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Tokenistic action against homophobic bullies


Victorian Education Minister Bronwyn Pike launched the Safe Schools Coalition (SSCV) in October with much support from psychologists and gay support groups. To be delivered in partnership with Rainbow Network Victoria and the Foundation for Young Australians, its primary focus is to make educational environments safer for and more supportive of same-sex attracted and gender-questioning young people.

At first glance, it is a laudable initiative especially in light of Australian research showing that 74 percent of gay young people experience verbal and physical abuse at school. 

The experience of homophobic bullying is made acute by the fact that young people are legally required to be at school until the age of seventeen years. They spend five days each week on campus for forty weeks of each year of their secondary school life. This is the fraught stage when they begin exploring and defining their identity, including their sexual identity. 

When the setting of their unfurling is also the place of their nightmares, then something has gone horribly wrong. And something needs to be done. 

So why has the response been largely lukewarm? Schools were called  to become ‘founder members’ of the SSCV back in September? How is it possible that from over 1500 Victorian state schools, only eleven were officially part of the coalition when it was launched? More important, shouldn’t all schools be ‘gay friendly’ by default, anyway?  

The reality is that education against homophobic bullying cannot be isolated from prevailing attitudes in the wider community. As with any social value that we hope to instil, children take their cues from adults, of whom their teachers are merely a subset.

The idea of an education-oriented advocacy to support gay young people is not new. The Washington-based Safe Schools Coalition has existedfor 20 years, and is part of a national network in the United States. Around 120 organisations are also dedicated there to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transsexual rights. Yet, in the past few months there have been disturbing reports of a rise in violence against gays, even in liberal New York. In separate incidents, two young men committed suicide due to the pressures of being gay in their communities. Commentators draw links between these and recent developments such as the gay marriage debate, the right-wing politics of the Tea Party movement, and homophobic language used by high-profile Republican politicians. 

Principals and teachers can keep gay young people safe at school only to the extent that they are also safe in the wider community. The discussion around bullying often overlooks the ways in which perceptions of power are being fed. Bullies like power, and their sense of power is fuelled by the notion that others are inferior. As long as specific groups of people at school or elsewhere are regarded as inferior simply because they are different, bullies will find targets. 

Without a sea-change of attitude towards gays in mainstream society, the effectiveness of school-based programs against homophobic bullying will be always be limited. Although such programs remain important,  ticking boxes on ‘teacher training, resources and consultancy’ may not adequately address the source of the behaviour.   

There is also a danger that defining ‘safe schools’ narrowly by the experience of young gay people may suggest that they the only group that is targeted by bullies. Students who identify themselves as ‘emo’ or Goth are also the focus of bullying. Those who are overweight continue to be on the receiving end of nasty jokes. Who is to say that they are less vulnerable than someone who is gay? What would it mean to them that the Victorian government has allocated $80,000 to SSCV to ‘support sexual diversity and gender diversity’? We might also ask what is the real cost of tackling ‘homophobia, transphobia and heterosexism within school communities,’ which the SSCV states as its role?

The issue of bullying in schools, and particularly bullying against young people who are figuring out who they are in the world, is serious business. One can only hope that this program is neither tokenistic nor part of a pre-election soft campaign, and that it will truly make a difference to those young people who need it.

Fatima MeashamFatima Measham is a state school teacher in Victoria. 

Topic tags: Fatima Measham, gay-friendly schools, bulling, rainbow network, safe schools



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Existing comments

Young gay people will not be safe in our schools or anywhere else while it remains official Catholic teaching that their deepest feelings are: 'pathological conditions' or 'objective disorders' that they lack 'emotional maturity' and cannot 'relate correctly to both men and women'.

Homophobia has some of its deepest roots in official church teaching.

Terry | 01 November 2010  

Are there any gay texts (including films) taught at schools?

It's not just homophobia as such that is a problem, but the blase liberalism (denial) that thinks there isn't a problem. This attitude prevents discussion of gay & lesbian issues and marginalises gay culture.

When it comes to 'progressive' thought though I don't think it's one-way from parents etc to kids - children who have actually understood homophobia can educate parents too.

