You can’t take the politics out of Safe Schools

What happens when a ragtag team of do-gooder celebrity gays and their allies get together to lobby for a new, moderate, “politics and controversy free” version of the Safe Schools program?

Well, politics and controversy, of course.

The proposal, brainchild of former Fairfax journalist Ben Grubb, who signed on celebrities like Missy Higgins, Guy Pearce and Troye Sivan, went viral when their open letter was published last week.

The letter itself was sloppy in both syntax and message, at one point calling for an anti-bullying program with an LGBTI focus that “isn’t just another anti-bullying program” and then at another point calling for a program against all forms of bullying, including bullying on the basis of “skin condition” and “political persuasions”.

Curiously, Grubb and his celebs call on education experts, paediatricians and “criminologists” to develop the anti-bullying program, which would lead you to think that Grubb doesn’t know what either a criminologist or an anti-bullying program is.

But the real problem was that the proposal, supposedly arguing for a program that would address bullying of LGBTI youth, started by rolling over to accommodate the prejudices of all the homophobic bullies in Australian society.

“Make no mistake”, the open letter said, “we do not seek a program that seeks approval of the way certain members of our society live. We seek only mutual respect and tolerance”.

LGBTI groups and commentators were quick to express their outrage, with many rightly stating that this call for a “Safe Schools 2.0” threw the real Safe Schools program under a bus, and that asking for mere “tolerance” over “acceptance” was just giving in to homophobic bigots.

One of the signatories, Em Rusciano, backed away from the letter, stating that she thought she was simply signing a petition to support Safe Schools and that the open letter had not been attached. In fairness, Grubb apologised unreservedly the day after his open letter went viral and removed his petition from change.org, stating:

“Given the purpose of this letter was about achieving an outcome that would help LGBTI youth – which would require the federal government to fund it – I made the decision to omit the word [acceptance]. This is a decision I deeply regret and I am truly sorry for. I am sorry to the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex community, many of whom have told me that by doing this represented the letter pandering to conservative views.”

However, there’s a problem with the whole common-sense framework through which Safe Schools is now understood. Because of the relentless attacks on the program and one of its co-founders, Roz Ward, those who want to stand up for Safe Schools have been reduced to defending it on the basis that it’s simply an anti-bullying program. It’s a defence that appeals to people’s moral outrage that a government could be so cruel as to want to cut funding for a program that simply tries to prevent bullying. It’s not about politics; it’s about saving kids’ lives. Maeve Marsden, writing at Daily Life, explained the problem with this approach:

“How are we meant to tell young people not to bully trans kids if we don't teach them basic gender theory? … When it comes to the bullying of LGBTI kids, it’s a symptom of broader attitudes and lack of understanding. To really combat homophobic and transphobic bullying we cannot reduce the issue to just kids being immature and cruel.”

While the begging for tolerance over acceptance in Grubb’s letter was cringeworthy, the call to have a “de-politicised” Safe Schools was in many ways worse, and reflects a view that lingers within the LGBTI community and among our allies. When the Victorian government decided in December to take over the program and sack Roz Ward and her team, Fairfax journalist Farrah Tomazin expressed a common view in the LGBTI community that it was “a tough but necessary move to preserve the integrity of a program that is invaluable for so many young people”.

Our side never wins by conceding ground to bigots. This is something history has shown over and again. Indeed, Grubb even admitted in his letter that he chose to ask for “tolerance” over “acceptance” because he had been speaking with a Canberra “decision maker” who advised him on the language that would more likely get Safe Schools government funding.

But even the word “acceptance” misses the mark. Safe Schools is not just about telling kids not to be mean to each other. It is about teaching students that they can be attracted to whoever they want to be, that there are many gender identities and, most importantly, that these things shouldn’t only be tolerated but should be celebrated. These ideas are political because oppression is political. Shying away from that fact doesn’t help our cause.