Simms Versus Bernadi On Safe Schools

Senator SIMMS (South Australia) (22:10): I was about to leave for the night and then I saw Senator Bernardi jumping to his feet and launching into yet another of his famous diatribes about the Safe Schools Coalition and diversity within the schoolyard and I felt compelled to respond. Of course this is not an isolated attack from Senator Bernardi on the Safe Schools Coalition or the idea of even talking about differences in sexuality or gender identity within our schools; it is part of an ongoing crusade. I think it is important to put some of the facts on the table here.

Let me say that I find absolutely ridiculous the repeated suggestion from Senator Bernardi and other conservatives that somehow by talking about differences in sexual orientation and talking about differences in gender identity you are going to recruit children at school. It is a laughable proposition yet it gets bandied around this chamber and in the News Limited press consistently. It is an absolutely ridiculous comment and Senator Bernardi needs to stop pedalling that ridiculous line.

This program is not about trying to encourage any particular sexuality or gender identity; it is about recognising that—newsflash—some people are gay and some people are transgender and, despite Senator Bernardi’s efforts at social engineering and efforts to deny that reality exists within our schoolyard, there are gay and lesbian kids at school. There are people at school who have issues with their gender identity who may well be transitioning. Those people deserve to have their experience recognised within the schoolyard. I have a message for Senator Bernardi: we are queer and we are here. That is the reality—newsflash. Not talking about it is not going to change that reality. Denying that reality in schools does nothing other than create more human misery.

I have talked about this a little bit in this chamber. I was a young man growing up in Adelaide. I was in the closet until I was in my early 20s. Had a program like this been around when I was at school it would have helped me a lot because I felt pretty isolated when I was growing up in the suburbs of Adelaide. I did not think there were any other people that I was familiar with that were gay and I was not sure about the kind of life that I would lead. It would have been pretty helpful to learn at school that I was not alone and I could have a happy life as a gay person or a transgender person. That message being taught at schools would have helped me a lot.

Really it is ridiculous to hear the constant refrain that somehow by talking about difference we are going to be promoting one particular form of sexuality over another. How ridiculous! As I said, this social engineering concept is really something that is being fanned by conservatives, like Senator Bernardi, who want to push people into the closet, who want to create this atmosphere where people cannot talk about diversity and where we go back to the old days where this is a love that does not speak its name. Senator Bernardi needs to recognise the reality that he is now in the 21st century. The era that he and former Prime Minister Tony Abbott might hark back to is long gone. I am certainly thankful for that. If only this world view would also be consigned to the history books. That will happen. I have no doubt about that, because society is changing, and certainly the views that Senator Bernardi espouses are becoming increasingly marginalised.

But let me say that we need to get to the point, in discussing these kinds of issues, where we move away from this ridiculous assertion that middle-class, heterosexual, white men are some kind of oppressed group that are being persecuted in some way. I mean, really! What a ridiculous proposition that is. Senator Bernardi needs to drop that crusade. It is getting pretty tired. I think people can see through it.

Let’s have a debate where we actually look at how we can support and encourage diversity within our schools. But this program, the Safe Schools Coalition, is also about addressing issues of persecution and bullying, and the human consequences of that are pretty profound. Can you imagine—and I know my colleague Senator Janet Rice has been doing a lot of work on these issues—how difficult it might be for a young person to deal with issues around their gender identity at school, how difficult it might be for a young person who may be transgender to deal with those issues, and the huge difference that a program like this would make in the school environment in terms of breaking down discrimination, overcoming some of the stigma that might be experienced by those young people, tackling bullying head-on and creating more safe and inclusive environments? That is a pretty powerful thing, and it is something that should be encouraged and supported, but instead we see that program being maligned constantly by people like Senator Bernardi.

So it is time to get with the program and recognise we are in the 21st century. Talking about sexual difference and differences in gender identity does not promote one form of sexuality over another. It simply recognises the reality of the world in which we live, and it is time for Senator Bernardi to really get with the program and drop this stale crusade. It is getting so old.

Watch the speech here. 

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