have not been released yet. But that is missing the point, say LGBTQ advocates.
"Since Safe Schools started, it's been positive," said Judy Brown, president of PFLAG (Parents, Family and Friends of Lesbians and Gays), an advocacy and support network.
"We've had less people contact us because they feel safer at school. Maybe they felt that they were being supported by the government, because people realised they had genuine issues and they needed to be safe at school."
Brown told The Huffington Post Australia that she was concerned at the LGBTQ-specific program being canned, and had doubts over the new program it will be replaced by.
"I'm very sceptical we will get anything near the quality of what they were getting with Safe Schools. Who will they get to run it? Teachers, or professional people? How long will it take to get it all out there? If more negative [anti-LGBTQ] talk comes up in the media, and it's affecting kids at school, with nothing to counteract it there, I'm worried about the stats of suicide," she said.
"There's so many young people who are self harming. Probably almost everybody in our group has been through that with their children. I'm really concerned the stats will go up again."
She said getting rid of Safe Schools would send a negative message to queer youth.
"It was bridging a gap to connect with people. What are they going to think? Nobody cares about them anymore? They'll feel like a marginalised group again, that the government doesn't think are worth caring about or educating the community of their issues."
Micah Scott, CEO of queer youth organisation Minus 18, echoed those sentiments.
"The message received by students, especially if that broader program doesn't address LGBT topics thoroughly, is that issues aren't important and even gives permission for students to say homophobic things," he told HuffPost Australia.
"It's been clearly demonstrated the benefits of Safe Schools and how much support it actually provides. It's really disappointing NSW has dropped the program. It's crucial that any new program does explicitly support students who are LGBT, because the types of discrimination and bullying they receive are unique and received at higher rates."
Scott also had some choice words for critics of the program, especially claims that Safe Schools had led to an "epidemic" of transgender students.
"That's definitely harmful bullshit. What we've seen is an elevation of discussing topics around gender identity and transphobia, of young people comfortable to be themselves and have conversations about topics they'd otherwise keep secret or suppress," he said.
"What a wonderful thing that young people aren't harbouring that inner turmoil, and instead getting support from teachers and schools."
Brown said she was saddened by the latest rhetoric around the LGBTQ community.
"It's just awful," she said.
"We're going backwards."
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