I used to think that while racism had become unacceptable, homophobia was still an acceptable practice - thats still true in the media - eg sitcom gay jokes. Unfortunately whats happened has been a reversal. Racism has become more acceptable than it was ten years ago .. Which will make it harder for the gay kids of racial minorities, not to mention the overweight gay/lesbian child - separated in the above article ..

Michael | 01 November 2010  

I'm glad someone else has noticed this - it's great that they're trying to defend GLBT youth, but what about the rest of them? It's not just gays and emos that are bullied - any kid can be, often for completely arbitrary reasons.

Sadly, though, I don't know if you can fix the problem by throwing money at it - you need to change the culture, and I have no idea how you could do that.

Simbera | 01 November 2010  

I hope this program is not tokenistic or just a pathetic ploy to please a political campaign. And it is way too late for many like my own brother who was seriously bullied not only by supposed friends who he came out to but by teachers. That was over 25 years ago and he is still suffering and being treated for depression and anxiety.

This was in a small country town where fear and ignorance prevailed around issues of sexuality and probably still does. None of those teachers were ever held accountable for their bullying either. Perhaps the program needs to target teachers as well.

jen obryan | 01 November 2010  

I so agree with Terry. As a same sex attracted person in a church that refuses to dialogue (e.g withdrawing support for Acceptance), except on its terms doesn't offer much hope or joy in life. I am more than a sex act! Recently I found a copy of Maurice Shinnick's book: "This remarkable gift -being gay and Catholic". Wouldn't it be a great day when the Church could consider what I have to offer rather than see me as a threat to marriage and family life. Breaking news! I do belong to a family and treasure and support family values.

Kevin | 01 November 2010  

Fatima rightly states one of the most important objectives for school education in our society as the place for young people "exploring and defining their identity, including their sexual identity."

But, to limit a young person's education to holding before them a limited (and limitting)understanding of the psycho-physical-sexual-spiritual journey to maturity, is the issue and I feel that Fatima, and many others, could be confusing some of the dynamics of that journey with what they describe as homophobic bullying.
To 'breakout'- as in a chick breaking out of the egg to claim its place in life, requires a certain amount of tension, force-strength and ultimate choice. To live the integrity, beauty and power of gender requires ultimate choice, a 'breaking out of' and a 'breaking through' many barriers.

Homosexuality and lesbianism are not genders and so, without any support for genuine homophobia, I would ask that young people be taught and allowed to express a healthy and dignified rejection for what their journey to gender maturity innately tells them is false, without being in danger of being accused of homophobic bullying by some who are gender-confused.

Fr Mick Mac Andrew Bombala-Delegate NSW | 01 November 2010  

While any form of bullying is bad, a "mild feeling" of "homophobia" in the species of homosapiens can be regarded as a normal and healthy response, as homosexuality is a social disorder, and after all should evoke a normal response.

Our society should be mature enough to tolerate homosexuality, and its seriousness should not be over emphasized, but it does not follow that it should gain the stamp of normality and approval, by for instance, making it a sacrament of marriage.

True, people are born with some disorders, and some are acquired, but I think society can lose its way when it allows itself to be pressured into believing that a disorder is not a disorder, then wants an imprimatur to reassure this is so.

"Education" used to nullify a truism is always a social peril, such as has been proved in the Soviet days of Russia.

To see things falsely as we want them to be rather than as they really are is indeed a more serious social sickness.

John | 01 November 2010  

It goes without saying that it is the duty of any school to support all the students at that school, whether homosexual or not. It is likewise a duty to protect homosexual students and other minorities in particular from bullying, violence and verbal denigration or any other kind of unjust treatment.

However, the Safe Schools Coalition ought not to support, encourage or confirm the homosexual orientation as such of students. It should not become an agent for the more general homosexualist agenda. Many people in the wider community see homosexuality as a psychosexual disorientation which should not be encouraged in the young. Many young people exploring their sexuality and establishing their personal identities pass through a homosexual phase to a heterosexual identity, as is to be expected. It would be quite wrong for the development of such people to be arrested by an ideological misapplication in their formative years of something like the SSC.

