Making schools safer and more welcoming for LGBTQI students

Heterosexual students don’t benefit from not knowing about homosexuality. from www.shutterstock.com.au

The Australian Curriculum is largely silent on the needs of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and intersexed (LGBTQI) students and only discusses sexuality explicitly in the health and physical education curriculum. Other key curriculum areas do not make explicit mention of sexuality and gender diversity, and if it is not mentioned in the curriculum documents, teachers will be reluctant to teach it.

Much debate has surrounded the implementation and review of the national curriculum, including its political, cultural and religious agendas. However, the reality for LGBTQI students is that the curriculum oppresses and silences those who don’t conform to heterosexist ideals.

Sexuality isn’t just for adults

To consider LGBTQI people are of all ages is to acknowledge that young people possess a sexuality and have a gender identity. To think of young people as sexual beings is often taboo.

Information about adolescent sexuality, particularly homosexuality, remains largely ignored in schools. Young people are denied access to the most evident parts of gay and lesbian culture – particularly bars and social clubs - with legal, social, financial and political barriers that prevent any legitimate participation by young LGBTQI people.

A wide range of research, including the report Writing them In, indicates that heterosexism continues to dominate the hidden and explicit curricula of Australian schools. This reinforces and perpetuates homophobic oppression, reflecting wider societal attitudes to sexuality and gender diversity.

Heteronormativity, the presentation of heterosexuality as the “natural” manifestation of human sexuality, remains prevalent in Australian schools and in the curriculum. Many elements in society are reluctant to address or even acknowledge teenage sexuality, particularly homosexuality.

This has implications for young people. At a time when they are first aware of their emerging sexual desires and while they attempt to forge a sexual identity, they are often presented with little accurate information about sex. This is particularly true for same-sex-attracted teenagers.

If they can’t learn it at school, where can they?

Young people need affirmation that their desires and feelings are natural and “normal”. If they can’t learn about their sexuality in a safe environment where the messages are targeted, they may turn to the internet. Not all of the material they’re looking for online is appropriate for someone of their age, or encouraging that what they are experiencing is natural and okay.

Young adult imaginative literature, historical resources and inclusive texts in language classrooms provide safe places for discussions about homosexuality, sexual diversity and gender variance.

The recently implemented Australian curriculum remains largely silent about sexual diversity. When it is mentioned explicitly, sexuality is largely delegated to the biological. The physical health and development curriculum mentions sexuality, but only in terms of sexual health, reproduction and the physical aspects of sexuality.

Within this context there is little room for the myriad expressions of sexuality beyond the biological and physical. The emotional, spiritual and lived experiences of LGBTQI people and the contributions they have made to society are nowhere to be found in the curriculum.

It is therefore necessary for schools to provide information and a supportive environment for this transition from being assumed to be heterosexual, to self-identifying and being recognised as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender, to be as painless as possible. A multicultural curriculum enhances opportunities to promote understanding about difference.

However, there are barriers that prevent open dialogue about LGBTQI issues in schools. These include religious, moral or political objections; limited numbers of openly LGBTQI teachers and students; limited opportunities to interact with openly LGBTQI people in school activities; and stereotyped hysteria about recruiting young people to homosexuality.

As a supposedly progressive and liberal society, we need to discard our prejudices to ensure that all young people are protected and safe at school. Homophobic violence remains a significant issue in Australian schools.

Discrimination is based on a lack of understanding of sexual diversity. The only way to eliminate discrimination is through open discussions about sexuality inclusive of sexual diversity, and the promotion of tolerance and inclusion.

In rural Australian communities, where resources for same-sex-attracted youth are limited, stretched or non-existent, schools may be the only safe place for such discussions.

There is no benefit for heterosexual students to remain ignorant of homosexuality, and for same-sex-attracted youth to feel isolated and marginalised.

Regional, rural and remote Australia have unacceptably high statistics on youth suicide, drug and alcohol use/abuse and mental health issues related to sexuality and gender diversity. These alone are clear indicators that discussion of sexual and gender diversity in the Australian curriculum and schools can’t be ignored anymore.

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