Sex education must cater to diversity

COMMENT: I am a sexuality educator. Most days during term time you will find me in a schoolroom somewhere in Melbourne presenting factual, age-appropriate information to primary aged children. My job is to support parents and guardians in answering some of the tough questions about sex, sexuality and puberty. I combat some of the misinformation kids receive via the internet or older children, and provide a safe place for them to ask otherwise embarrassing questions like: how do I know when I am going to get my first period?

I stand in front of the class as clean a slate as possible. I don't wear a wedding ring, or rainbow earrings. The students don't know if I am married, single or divorced. They don't know whether I am gay or straight. They certainly don't know who shares my bedroom (if anyone) and what we do behind closed doors.

I am not at the school to teach values; the policy of my employer is that teaching values is the role of the child's family. When I demonstrate the use of pads and tampons we will have a discussion about the pros and cons of each choice, but if I am asked to recommend one or the other, I direct the students to their trusted adults for guidance on which is best for them.

Yet it seems Dr Kevin Donnelly, who has been appointed by Education Minister Christopher Pyne, would have me removed from the classroom. In his 2004 book Why Our Schools Are Failing, he is critical of the Australian Education Union. "The union argues that gays, lesbians and transgender individuals have a right to teach sex education," he declares. And that "many parents would consider the sexual practices of gays, lesbians and transgender individuals decidedly unnatural and that such groups have a greater risk in terms of transmitting STDs and AIDS".

I'm not sure whether to be amused or angered by this hysteria. As a celibate lesbian, I am pretty sure my "sexual practices" would have parents yawning rather than tying me to the stake to be burned for my unnatural – and seemingly contagious – sex life.

As a lesbian I am 53 per cent less likely to have an STD than the average Australian woman and I am more likely to be hit by lightning than contract HIV.

But all of this is irrelevant. I could be an HIV positive, sexually active gay man specifically engaged by the school to talk about homosexuality and still need to be protected from an overhaul of the curriculum which could see me barred from classrooms.

For a highly educated man, Donnelly seems to be unaware that talking about the GLBTIQ – gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, intersex, queer – community in class is not a recruiting drive. I have no magic words to turn straight people gay any more than Donnelly has words to turn gay people straight.

Teaching students that homosexuality exists naturally, that gay couples have joys and challenges, just as their straight friends do, and that safe sex is important for all young people who have decided to become sexually active, helps to keep our youth safe.

BeyondBlue chief executive Kate Carnell says "people in the LGBTIQ community are much more likely to experience depression or anxiety for no other reason than the discrimination they face". She continues, "They are 14 times more likely to attempt suicide than the general population".

Fourteen times. Not because being gay is "unnatural" and everyone who is different knows that being born different makes you want to drop dead, but because the bullying, discrimination and silencing that comes from spending all your time in a homophobic environment becomes unbearable.

The good news is, schools with active anti homophobia policies that also run homophobia awareness campaigns show a considerable improvement in the mental health of their GLBTIQ youth.

In Writing Them-selves in 3, a national study on the sexual health and wellbeing of same-sex attracted and gender questioning young people, the authors found that schools that provided the best mental health outcomes were those which coupled policies specifically protecting GLBTIQ youth from abuse with programs that "show by their actions that they are supportive of these young people".

In September 2012, Liberal senator Cory Bernardi said (in relation to marriage equality): "The next step, quite frankly, is having three or four people that love each other being able to enter into a permanent union endorsed by society – or any other type of relationship." If it wasn't already clear to us what he meant by that, he went on to spell it out, "There are even some creepy people out there . . . [who] say it is OK to have consensual sexual relations between humans and animals."

Then opposition leader Tony Abbott and Liberal frontbencher Malcolm Turnbull were quick to distance themselves from Bernardi. Abbott accepted Bernardi's resignation as parliamentary secretary and Turnbull called his views "extreme", saying: "I want my constituents to know that I disassociate myself from those views".

So where is the line, Mr Abbott? It's obviously not OK to endorse the view that homosexuality is a slippery slope to bestiality, but is it fine to condone discrimination against educators such as myself based on our sexuality, and leave GLBTIQ youth and their peers without supportive programs?

Deanne Carson is a sexuality educator in Melbourne and co-author of Single but not Alone. This article reflects her personal views not those of her employers.

smh.com.au

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