Over the past few weeks, there have been heated discussions around what people learn about sexuality and gender at school. In some ways it has reminded me of the 1970s moral panic that occurred after the publication of Young, Gay and Proud (written by the Melbourne-based Gay Teachers and Students Group). That was almost 40 years ago.
When I think back to my experiences of sex ed at school in the late 1980s and early 1990s, I don’t remember it being very helpful. At primary school, my teacher told us that if we ate a lot of beetroot our urine might turn red, but that we shouldn’t be alarmed because that would be normal.
In high school, they tried to teach us about the Billings Method. But it was hard to make sense of it all given that we hadn’t yet been taught much about menstruation or conception. It did, however, introduce me to some lavish new words (“viscosity”, anyone?) That was more or less all the formal sex ed I can remember.
Of course, I am not alone. Experiencing obscure sex ed is almost as much a rite of passage as sex itself. Historically, schools haven’t been great at teaching people sex ed, and, of course, they have struggled even more to offer relevant education to LGBTI students.
Often, people have sought to remedy this problem by arguing that diverse experiences of gender and sexuality need to be addressed in schools as part of the health curriculum (e.g. sexual health, mental health, anti-bullying, suicide prevention).
But what is striking about the recent discussions in relation to Safe Schools is how they are situated in a long history of anxieties about young people, schooling, gender and sexuality, although this history is seldom actively discussed.
For example, it is interesting to reflect on discussions earlier this year regarding efforts to stymie opportunities for queer young people to socialise together at a Same Sex Gender Diverse formal in Melbourne. Such discussions are reframed when we consider them from a historical perspective, observing that young people have been organising themselves for decades.
These histories are rich and fascinating, and part of the Australian story. They beg the question of what schooling might look like if LGBTI matters weren’t only discussed in relation to health, but in terms of history and culture as well. Perceptions and experiences of sexuality and gender are much broader than health.
For some people, the question of including more information about sexuality and gender difference at school is a controversial issue; for others, it can help make life liveable. This debate is one that has many positions. But surely everyone can agree that we would be enriched by learning more about how people have grappled with similar questions in the past?
In the 1970s, people did not have access to all of the histories we now have. Last year’s release of the film version of Timothy Conigrave’s memoir Holding the Man (2015) is a powerful example of how popular culture is making histories of sexuality, gender, youth and schooling more readily accessible. Sources like this encourage us to see the rich history that is largely an untapped resource in Australian schools.
Of course, across the country there is exciting work going on in and out of schools: education that engages the rich potential of queer history and culture in a range of formal and informal ways. Such approaches, however, can be ad hoc, under-resourced and vulnerable to a moral panic attack.
How can we strengthen this work? In 2012, I established the Queer Youth Education Project through which I have run free workshops on Australian queer history and culture with youth groups, youth workers, teachers and the general public.
In the United Kingdom and the United States, there are well-established LGBT or queer “history month” initiatives, which work in various ways to incorporate LGBT or queer history into the teaching and learning of history in general.
These initiatives raise many questions about what approaches could work for Australia, and this would be a useful discussion for us to have. The history taught in schools is often one which only appears to include heterosexual people, and when sexuality and gender difference is discussed it is often only in terms of health. An LGBTI or queer history month would draw attention to these things.
More than this, a Queer History Month could help teachers, young people, parents and communities work together to share ideas about how these issues could be addressed.
When this year’s Mardi Gras parade happens on Saturday, the marchers, revellers and spectators will be calling to mind the violence, celebration and struggle of that first march almost four decades ago.
It is a call to each of us to reflect on the histories we inherit, even those parts we find painful and confronting. Since the 1970s Australia has, for the first time, welcomed a generation of young people growing up after Gay Liberation.
So much has changed so quickly: decriminalisation, increased public visibility of queer people, changes to the recognition of gender identity and intersex status, the expunging of historical homosexual convictions, and more.
And yet, at the same time, we find echoes of the past in the tenor of contemporary debate. By turning our attention to the past, perhaps we can all learn together about historical struggles over sexuality, gender and education in schools, and why for some there is so much at stake in this debate.
In the end, putting LGBTI or queer people and issues into the history that is taught at school might teach us all a bit more about the Australia that we live in today.