Although there is great support for marriage equality, including from the NSW Teachers Federation, a loud minority is resisting this change for equality.
Many of the arguments against allowing equality under the law are based on notions of protecting the traditional family unit, protecting children (it’s important to note there is equality within adoption laws) or strong religious convictions.
Last term I began to notice these beliefs becoming ever more present in my school, resulting in numerous attacks against me as a gay member of staff; other identifying teachers in my social network have also suffered.
The rhetoric of “Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve” as well as being told by a student he would pray for my sins indicated there could be religious conversations occurring at home that express views against marriage equality.
Freedom of speech is a wonderful thing and I truly respect the right of these students and their families to hold these convictions near and dear.
Yet as teachers we have an ethical and legal responsibility to express counter-views of equality and support the emotional and social development and safety of the students in our care.
Harassment on the basis of gender and sexual orientation is prohibited under the Commonwealth Sex Discrimination Act which was updated in 2013 to include Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Intersex (LGBTI) peoples. The Department of Education Legal Issues Bulletin 55 (2014) is committed to learning environments that value diversity and are free from violence, discrimination, harassment and vilification.
It is vital that any harassment or discrimination is stopped as soon as possible, that the conversation ceases.
Depending on class demographics (year group, size etc.) it may be appropriate to turn that behaviour into a teaching moment.
I would avoid asking the student why they have these views: rather, I would try to present alternatives. Explicitly talking about equality and human rights can allow the “side note” or explanation that this includes same-sex attracted and gender-diverse peoples.
Equality is an easier concept for students to understand or engage with, especially if we use examples of race or gender. For example: did you know that in the 1960s some countries didn’t let black and white people marry? Or that it was only in the early 20th century that women were allowed to vote? Do you think it is fair that in some parts of the world girls are shot for trying to get an education? Do you think it is fair that in the early to mid-20th century Aboriginal children couldn’t go to school with white children? Is it fair that some women get paid less for doing exactly the same job as a man?
These are all examples of inequalities in the recent past and are exactly the same as discriminating against LGBTI people.
Denying the right of two loving people in a committed relationship to be granted the same status as their heterosexual counterparts tells the thousands of students struggling with their identity: “Some people think you are second-class citizens.”It gives the message that some types of love and respect are valued over others. The continued denial of marriage equality reinforces this, as well as the political discourse suggesting it is an issue not worth government time and effort.
We do not expect teachers to remain silent on issues of racism or gender discrimination and the same standard should apply to discrimination based on sexuality.
Whilst education is the preferred method of stopping such events, the suspension and expulsion policy (2011) allows for both short and long suspensions to maintain the security, safety and welfare of students and staff alike.
Whilst the policy does not mention homophobia or sexuality-based discrimination it does say: “Long suspension may be issued if there is behaviour that deliberately and persistently interferes with the rights of other students to learn or teachers to teach including bullying, harassment and victimisation.”
Resources have been developed for schools to help combat homophobia, transphobia, and biphobia. Wear It Purple is a student-directed organisation that tells young people, “You have the right to be proud of who you are”. The Safe Schools Coalition provides resources and practical tools to support gender and sexual diversity. Schools can sign up to obtain resources, school auditing, professional learning and consolation.
Federation also offers resources online and through the LGBTIQ Special Interest Group, found on Facebook and the NSWTF website.
There are many teachers (including Natalie Hudson who assisted in writing this article) who are providing the support needed for all students to succeed at school. There is still much work to be done. This is a job for all educators in the greatest endeavour of them all, inclusive public education.
Tim Blackman is a member of the LGBTIQ SIG.