Safe Schools Coalition: what is the Christian Right afraid of?

While some conservatives worry about the Safe Schools program ‘turning’ kids gay, they in turn seem determined to turn queer kids straight. Shutterstock

At the instigation of conservative Liberal senator Cory Bernardi, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has requested an investigation into the Safe Schools Coalition. In doing so, Turnbull has given voice to, and legitimised, discredited and prejudiced views that inclusive sexuality education will turn kids gay.

Safe Schools is a world-leading, evidence-based program to make schools safe environments for same-sex-attracted, intersex and gender-diverse students, staff and families.

Sexual orientation, gender identity and expression, and intersex status are protected grounds in international human rights legislation on education. They are also protected in Australian national legislation. Australia’s work opposing homophobia and transphobia in schools is internationally celebrated, and featured in UNESCO best-practice documentation.

This begs the question: on what grounds should we be investigating this program?

The political circumstances that brought this investigation about are clear. It is well-documented that conservative Christian voices – such as Bernardi’s – are vastly over-represented in Australia’s political system. So the sexual politics within the parliament do not represent the views of the Australian population. Conservative voices are disproportionately amplified.

But some more basic questions are: why are these conservative Christians so obsessed with sex? And why are they so afraid of lesbians and gays?

My research has shown that the Christian Right is a small minority within the broader Christian population of Australia. Yet, through political lobbying over the past 45 years, they have become the loudest religious voice in Australian politics.

In Australia, as in many places in the Western world, conservative Christian politics was transformed in the 1970s. Through the 19th and mid-20th centuries, conservative Christians maintained a broad-based social agenda. They were concerned with poverty, opposed slavery, and were involved in first wave feminist campaigns. Through the Cold War, they opposed Communism.

After the sexual revolution, Christian political organisation became almost exclusively structured around sexual politics. You could say the sexual revolution created the New Christian Right.

Beginning with campaigns against the liberalisation of censorship in 1971, lobby groups like the Festival of Light and B.A. Santamaria’s Australian Family Association were formed. They captured public attention with prominent campaigns opposing abortion reform, gay law reform, and promoting censorship and “family values”.

But whose family values do they promote?

As any sociologist or social historian will tell you, there is no such thing as the “traditional family”. The meanings and structures of families vary widely across time and place.

In developing their politics of “family values”, the Christian Right actually invented a tradition: that of the timeless, nuclear family. This 1950s “mum, dad and 2.5 kids” model is structured around a heterosexual marriage with the husband in authority. Despite this being a minority structure in the history of families, the new Christian Right presents this as the only “natural” family structure. It then positions it as the foundation of society and of civilisation.

But as their campaign against the Safe Schools Coalition reveals, the Christian Right’s model of family is surprisingly vulnerable. By positioning one, historically contingent family structure as the only natural foundation of society, the Christian Right positioned all alternative family structures as deviant and threatening.

Single parent families, blended families and, above all, same-sex parented families threaten conservative family values. The heart of this threat is their challenge to a hierarchical family model, structured by heterosexual gender difference, under male authority.

But the Christian Right’s sexual politics is grounded in a delicious irony.

They believe that there is only one “natural” structure of gender and sexual identity. In fact, they refuse to recognise any diversity in sexual orientation or gender identity as legitimate. Yet they are paranoid that anti-bullying education could “turn” any schoolkid lesbian, gay, or gender diverse. It is as if everyone has a latent homosexual or trans potential that is just waiting to be activated.

The idea that inclusive sex education and anti-bullying programs will turn kids gay or trans is as familiar as it is ludicrous. It was behind Margaret Thatcher’s notorious Section 28, behind the Australian Christian Right’s opposition to safe sex advertisements in the 1990s, and is behind Russia’s notorious “gay propoganda law”.

There is no evidence that inclusive sex education turns people gay. There is, however, plenty of evidence that it has made queer kids feel safer in schools.

The spurious critiques of the Safe Schools program are negatively impacting these kids. Bernardi and the Australian Christian Lobby’s claims that Safe Schools Coalition programs promote homosexuality (read “turn kids gay”) implies that same-sex-attracted and gender-diverse kids don’t already exist. And worse, it implies that being anything other than straight is a bad thing.

The Christian Right are thus guilty of the very sin of which they accuse Safe Schools. They are promoting a “family values” sexual agenda which is trying to turn queer kids straight. But with 72% of Australians supporting same-sex marriage, Australia’s actual family values have changed.