Queer students campaign to end school discrimination

Students should not be expelled for their sexual or gender identity.

As “rainbow” high school students we would like to talk about an important issue which relates to us, and that is the NSW Anti-Discrimination Act 1977.

This act protects people from being discriminated against based on factors such as age, sex, marital status, religion, sexuality, gender identity as well as many other factors. On the surface, this act is amazing for ending discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex and queer (LGBTIQ) people in particular.

However, this act has a sneaky little exemption in it that allows private and religious schools to expel, refuse to enrol, or disadvantage students who are LGBTIQ, pregnant, single or too old, as well as a range of other factors.

To combat this, the Anti-Discrimination Amendment Bill 2013 aims to equalise the restrictions on the rights of public, private and religious schools to discriminate. It’s being introduced by independent MP Alex Greenwich.

He has called for LGBTIQ students to share their stories of discrimination at school, and I am sure you have seen them but for those who haven’t, I’ll [talk about] one story from a lesbian student named Beci Jay.

She said: “Because I trusted one of my teachers I sat her down and told her about my feelings. But rather than help me, she told the principal … a lie about how she’d seen me engaged in a sexual act with a girl on the bus.

“I was absolutely indignant and so hurt. In the end, I was asked to leave the school because after they outed me to my parents, my parents supported me and not their homophobia. Apparently, our ‘values’ didn’t match up with their ‘values’.

“My parents saw what no parents should ever have to see — their 16-year-old daughter unconscious on her bedroom floor with a pile of empty pill bottles on the shelf.”

School should be a place where students have the right to not be bullied about their sexuality or gender identity, not a place where they have to keep quiet for fear of being expelled. It is a prime example of institutionalised homophobia.

We don’t understand how any MP could oppose the Amendment Bill — the way we see it, any MP who opposes this bill is a bigot, a homophobe, and should not be allowed to represent the views of Australia in any parliament, anywhere.

My sexual or gender identity should not be an expellable offence. I am lucky enough to be at a school that would not dare expel a student for being LGBTIQ, even though, for some ridiculous reason they have every legal right to do so.

The argument put forward consistently by religious organisations is that they would only like to enrol or hire people who are consistent with their beliefs and their “values”. But there are many students who are both gay and religious, and these schools have no place, or right, deciding who is a “sinner” and who isn’t.

The Christian thing to do would be to accept students no matter who they are. In fact, love and acceptance is a theme of every major religion.

We’re 150% in favour of religious freedom, but it seems to us that we must have a different definition to those who choose to abuse the word. We see religious freedom as the right to identify with and worship with a particular religion without fear of persecution. We do not see religious freedom as an excuse to discriminate and make decisions on how Christian, Catholic, Muslim or Jewish a student is.

We are sick and tired of being threatened with expulsion for being who we are.

We are sick and tired of the institutionalised homophobia that is permitted to take place in Australian schools.

We demand an end to these exemptions to the Anti-Discrimination Act.

We demand a school environment where people can be who they are without fear of being expelled, whether you go to a public, private or religious school.

[Lawson Tanner and Zac Collins-Widders are high school students and queer rights campaigners. This article is based on a speech they gave at a marriage equality rally at Sydney Town Hall on October 12.]

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