Moral Panic 101
Equality, acceptance and the Safe Schools scandal – a ‘Quarterly Essay’ extract
In February, the Australian’s editorial referred to it as the “so-called Safe Schools Coalition”; by March, it was the “not-so-safe schools program”; by May, the “gender fluidity Safe Schools program”; by the end of 2016, the “Marxist inspired Safe Schools.” In November, journalist Rebecca Urban valiantly continued pumping out stories on Safe Schools, no matter how minor the development. Her 14 November story was about how Australian universities taught gender studies, and how these subjects could be studied by early childhood, primary, and high-school education students. Never mind that gender studies has been taught in some form across dozens of major universities in Australia for nearly half a century; to Urban, it was a “revelation”. “The subjects are available to those studying early childhood education as well as primary and secondary teaching courses.” For Urban, the link was clear: postmodern concepts of gender and feminism could apparently pass – virus-like – from teachers to their future impressionable students.
Later that month, Tyrone Unsworth killed himself. Aspley State High School, where Unsworth was enrolled, wasn’t a Safe Schools member. Across Australia, queers were fed up. An online petition for Aspley High to join Safe Schools garnered 25,000 signatures in two days. However, some Queensland principals have told me joining Safe Schools has been more difficult in that state given the blowback from parents and the homophobic abuse member schools have copped. It’s also worth noting that Aspley High has transgender students openly transitioning on campus, who are supported by staff. After Unsworth’s suicide made the front page of the Courier-Mail, the school was nevertheless deluged with abuse – this time from queer activists and the general public alike, who felt Unsworth’s death was the result of the school’s negligence. One IT person who helped Aspley High said he’d never seen anything like the volume of it. The abuse was savage enough that Education Queensland hired two security guards to patrol Aspley High for a week. For the next few months, students asked Aspley High staff – who had been directed by Education Queensland not to talk to the media – why they didn’t just tell journalists that the school didn’t hate gay people.
In December, less than a month after Tyrone Unsworth killed himself, the Australian ran a cartoon by Bill Leak in which a big-mouthed caricature of Bill Shorten explained why Labor was opposed to the plebiscite on same-sex marriage. “If one teenager commits suicide that is one too many,” Leak depicted Shorten screeching – parroting what Shorten had said, but implying it was grotesque hysteria. Given how raw Unsworth’s death was – it was still in the news – this was pretty off at best, breathtakingly cruel at worst. That same month, the Australian happily ran an op-ed about the origins of homosexuality by Rabbi Shimon Cowen, author of Homosexuality, Marriage and Society:
Homosexuality comes from diverse sources: bodily temperament and disposition, psychological trauma and from ideological cultures which advocate for it.
Perhaps the Australian was feeling generous given it was Christmas-time, as the paper even provided a URL so readers could purchase the rabbi’s book online. On the very last day of 2016, it still wasn’t over. Safe Schools got a mention in the Australian’s New Year’s Eve editorial to readers: “Let 2017 be the year when we see the last of section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act,” they wrote, “and when the disastrous social engineering project of Safe Schools is shredded.”
To read every article the Australian has published on Safe Schools is to induce nausea. This isn’t even a comment on the content, just the sheer volume. In the year following Natasha Bita’s first February cover story, the Australian feverishly published nearly 200 stories either about, or mentioning, Safe Schools, amounting to over 90,000 words – four times the length of this Quarterly Essay. That’s at least one story about or mentioning Safe Schools every two days. This is a conservative count too, excluding the newspaper’s Cut & Paste sections and Strewth columns, as well as myriad letters to the editor. When I collated every article the Australian had published over this period into a single PDF, the resulting file was so large that my laser printer couldn’t handle it and I had to get it professionally printed and bound. The volume that came back is roughly the size of a standard PhD thesis. No one can claim the Australian isn’t thorough.
And yet, across this entire period, the Australian – self-appointed guardian of the safety of children – spoke to not a single school-aged LGBTIQ youth. Not even one. Later, queer teenagers who followed the Safe Schools saga told me the dynamic felt familiar. At school, it’s known as bullying. In journalism, it’s called a beat-up.
Conservatives know the ship has sailed when it comes to lesbians, gays and bisexuals in Australia. At some point between 2005 and 2015, we became a nation that genuinely stopped giving a shit about who you loved or slept with. We have no problems with gays as long as they don’t shove it in our faces or, as immigration minister Peter Dutton once memorably put it, down our throats. We increasingly don’t care who you marry, either. Support for same-sex marriage only grows. In its July 2017 survey, Essential found 63% of Australians felt people of the same sex should be able to marry, a boost of 3% in one month alone. A month later, a University of Melbourne survey of 17,000 Australians found 67% of women and 59% of men support same-sex marriage, as well as equal parenting and employment rights. Just over half of all Coalition voters now feel the same way. One-quarter of Australians remain opposed to same-sex marriage. Surveys show they’re in gradual decline, partly because of changing attitudes, and partly because they’re leaving the planet. Most are aged sixty-five or over.
Author and social researcher for Essential Rebecca Huntley says the Christian right have known for a while that homophobia doesn’t fly with middle Australia. “The moment you’re related to, work with or went to uni with a couple of people who’ve come out, it suddenly becomes less terrifying.” All of Us co-author Christopher Bush agrees. “Their claims that ‘sexuality is a choice’ or you can ‘pray the gay away’ no longer stick.”
The Christian hard right has adjusted its approach accordingly. It’s rare for the ACL to make the kind of proclamations typical of former managing director Jim Wallace: that homosexuality reduced your life expectancy as much as smoking cigarettes; that Seven’s Sunrise’s support of same-sex marriage was like Nazi propaganda; and, in a tweet on Anzac Day, that servicemen and women didn’t fight for an Australia that was pro-gay marriage and Islamic. Wallace’s successor, Lyle Shelton, may be prone to shockers – blogging about Safe Schools in the same breath as the Holocaust; repeatedly comparing children of same-sex parents to the Stolen Generations – but is generally a smoother media operator, cordial, even charming, to queer journalists, and referring to “our gay friends” in op-eds.
Support for same-sex marriage isn’t a reliable metric of broader acceptance, though. We can only guess how many Australian same-sex marriage supporters feel comfortable with kids being taught by gay teachers, or how many are okay with having transgender kids. Reliable data on these issues doesn’t exist in Australia, but in the United States, where same-sex marriage is legal and consistently supported by the majority of Americans, the organisation GLAAD found 29% of Americans are still uncomfortable seeing a same-sex couple holding hands, and 28% would be uncomfortable if they learnt their doctor was lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender. It might be stating the obvious, but same-sex marriage is far from the final frontier in the battle against homophobia.
What the debate over Safe Schools has shown is that although many Australians don’t have the stomach for overt homophobia anymore, artillery to fight queers is not lacking.
This is an edited extract of Benjamin Law’s Quarterly Essay ‘Moral Panic 101: Equality, Acceptance and the Safe Schools Scandal’, out now.