On Safe Schools

There’s a lot that can be said about the Safe Schools program. I know that, because there’s a lot being said about it. A lot of things that are warm and encouraging, at all levels of our social and political lives, and of course the things that are as far away from warm and encouraging as you can get.

It’s very easy to react emotionally on these things. It’s tempting, and it’s almost effortless, because your gut reaction can speak loudly and clearly when you feel passionately; but despite the ease with which you can do this, it very rarely does more than adds your voice to the howl of other voices doing the same thing, whatever side of the argument that may fall on. You’ll find others who share your opinion, and you’ll be dismayed at the voices arguing against you.

And while it’s often the case that the loudest and most noticeable voices go the furthest – the politicians, the high-profile campaigners, the decision makers and so on – there’s still a common area where either side of the argument falls down, and that’s in the case of the information on which said voices base their opinion.

My emotional reaction is simple: I’m 100% behind the Safe Schools program and stand for everything it supports. I’d happily howl that into the wind if I thought enough people were blindly adhering to my opinions and it would make a change, but I know that’s not the case.

Instead, I want to address the thing that I think is playing a big part of the debate on Safe Schools that doesn’t get addressed much.

That thing is the notion of heteronormativity.

Break down the word, and its definition is clear – the idea that “heterosexuality” is “normal”. Most academic views consider that heteronormativity is a structure of beliefs that are held to view the world in, and that attitudes such as sexism, transphobia and homophobia stem from heteronormativity.

I’d pare it back a little and say that in general, we function in a heteronormative society. I hate to use a term as potentially loaded as “normal” in that context, but if you were to state that heterosexuality is the assumed default status of most people you meet, it’d be hard to argue against that.

A simple way to highlight this – when you meet someone new, you might wonder if they’re gay/bi/asexual – you’d rarely wonder if someone was straight. This happens because the characteristics or mannerisms or the way they dress or something else raises a question (could they be gay/bi/asexual?) and what you’re questioning is how much does this person deviate from the “norm” or the societal default.

Now what you then do with your assessment of that person speaks to your character.

“Could they be gay? Either way, their glass is empty and I’m going to buy them a beer” probably indicates you’re a cool individual.

“Could they be gay? I’d best douse the kids in holy water and move to another state” – probably not so cool.

But the simple fact that the question came into your mind at all is what highlights the idea of heteronormativity.

Heteronormativity pervades our society in a lot of ways, to varying degrees of intent and reason, from people actively reinforcing it, to those who simply operate from within it or because of it. A social construct does not need to be actively participated in for it to still exist, but it certainly doesn’t stop people from actively participating in it.

When it comes to something like the Safe Schools program, it becomes an issue because people define what’s acceptable material for schoolkids based on what they perceive to be in line with the norm, or in this case the heteronorm. The conservative view is that the material is unsuitable for children because of how it might sway their thinking or warp their minds. The progressive view is that this material is essential for kids who have questions and need guidance.

If you take Tony Abbott’s reprehensible statement that the Safe Schools program was a “social engineering” program, you might counter with the fact that all children are socially engineered while they grow up in a heteronormative society. The values we see promoted on a wide-scale, the marriages between men and women, the stories we see on TV, in movies, in books, the notion of distinct categories of entertainment, colours and activities for boys and girls – they all contribute to a heteronormative world view.

Does that make them bad? No, of course not. No one is a monster because they’re straight, or because they identify as a girl and like girly things or because they identify as a boy and like boyish things. Is a cutesy-romance movie bad because it’s straight? Knowing romance movies, it’s probably bad, but not because of the makeup of the relationship. But do these things have visibility in a way that reinforces the idea of heterosexuality being normal? Yes. They might not actively be setting out to do that, but it does.

And it doesn’t seem like too big a deal at all, until you see what happens to people who deviate from that norm, who don’t function in the default setting. Let’s consider something very high-level and return to the romance movie. If its two leads are a man and a woman, it’s a “romance” or “romantic comedy” or a “romantic drama”. If its two leads are the same sex, it can be any of those things, but it also becomes a “queer film”. There’s a point of deviation, and it’s highlighted as such.

In school, you can be an athlete, an academic, the class-clown, the drama kid or any other number of identities. The second that you’re identified as “the queer kid”, it’s hard to overcome that being the main thing people assess you with. There’s a point of deviation. And how that’s highlighted can vary drastically and dangerously.

One of the things that kept me firmly closeted in high school (I’ve known I’m bi for as long as I can remember, but only talked openly about it within recent years) was the fear of what might happen if I were to say anything. It was the fear of not knowing if it was acceptance or torment that laid ahead that caused me anxiety. It is the fear of knowing how people have reacted in the past in different settings that makes it easier – not comfortable – but easier to stay silent.

It certainly didn’t help that my school was surprisingly apathetic towards bullying despite having quite a strongly written anti-harassment policy. Girls in my sisters’ grades were felt up in the locker rooms against their will, and “boys will be boys” was offered as an explanation. A girl in my grade was humiliated in one of the most vindictive ways high school is capable of (and ten years later is too late to say it, but if you’re reading this, I’m sorry (and still sorry) that I didn’t have your back when it happened) and the teachers by and large donated 0% of their fucks about it.

But that’s school. Made up of flawed individuals, going about their days and surviving, in a system that’s chaotic beneath its exterior, and harder to control when it breaks loose. Something like Safe Schools wouldn’t eradicate the fear, and being realistic it wouldn’t have stopped any bullying if I’d said anything, but I would’ve had some comfort knowing that I wasn’t isolated by it.

If it’s still a hard concept to grasp, and I understand that living it is a very different beast from observing it, than this music video may go someway to conceptualising what the fear is like (it’s exaggerated/explicit but gets the emotive punches right):

And for the kids at school these days, they get the mired joy of going to school under those same conditions but with the growing pervasiveness of the internet in their lives, where they have so much more access to the wide and public debates about issues that affect them directly, and get to hear moral grandstanding about what is right and appropriate and, most damagingly, what is considered normal, even if its not termed as such.

It’s a damaging debate, because the morals and opinions of the program’s detractors are founded in their heteronormativity, and without them realising this as such, turns their argument not into a case of “appropriate” and “inappropriate” but “right and wrong”.

More to the point, the braying and outcrying from a bunch of Straight White Men™ in parliament is so far removed from the actual lived experience of the kids who are having to go through the torment of highschool with the added fear/anxiety/pressure of not fitting into the heteronormative model that it’s completely pointless to have such vicious conjecture about something that does not affect them.

The Safe Schools program is not a miracle cure for bullying. It would not eradicate bullying, it would not stop kids being awful to each other, and it most certainly does not “socially engineer” impressionable kids into a way of life. It promotes acceptance and tolerance and understanding. It doesn’t guarantee them. It helps well-intentioned-but-clueless school administrations have a starting point to relate to these kids whose lived experiences are so different from their own. It helps to bridge the gap between the known and unknown.

But if the George Christensens, Cory Bernardies, Tony Abbotts have their way and the program is eradicated entirely, it’s not going to stop queer kids existing, or going to school and being tormented, or (hopefully) going to school and finding groups of friends who love them and accept them however they are. The biggest opportunity for the Straight White Men™ opposing Safe Schools is that they need to learn that the people and effective school initiatives that don’t fit the heteronormative mold are simply different from their view – not dangerous.