Over the past 12 months or so, Australia has been witness to an extraordinary campaign against queer people. The target has been the Safe Schools Coalition, a government-funded, university-based program that helps primary and secondary schools deal with bullying against LGBTI students. For some of us, this has had an awful familiarity. Australia has a long history of attacks from the Right which have bundled together queer people and the abuse of children. In the past these have been successfully fought off; knowing how we did that then might well help us to respond now.
The Murdoch-owned national daily newspaper, the Australian, spear-headed the anti-Safe Schools program, acting as a megaphone for the far-right lobby group, the Australian Christian Lobby (a tiny but influential outfit with links to the right wing of the Liberal party). It accused Safe Schools of espousing a ‘political ideology’, of ‘promoting queer sexuality’, of foisting post-modern cultural relativism on a captive audience of helpless children. And that was before they found out that the program head was herself a Marxist! The Australian ran an article every day for several months vilifying the program, its staff, and anyone who dared speak up in support of it. Fact-checking was not part of the campaign’s remit.
At one point, Latrobe University, the program’s host, tried to capitulate, suspending the program head while they ‘investigated’ her. All hell broke loose, with academics, the union, members and supporters of the LGBTI communities protesting loudly. The Vice-Chancellor was brought to heel in less than a week.
The federal government was made of sterner stuff. In response to the right-wing campaign, Liberal Party Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull commissioned an inquiry. This found that there were no significant problems with the program – but Turnbull replied by gutting it, censoring much of the website content and announcing that when its current funding ran out it would not be renewed.
Young, Gay, and Proud
The previous bout of homosexuals-as-child-abusers attacks came in the late 1970s as it dawned on the Right that they were losing what we now call the Culture Wars. A decade of lesbian and gay activism, beginning in 1969-70, had produced legal reforms and a steady improvement in public and professional attitudes towards gay people.
Activist confidence was high and in the late 1970s. The Melbourne-based Gay Teachers and Student Group decided that it could produce a booklet for gay and lesbian school kids. Young, Gay and Proud (YGP) was published in 1978. It was a remarkable product of a movement that was on the front foot. It used straightforward and occasionally frank language, cartoons and a clear layout to get its message across. And that message was, quite simply, ‘gay is OK’. It addressed its readers assuming they were gay, and discussed the ins and outs of gay life, including (but not only) gay and lesbian sex life, in a practical manner.
The Right saw its opportunity and mobilised around the threat posed to children by YGP specifically and homosexuals more generally. The Right in Australia drew heavily upon the ideas, rhetoric and tactics of the then-emerging Christian Right in the USA (notably Anita Bryant’s organisation, Save Our Children) and, to a lesser extent, British moral conservatives like Mary Whitehouse. For the most part the explicit concern of the Right was that children might be persuaded that homosexuality was an acceptable way of life. Occasionally creepier psychic depths were stirred. In Homosexuality: Its Victims and the Value of Legal Deterrence, a pamphlet produced by the Australian Festival of Light, a reasonably respectable conservative morals campaign group, a Sydney doctor, Jean Benjamin, warned against ‘homosexuals being allowed to take jobs as baby-sitters and use the suckling reflex of young infants for their own nefarious purposes (fellatio) with the added risk of oral syphilitic infection of the baby’. (p. 8) But for the most part, the Right were more political in their choice of arguments. As Bob Brake, one of Anita Bryant’s organisers, put it: ‘The molestation tactic is the thing that particularly got the headlines. We know how effectively it can be used’.
Because the assault from the Right was correctly identified as a political attack, it elicited a political response. Liberal journalists, civil libertarians, educators and, of course, lesbian and gay activists took up the cudgels. The state Education Department adopted a half-hearted stance that did little to prevent the 10,000 copies of YGP that had been printed from flowing into schools and beyond, and into the hands of kids, parents, teachers.
The current anti-Safe Schools campaign is best understood as a contemporary expression of the same kinds of anxieties on the part of the conservative Right. As in the 1970s, the tide is running against them. If same-sex marriage (basically the last substantial legislative action the gay equality movement requires) hasn’t yet been won, it must nonetheless be hard for the Right to see how it might be stopped, other than by the mobilisation of anti-gay fear.
As in the case of YGP in late 1970s, the Safe Schools defence campaign was immediate. There were demonstrations around the country and petitions garnered tens of thousands of signatures. In March 2016, on very short notice, activists in the state of Victoria organised what was probably the largest public meeting relating to queer issues since the 1980s. Scores of short, sharp speeches generated, literally, a wall full of action proposals.
But after a promising start, the campaign faltered. When the Victorian state government stepped in a few days before Christmas 2016 and cut off the Safe Schools program funding that it provided to the university, sacked the staff and announced it was absorbing the program into the Education Department, there was virtually no resistance. Some seem to hope that making it an official government program would protect it. But it is hard to see the Department being able to mount a convincing defence from within its apolitical public service shell, hard to imagine the government being any stronger in its defence than the university was, hard to see the Liberals, when they eventually get elected to government, won’t just shut it down.
The most striking thing about the lack of response was the silence of activists. The enthusiasm of the March meeting seems to have dissipated. Discussions on the Facebook page set up to support the campaign quickly degenerated into abuse and vilification, directed internally rather than against the Right, and seems now to have been abandoned by most of those initially involved.
It is not clear what might be going on out there in the nooks and crannies of society (which is where all real change happens) and maybe the 500+ member schools remain committed to resuming their work in the new school year (which started January 31). Maybe the Victorian government will indeed continue to roll out the program into all schools, as it has promised it will. But while the deeper cultural changes are still with our side, there can be no doubt that this is the worst (arguably the only) setback the Australian movement for queer rights has suffered for a very, very long time.
Graham Willett is a historian with an interest in queer history in Australia and, more recently, in the British World. He is the author of Living Out Loud: A History of Gay and Lesbian Activism in Australia (2000) and many chapters and articles on aspects of those histories. He has been a committee member of the Australian Lesbian and Gay Archives since the mid-1990s.