I was about 10 when I was first called a “fag” and a “poof”. At that time I wasn’t sure what that meant, but I knew it wasn’t a compliment. The names had a new sting when I realised that I was gay and even though I was in the closet for my teenage years, it seemed there was no fooling the kids in the school yard. The idea of coming out and being open about my sexuality filled me with dread.
There’s no doubt that Australia has changed a lot since I was at school. There are far more gay people in public life and popular culture and differences in sexuality are discussed much more openly. That’s a wonderful thing. But unfortunately homophobia is still alive and well in the school yard and, as demonstrated last week, in parliament.
The Safe Schools program is a reminder to young people dealing with their sexuality that they are not alone. It also creates happier and safer school yards. It would have made a huge difference to me as a scared teenager growing up in the naughties in suburban Adelaide.
The fact that members of the government have been able to denigrate such a program without sanction, says much about homophobia in our community. The suggestion that Safe Schools sexualises children – or worse still is akin to “grooming” – is appalling and reprehensible. These inflammatory statements seek to fan homophobic stereotypes about gay and lesbian people, positioning them as being somehow dangerous or threatening to children. These stereotypes are deeply damaging and dragging them into the mainstream in this way will only cause hurt to LGBTI people, our families and friends. For a young person struggling with their own journey with sexuality, the consequences of these kinds of statements could be catastrophic.
The Prime Minister should have immediately condemned these hateful statements, instead they have been legitimised by his silence. In perverse logic, the right to denigrate same-sex attracted people is framed as a fundamental human right by extreme conservatives in this country. For them, the “right to be a bigot” trumps the rights of LGBTI people to feel safe from persecution or simply to be who they are.
It was this same “logic” that has permeated the Turnbull and Abbott government’s approach to marriage equality. Apparently, the rights of LGBTI people are a secondary consideration, easily sacrificed at the altar of public opinion. Indeed, the government is not only condoning the bullying of LGBTI people through its costly and divisive plebiscite but facilitating it through the provision of public funds to an extremist group like the Australian Christian Lobby.
Of course this is not how our democracy works. No right is absolute. Indeed, the right to free speech must be balanced against the right of others to be free from persecution and vilification. This kind of balance is fundamental to any liberal democracy. The fact Malcolm Turnbull’s “Liberal” Party is so willing to trash this basic democratic principle, is further evidence that while the government has a new front man, he still leads a party of reactionary conservatives.
The ugly homophobia we’ve seen in the parliament over the last week demonstrates that we still have some way to go before we create a society free from the kind of bullying I and so many other LGBTI people have experienced. Banishing bullies and those who protect them from the parliament at the next federal election would be a good place to start.
This piece was first published in the Star Observer.