Education Minister Rob Stokes recently announced that the Safe Schools program would not be funded when federal support ends later this year. The rights of LGBTQIA+ youth diminished not with a bang, but with a whimper and a Miranda Devine article.
Devine tells us that, like a virus, queerness can be transmitted to otherwise straight, cisgender children by exposing them to its existence. Most damagingly though, she tells us that the Safe Schools program created an “epidemic” of trans children.
Miranda Devine, and every other commentator who cheered the program’s axing: take a moment and think about what it might be like to grow up feeling unsafe, alone and terrified, with the sinking suspicion that there was something inside you that was different to your friends. Imagine being afraid to share that thing that you didn’t have a name for until long after you’d slipped off your school uniform and finally been exposed to the complexities of identity. Imagine finally understanding yourself with the naming of a kind of being you didn’t know was available to you. Imagine how powerful and affirming that might feel. Now imagine skipping some of those years of anguish, and being able to have complexities of gender and sexuality articulated to you in the safety of your PDHPE classroom by an authority figure with the tools to guide the conversation.
Programs like Safe Schools don’t create more trans kids. They create safe, supported trans kids, as opposed to closeted, depressed trans kids. Increasing numbers of trans kids shows that the program is working. It shows that people are learning and growing, and isn’t that what you want an education program to facilitate?
Of course introducing queerness as something to embrace, something normal, natural, and beautiful, means more young people are going to feel comfortable embracing themselves and the identities presented to them rather than wasting away in sadness, secrecy and shame. Of course educating people about queerness is going to mean more people identify queerness within themselves.
Teenagers are more intelligent than anyone gives them credit for. I work with high schoolers at a conservative, religious private school (where, by the way, they can legally fire me for being queer). I teach kids who have queer friends, who are interested in queer issues, and who are themselves queer. They’re digital natives who educate themselves about queerness, consume a wide range of media about and by queer people, and who have no shortage of opportunities to engage with queerness outside of school hours. What they don’t have, and what Safe Schools provides, is a supportive framework of teachers. A framework without the pitfalls of trying to WebMD why you feel shit, without the slurs, without the toxic message boards from 2004, and most importantly, without the terror that you’ll never be able to tell anyone this thing you’ve discovered about yourself.
The Safe Schools program teaches staff and students how to accept and support their LGBTQIA+ peers. It teaches empathy with people who might not be the same as you. It teaches safety, security, and protection. It teaches the skills crucial to not be a dickhead in 21st century Australia. Without it, who knows how many years of fear and terror face queer and trans youth?