Tuesday, March 8, 2016

A Safe Schools discussion must start with the past.

I’m going to wade, a little, into the Safe Schools debate that in my last post I dipped my toe into. For those who don’t know the Safe Schools Coalition initiative, it can be divided into two things; a series of lesson plans and resources for high school teachers to discuss lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex student issues, and recommended high school policies to support those students (found amongst the resources).  To shrink the language of “lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex” I will be referring to this grouping as same-sex attracted and gender-diverse.

Although in my younger years some attempt was made to put all the letters of LGBTI under the reclaimed word “Queer” that never took off. For one thing the word Queer became attached to the image of a white wealthy gay male, an inevitability of any singular identity perhaps in a world of ads chasing pink dollars. Many Lesbians insisted on their own particular identity, rather than existing as Queer’s “other”. Queer politics also had agendas that were broader than the LGBTI movement – sex-positivity for example – and whereas Queer tended to embrace Drag, some feminists saw this type of performance as offensive as “black-face”.  Still Queer has an edgeyness that LGBTI lacks. Queer is a little more punk and post-normal. For this reason the term still finds favour today.

This old debate about the universality of Queer is an obscure element of history. If you lived through it and participated in it, it’s easy to imagine that everyone knows why Queer is not generally considered an acceptable umbrella term and why some people, despite this, still use it. I’m not showing off here. I never learnt this stuff. I was just involved in it. Ask me who won any of the Grand Finals through the 80’s and 90’s and I will have to guess because I wasn’t paying attention to that history.

This idea of niche and personal histories is crucial to understanding the debates and discussions around the Safe Schools initiative. Consider the example of the Tasty Raid in Melbourne in 1994. The proportion of same-sex attracted and gender diverse adults in Australia who know of this event will be huge. In fact it will be much higher than people who know about why we do or don’t use the term Queer, a largely academic debate. The Tasty raid and the subsequent suing of the Victorian Police was a big deal, but the people who remember it don’t all remember it because they are better historians. Many just remember it because it was about their lives. They either were caught up in it or they learnt about at the time through their networks.

A more chilling example of separate history was reported in an article titled ‘Sydney’s Shame’  (http://www.smh.com.au/nsw/sydney-shame ). This story reported on systematic gay bashings leading to deliberate murders around Sydney beats, and a culture of police reluctance to investigate. We’re talking here about people found dead at the bottom of cliffs with clear evidence of being assaulted first and the death being ruled as an accident. We’re talking about “fag-bashing” viewed as an ordinary activity to do with your mates. Again this is not necessarily something same-sex attracted and gender diverse people study in specialist classes. It is simply what some have lived through and many more have been aware of as they walk home. Even when these things are reported in mainstream media they become part of the consciousness of some readers and not so much of others.

Incidentally this is what women’s experience of the epidemic of violence against women is like. They hold their keys differently. Take out their phone. Stay close to the lights and avoid the alleys. Notice who is walking behind them. Of course therefore they remember more than men the history of this violence, including incidents of violence, poor political or police responses and community reactions. They will appreciate how every single Mardi Gras through the 80’s and 90’s came with a warning to keep yourself safe as you left venues because the gay bashers always stepped up their activities around that time. They will understand how that warning is a part of some peoples history of events. By the way, maybe they still give out that warning, but living in Bendigo with my family I don’t follow Mardi Gras news much anymore; again separate histories.

The relevance of all this to how Safe Schools is being discussed, is simple. Virtually every argument in support of the Safe Schools program refers to the history of same-sex attracted or gender diverse people, often incorporating the personal history of the author. The Safe Schools programs are seen as correcting for the systematic oppression that has been the life of same-sex attracted and gender diverse adults. My last blog did something similar – it drew upon my past. The past is very much present when supporters speak of the Safe Schools program. For them an ugly homophobic past is sitting square in the middle of the discussion.

Meanwhile the criticisms of the Safe Schools program are massively ahistorical. They may criticize the program based on its merits, or they may criticize what they have heard is the program based on the merits of that, but they are definitely not evaluating the program in a historical context. How was school for these critics when they were young? Irrelevant. How were workplaces or the media or the law as these critics were emerging into adulthood? They were fine, why would that matter?

Occasionally the past is brought into the conversation from some Safe Schools critics, but it is a fantasy past. It is in fact such a fantastic past as to make their criticisms even more ahistorical for mentioning it. In these pasts everyone is neighbourly and chaste, homosexuality is barely mentioned which one supposes means that same-sex attracted people barely existed, and children respect their parents because God is in the schools where He (sic) belongs. You don’t find this sort of fantasy past promoted by serious critics of the program, but it is there amongst the petition signers and the online angry. In this past there are no gay bashings or homophobia at all. This is why I consider it to be even more a denial of history than simply not mentioning history at all.

The tendency of the more serious Safe Schools critics is to blunt any historical special interest case by generalizing the focus from homophobic bullying to all bullying.  In this way they mirror other ahistorical criticisms of other historical movements. On Q&A recently the head of the Australian Christian Lobby, Lyle Shelton responded to comments that same-sex attracted and gender-diverse kids are being bullied, with comments that all bullying is wrong for whatever reason. This is a copy of the white response to the hashtag Black Lives Matter with All Lives Matter.  While technically true there is no knowledge of history in either response. It is as if presented with the Sydney’s Shame article the ACL would say “Well, all police corruption is wrong and nobody is condoning any violence here.”

