When reminiscing back to your sexual education experience in school, what images and emotions come to mind? At my regional Queensland high school in the late-1990s, sexual education involved being subjected to generic information about heterosexual relationships, how to use contraception, and how to label anatomical diagrams of penises and vaginas. For the straight students, these experiences were likely embarrassing at worst, and humorous at best. But, for a closeted young teenager who was already well aware that I was not straight, the silencing of a queer perspective left me feeling confused and alone.
Needless to say, when I learned about Victoria’s Safe School Coalition, a movement towards including diverse perspectives on sexuality and gender within the existing heterosexual-focused sexual education curriculum, I felt a sense of relief for the youth in schools today. If there had been such consideration for diversity during my time in high school, I dare say I wouldn’t have wanted to pretend to be anything other than who I am.
Critics of Safe School’s educational resource, titled All Of Us, are fearful that the “LGBTI agenda” is covertly being pushed. If Liberal Senator Cory Bernardi’s stance is valid, that this resource is a form of “social engineering,” then it would follow that an unwavering focus on straight perspectives and reproduction more generally in sexual education is also a form of social engineering, one that begets a homophobic society by pushing a straight agenda, to the detriment of queer youth in terms of their mental health and feelings of belonging. Bernardi does have one thing right: schools are institutions of social engineering. However, he fails to acknowledge that without resources such as All of Us, the kind of engineering that is already taking place in Australian schools is the kind that produces a society ripe with prejudice and exclusionary beliefs about sexuality and gender. With programs like All of Us, we are engineering a society characterized by acceptance and tolerance. Isn’t that a good thing?
Let us not forget the purpose of this program: to create a safe place for youth who might otherwise be discriminated against in their schools. According to Beyond Blue, the mental health of LGBTI people is among the poorest in Australia. LGBTI folk are the most likely to commit suicide of any population in Australia, with discrimination and exclusion listed as key causal factors. If policy makers were to abolish All of Us, they would be ignoring these tragic statistics and the vital role schools can play in abating mental health issues for LGBTI youth. While Cori Bernadi might think schools are simply a place for students to learn to, “read, write, and do their maths,” many of us recall that school is about much more than just reading and writing.
As a high school English teacher who has worked for over 8 years in Australia, Canada and the UK, my experience has been that youth of the 21st century are more curious about international trends and topical issues than ever before. Subsequently, my classroom involves more than simply learning how to be literate. Daily, I witness a keen interest from my students to ask questions about the world they live in. As a result, my classes often involve passionate discussions about world trends, one of which is the increasing inclusion of queer perspectives in pop culture. For adults who grew up in previous eras, such a pop culture phenomenon might be alarming. But for the youth growing up with queer sensibilities in their face everywhere they look on TV, magazines, and the internet: it’s their reality, and they’re curious. By extension, through implementing a resource such as All of Us, policy makers have illustrated that modern schools are places for more than learning literacy and numeracy; they are cultural institutions that have the capacity to ‘socially engineer’ a more tolerant population.
It is vital to acknowledge the positive effects of inclusive programs such as All of Us. For example, The Australian Human Rights Commission states that youth feel safer in schools with protective policies, and are “50 per cent less likely to be physically abused at school,” suffering less homophobia, self-harm, and are at less risk of attempting suicide. In addition, research suggests that Canadian anti-homophobic school programs, which began in1998 and have now proliferated across the nation, positively impact students regardless of their sexual orientation, as students in general experience less discrimination, suicidal thoughts and suicide attempts. It would seem that Canada has socially engineered a happier society characterized by acceptance. And how is that a bad thing?
Once critics cool off and stop politicizing a program aimed at promoting tolerance and safety, educational communities can get back to what it is they are passionate about: creating an inclusive environment where they can make a positive difference to the lives of all young people.