High school is a difficult time for young LGBTI Australians, as well as those questioning their sexuality — but if Kevin Donnelly gets his way, it could be about to get a lot tougher.
Earlier this week Fairfax reported that Donnelly, one of Christopher Pyne’s new reviewers of the national schools’ curriculum, is critical of the Australian Education Union’s stance that students should be taught about non-heterosexual practices “in a positive way”.
According to Donnelly, this stance ignores the fact that many parents would consider LGBT sexual practices “decidedly unnatural”. Donnelly’s statement is self-evidently offensive and easy enough to ignore. But coming from someone in his position, it’s also dangerous.
Statistics compiled by the National LGBTI health alliance show that young gay people are six times more likely to attempt suicide than their straight peers. Between 20 and 42 per cent of same-sex attracted young people in Australia attempt suicide every year.
Research suggests that the increased suicide rates of young gay people are caused by the disapproval of their gender identity or sexual orientation by their family, peers and teachers, as well as societal and internalised homophobia.
On the other hand, research shows gay youth who are supported are likely to be more self-accepting and better able to cope with the discrimination and feelings of isolation they may experience.
What this all means is that these suicides are preventable — and it is the programs which affirm queer identity among teens that are helping to prevent them.
One such program is delivered by the Safe Schools Coalition. Its growth over the last few years has meant that more young people in Australia are being taught that queerness is as valid an expression of sexual identity as heterosexuality.
And with the writing of the national curriculum, the significant step was made to insert inclusive sexuality education within it.
Donnelly is right: there probably are parents who feel same-sex attractions are unnatural. There are also parents who think women should not have equal rights or that Jews and Muslims should not practice their religions freely. There are parents out there who cling to all kinds of ill-informed notions.
Parents are allowed to think whatever they like. But the place for these kinds of discriminatory and hateful ideas is not in the curriculum and not in classrooms, where they fill young queer students with self-hatred, fear and debilitating anxiety. These are the feelings that contribute to the devastating levels of queer youth suicide we witness every year.
As well as increased suicide rates, queer youth are also at greater risk of depression and anxiety. In fact, there is probably not a queer person out there who hasn’t at some time felt anxious, depressed or isolated because of societal homophobia. Cultural messages are telling us constantly that being gay is, in Donnelly’s words, “decidedly unnatural”.
But among gay teens growing up today there are the lucky ones who will have the opportunity to encounter someone — a friend, a teacher, a community worker — who will help them navigate the difficult road ahead and tell them it’s ok to be gay and that it’s something they should be proud of. I know I wish I had someone like that when I was in high school.
When I read about more and more schools becoming members of the Safe Schools Coalition and about education boards inserting inclusive sexuality education into their curricula, I’m so glad to see the progress we’ve made as a society. Let’s not allow Kevin Donnelly to take us backwards.
Lifeline can be contacted on 13 11 14. QLife line, Australia's nationally-oriented counselling and referral service for people of diverse sex, genders and sexualities, can be contacted on 1800 184 527
Donate To New Matilda
New Matilda is a small, independent media outlet. We survive through reader contributions, and never losing a lawsuit. If you got something from this article, giving something back helps us to continue speaking truth to power. Every little bit counts.