This lack of recognizing their particular history frustrates same-sex attracted and gender diverse adults. Weren’t they just sharing their painful pasts moments ago? Were the ACL and their followers listening? This only gets worse when organisations like the ACL claim to be bullied, harassed and silenced today. It was not long ago that being gay was compared to smoking by the then public face and continuing chair of the board of the ACL. The concern the ACL have always shown has been very much like a concern about the uptake of smoking, to thwart any improvement in gay lives lest it encourage more people to take up being gay. Many consider them a source of homophobia.

But it’s not even a question of whether the ACL and its current head Lyle Shelton directly spread homophobia or not. The reality is that all the time Shelton was growing up and when he was a newspaper journalist and editor, when he was a city councilor and a state candidate and when he moved to the ACL, same-sex attracted and gender diverse people have been being bullied, bashed and murdered, fired from their jobs, kicked out of their homes and turned away from services. Not a single element of this history was ever confronted by Shelton as a journalist, editor, politician or lobbyist. Shelton either never knew about this history or never cared. Most likely it simply passed him by like AFL did me. He didn’t have to decide not to take an interest in it – he simply wasn’t involved in it.

Does it seem unfair to you to judge him for this? Does it seem irrelevant to his evaluation of the Safe Schools program? Maybe so in both cases but this is what I suspect is a part of the feeling of the supporters of Safe Schools. For them Safe Schools exists within a history that entitles the voices of same-sex attracted and gender diverse people to speak and disqualifies the speech of people like Lyle Shelton and the ACL. This is a shared feeling, by the way, from supporters of the program who are as heterosexual and cis-gendered as Lyle Shelton. It’s not a Queer thing to privilege Queer voices in this discussion – it’s a historically aware thing. Many even feel it is a human thing – to allow themselves to be silenced by the testimony of the survivors of violence.

Having spoken of the frustration of the Safe School supporters, let’s consider the frustration of its critics. In their minds they are making what they feel are rational arguments. Some of their arguments are not rational at all and some of them are wildly misinformed but some of them raise legitimate areas for improvement. If the filter of personal history is driving how Safe Schools supporters feel about the program and its critics, then they can be easily hostile to any criticism being made, almost regardless of the program’s content.

The Safe Schools program has been developed with the input of numerous same-sex attracted and gender -diverse young people. It has been implemented successfully at a range of schools including a Catholic school, a tiny country school and many large state schools. This all speaks to how useful and positive a program it is, but it’s still just a program. There are bound to be ways it can improve and mistakes that have been made. It seems to me that by being engaged in historical battles Safe Schools supporters are in danger of viewing all criticisms of the initiative as attacks on LGBTI people.  That's not a healthy relationship to any program.

If this conversation about Safe Schools is to improve we are going to need people who can confront the history gap in our community. There are some examples of people who speak for conservative Christians who get the importance of history in this discussion and by that I don't mean a token nod to the problem of all bullying. Michael Jensen,  is someone I disagree with on Same-Sex marriage but he recently made a long Facebook post which indicated his understanding of LGBTI history. It has since been published by the Huffinton Post. What is important about this post was that it never tries to subsume homophobic bullying or racist bullying under the generic title of all bullying. Instead it recognized that homophobic bullying occupies a particular place in our history and delivers a particular harm that can only be imperfectly imagined by those who didn't experience it. That's humility.

John Sandeman provides another example. He is the editor of Eternity Magazine, a Christian non-denominational publication and one which has defended ACL and taken a conservative stance on LGBTI issues.  On the 25th of February this year he wrote an article for the Australian Bible Society website titled, ‘The SMH apologises to the Mardi Gras. What should Christians do?’ This was a genuine admission of the history of conservative Christians in denying basic freedoms to same-sex attracted people and in being involved in their systematic oppression.

Neither of these pieces of writing specifically mentioned the Safe Schools program although Jensen's piece comes close. Perhaps that enables their authors to be freer with their acceptance of the gains of the LGBTI movement for equality or perhaps even that it is to take their point too far. At least they start the conversation off on the right foot. We should all be able to acknowledge that Australian history is a brutally homophobic one and that this is not just more of the “general” bullying, violence or sinfulness of society. It is a specific problem with same-sex attraction and gender diversity that churches have fostered themselves.

From this point I think we should all be able to agree that some kind of program like the Safe Schools initiative is necessary and deserves the paltry eight million dollars that has gone into it. This will be a leap for some conservative Christians but I hope it is one they can make. As Stephanie Judd wrote for the ABC news site, addressing the ACL in particular:
“If you feel some Safe Schools content isn't age-appropriate, then isn't dialoguing with them for modifications to the program a better and more gracious approach than pitting yourself against them by calling for their wholesale defunding?”
Stephanie, whose byline indicates she attends an Anglican Church, goes on to say that  “In the absence of a a satisfactory alternative that addresses the problem that Safe Schools was created to fix, the ACL's statements are going to continue to be received as harsh and unconstructive.”

So long as the critics of the Safe Schools initiative come at Safe Schools with axes of outrage rather than ideas for improvement they will seem to have very little idea of lives outside their own. We can see this in their ahistorical approach to the issue. So long as they propose no alternative at all or a generalised alternative that hides the special historical case for justice of same-sex attracted and gender-diverse people, they will seem to have no idea there is even a problem to fix. On that basis they are not going to be listened to and despite what they might tell themselves it won’t be because they are being bullied now. On the other hand, a proper discussion might be had if the examples of John Sandeman and Michael Jensen, both conservatives, have a genuine influence on their peers.