Que(e)rying Power: Safe Schools and the Comforts of Conservatism

It is rare, these days, for me to expend energy getting passionate about the regular injustices that politicians perpetrate against non-heterosexual, non-cisgender folks. Impotent rage is neither effective nor satisfying. However the government’s decision yesterday to launch an inquiry into the Safe Schools Coalition was, shall we say, the straw that broke this queer’s back. There have been many excellent pieces written by LGBTQIA+ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans, Queer/Questioning, Intersex, Asexual Plus) folk about the importance of the work that Safe Schools does.

This is not one of those pieces.

This is a piece fuelled by anger, by exasperation and exhaustion at the way that those with power keep their power through maintaining the status quo.

“It’s not about gender, it’s not about sexuality…It makes everyone fall into line with a political agenda…Our schools should be places of learning, not indoctrination.

Cory Bernardi’s words are always easy to critique. At times his remarks are so inflammatory that one wonders if the LNP press machine isn’t directing him in order to make Turnbull look moderate by comparison. The hypocrisy of his comments almost makes them seem like parody. As if our society’s ingrained homophobia, transphobia, our rigid and binary gender roles are natural. As if the attempted suicide rate for young LGBTQIA+ folks being 14 times higher than their peers , is in some way normal and apolitical. Bernardi and so many like him seem to be saying that this state of death and discrimination is not the product of an agenda. In doing so he downplays the role of religion, media and capitalism – all of whom profit monetarily and socially from a heterosexual, gender binary status quo – in the production of this ‘normal’.

Ideas about heterosexuality and binary gender are constantly and subtly forced on us day in and day out. These ideas are together often referred to as heteronormativity and they are EVERYWHERE. Movies and TV shows overwhelmingly show cis, gender binary characters in monogamous, heterosexual relationships. Young girls’ clothes are delicate and easy to get dirty while young boys are dark coloured and more practical. Advertisers so rarely feature same-sex couples that when they do it is news. Movies about trans people use cis actors, because Hollywood can’t seem to find a trans person that looks like what their idea of a trans person should look like. If this total saturation of heteronormativity isn’t indoctrination, I don’t know what is.

But of course Bernardi’s concerns reflect typical liberal conservative ideology: conserve the way that things are now because they are right and good, normal and natural. We know this because the way things are benefits ‘us’ – and who gives a fuck if it doesn’t benefit ‘them’? After all, ‘they’ have the same life chances as ‘us’, any little boy or girl can grow up to be Prime Minister, just work hard, pull yourself up by your bootstraps, we have so much formal equality! Look at the Anti Discrimination Act! Sure you are only given legal protections from transphobia if you’ve had genital surgery, but who wouldn’t want that? Never mind that it is prohibitively expensive, anyone can make money and have job security if they just work hard enough – pull yourself up by your bootstraps!

“(homophobia) should be no more tolerated than racism, especially in the school environment…However, it is essential that all material is age appropriate and that parents have confidence in any resources used in a school to support the right of all students, staff and families to feel safe at school

The Education Minister Simon Birmingham takes a slightly less sensationalist approach than Bernardi and should be congratulated on his dressed up “I’m not homophobic, BUT”. The idea that discussions of sexuality and gender outside of the norm is somehow inappropriate for young people is both laughable and damaging. Why is it that we deem some subjects taboo? Why are we uncomfortable with discussing these things when every other aspect of young people’s lives, from the pictures in their science text books to the billboards they pass on the way to school are saturated with heterosexuality and binary gender roles?

While Birmingham certainly can not be faulted in supporting all students’ and staffs’ right to feel safe at school, what he actually infers is that the majority of families, students and staff should feel comfortable at school. Which is an entirely different thing.

When we get too comfortable it is, in my opinion, a symptom of lapsed empathy. The majority of students, staff and families should not always be in their comfort zone at school. Because if this is the case, LGBTQIA+ members of the school community, any community really, are never comfortable. By gently challenging assumptions about what is a ‘normal’ gender identity or expression, about what is ‘natural’ sexuality, we cause discomfort. And that is good. Because from that discomfort, non-LGBTQIA+ folks can see what it is like for their queer peers. They can critically examine their assumptions and develop an outlook that doesn’t settle for blind acceptance of the norm.

The thing is, this would be disastrous for any political party, indeed any straight white cis man whose social power is dependant on the disempowerment of those who are different. Because when we begin questioning the status quo, suddenly the comfort of those in power, both politically and socially, comes under threat.

So who benefits from an inquiry into a program designed to make school safer and more comfortable for queer students? It is not only people like Cory Bernardi who would, it seems, like for their hatred of difference to be indulged. It is everyone who has naturalised privilege that many of us, queer and not, take for granted.

In order to achieve equality, those with the power that privilege grants them must give up some of these comforts. Which is perhaps why they would prefer to funnel money and time into an inquiry into Safe Schools rather than actually back up their claims that homophobia is unacceptable with action. In which case perhaps the most powerful thing we can do is to keep asking questions. To keep querying the status quo, asking why something seems normal, why we view some things as natural, and perhaps most importantly: who benefits from this?