The teaching of the Catholic Church on sexuality is not homophobic. It affirms that authentic human sexuality has to do with the radical personal commitment of a man and a women founded on a partnership of love and open to the procreation of children. All sexual activity outside heterosexual marriage is to a greater or lesser extent defective. This is not an unreasonable or hateful position. The Church condemns wrong actions but it does not condemn the people who perform such actions. Rather, it offers them understanding and pastoral care.

Sylvester | 01 November 2010  

The problem of bullying of all kinds including gender, racial or religion-based, has greater social implications than we imagine.

The government's Safe School Coalition initiative may be a step in the right direction but does little to come to terms with the psychological issues that beset these bullies.

They - the bullies - may have come from a (so-called) stable home environment, middle class and all that, or from an abused one. Whatever their background, the fact that their sociopathic behaviour has been allowed to remain unchecked beyond their early child development stage is a clear sign that mental health issues have been overlooked.

There are sufficient evidence to suggest that anti-social behaviour in early childhood development can lead to adult psychopathic behaviour. If we are serious about addressing (school yard) bullying, we should also provide rehabilitative support to those who have personality dysfunction problems. And addressing their mental health is one of them.

Alex Njoo | 01 November 2010  

Isn't it time that we as a society stopped focussing so much on bullying specific groups and focussed more on 'bullying' of any type as being the evil?

Name-calling should be spoken out against in schools...which is where bullying begins.....[I am a high school teacher and am very aware of the problems whether it is the word 'gay' or 'fatty' or whatever].

Mobile phones and all electronic message sending should not be tolerated during school hours either. Surely too parents have a great deal of responsibility as to what they teach their children.

Why dump responsibility on schools all the time?

This whole question of acceptance of being gay as being important, acceptable, is stretching the point. 'Tolerance' is what we need to instill in young people.

I was taught by the good nuns to be tolerant and generous to all types of people, especially those that struggle to survive and live in poverty.

Why are we so preoccupied in the world today about rights of gay people, fat people etc etc? in our over-indulged society generally, when there are so many more people suffering genuine need.

Seems to me that the preoccupation is part of our 'over-sexed', 'over-sexualised' society...Surely a bit of perspective and common decency is what we need to instill in our youth very quickly.

Bullying will then be less of a problem when children realise that the world has many different people in it. Perhaps too preparing young peole for adult choices will also get a bit of perspective!

Maybe the old fashioned personal 'conscience' needs to be spoken about and examined more often.....Did I say or do an unkind word or deed today etc?

penny | 01 November 2010  

I agree with Penny. We try to band aid each separate manifestation of lack of respect for others instead of looking seriously at giving kids a philosophy that will encourage them to accept that different people have different ideas and needs but that we all have a need to be treated with respect.

Margaret McDonald | 01 November 2010  

Good piece. Disappointed at the misleading title. Article is more nuanced than that.

Siobhan | 01 November 2010  

Superb article, Fatima. Thank you. I'd love to think that Catholic schools, too, could manage the daunting complexities of handling these issues so openly. I'm sure that some are very responsive to them, but their achieving the ideal openness about it that you picture would be a wonderful thing.

Joe Castley | 01 November 2010  

Sylvester shares a genuinely deep and far sighted wisdom with us, but sadly this seems to go over many people's heads, particularly once they become hijacked by the jaundiced agendas of the various pro homosexual lobby groups

John | 02 November 2010  

From Saint Francis of Assisi
"I want everyone to go to heaven."
Grace Episcopal Cathedral in San Francisco is a welcoming church for those who feel ostricised.
Saint Francis of Assisi is always Inclusive.
Unwelcoming article can be read in this URL

K K | 06 November 2010  

While i find any form of bullying reprehensible it is a part of life and nature, im now an adult and have children who get at times bullied by other kids, i belive it builds character. Even in nature there is bullying its not just a human issue. If this garbage being taught by SSCV goes into state schools and all kids have to be corrupted by it, then i will home school my kids to protect then from this reverse bullying. I dont care what amyones orientation were all people but this rot doesnt' belong in SCHOOLS

eric | 07 August 2015