I was a student in the 80s and 90s in a regional town in New South Wales. I recall sitting in a sex education class, talking and giggling with my friends about the banana and condom trick, as a bright faced teacher in training attempted to get through the demonstration in one piece. Being a Catholic school and the generation that we were, sex education focused on opposite cis-gendered relationships, popularly termed heterosexualism.
On Sunday, the NSW Government announced the abandonment of the Safe Schools curriculum amid growing local and national tension and criticism of the content. The reasoning being that a broader anti-bullying program will be adopted from June 2017. Already a large number of gender and sex diverse people hide their identity at schools to avoid bullying.
LGBTI young people at schools where protective policies are in place are more likely to feel safe compared with those in schools without similar policies (75 per cent compared with 45 per cent). They are almost 50 per cent less likely to be physically abused at school, less likely to suffer other forms of homophobic abuse, less likely to self-harm and less likely to attempt suicide.
As a young person at a Catholic school in New South Wales, I most certainly did not feel safe. I know of at least two people who ‘came out’ after school, and sometimes much later in life in their 30s, because of the trauma caused by the nature of sexual education that was the norm in those days. Needless to say that I was less than shocked, but equally stunned to see sex education taught in the same way that I was taught in a school I worked at in the last five years. Despite there being gender diverse young people, and even people with young families in the class, the teacher persevered in teaching safety education from a hetero-normative perspective.
What can educators do?
- Advocate for change in your school and the system to ensure that targeted programs are run and evaluated. Too often the system changes its priorities and programs like Safe Schools become a political football.
- Inspire young people to be gender aware by monitoring your language, resources and pedagogies to reflect diversity.
- Model good practice by involving your local community in curriculum design. I worked with the medical centre, families and older students when running sexual education classes. Ensure that the content is culturally responsive by engaging with your students’ community.
- Seek advice from other teachers about what they are observing with the students. This can help to tailor your program to the immediate needs of the school community.
- Diversify your role models in all curriculum areas. Ensure that there is similar representatives from the LGBTI community to help strengthen the realism of your work.