BRISBANE – Walking into the State Library Queensland early one morning in September this year, I made a beeline for the elevator that would take me to the Green Room of the Brisbane Writers Festival.
Despite being well ahead of the suggested 45 minutes arrival time, the weight of the day and our Papua New Guinean women writers presentation had me flustered.
I hadn’t even thought that I might transit into the same confined space and breathe the same air as writing royalty, in this case the author and journalist Benjamin Law (The Family Law and Gaysia: Adventures in the Queer East).
Floundering in panic at the sight of brilliance and Law’s pleasant and boyish smile, I catastrophised; eventually managing a delayed, goofy grin.
Law’s own presentation at the festival occurred just after the publication of his controversial Quarterly Essay, Moral Panic 101: Equality, Acceptance and the Safe Schools Scandal.
Well-researched and balanced, its 20,000 definitively argue that schools should be an environment where student’s learning is promoted and individual differences acknowledged, respected and supported.
Moral Panic 101 is mandatory reading for people who wish to better understand the arguments countering the push against making available Safe Schools a national program to support lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex and queer (LBGTIQ) students, as well as their straight peers and the teachers who need to address homophobia within the school setting.
The first Safe School initiative was introduced in Victoria in 2010 following consistent findings that LGBTIQ Australians have the “highest rates of suicidality of any demographic in the country”. The program recognised that “all school communities have a responsibility … to ensure that teaching is inclusive and relevant to the lived experiences of all students, including students who may be same-sex attracted, gender diverse or intersex”.
Despite seeking a collaborative approach to providing this support mechanism for students, Safe Schools was to have to endure a tumultuous social and political furore as it became part of Australia’s culture wars.
There was eventually parliamentary debate, followed by a review and an announcement by the federal education minister that funding for Safe Schools would not be renewed, although Western Australia, South Australia, the ACT and Victoria committed to continuing its delivery in some form.
An acronym for words I am not convinced I fully understand. I am no expert on gender or sexuality, nor do I for a minute pretend to put myself in the shoes of LGBITQ people.
However, as a person pre-occupied with fairness, justice and equal opportunity for all people, I adamantly support the rights of my LGBITQ sisters and brothers in Australia and in Papua New Guinea.
It is inevitable that, in my taking this public stance to advocate the rights of LGBITQ people, some will reduce me to the role of a Papua New Guinean woman speaking out of turn: an affront to the heterosexual, ‘Christian’ majority.
But before the near-embarrassing claim of “we are a God-fearing country” is wheeled out yet again, it is worth considering why listening to another’s point of view may benefit when in disagreement.
Recently, American journalist Bret Stephens delivered the keynote lecture at the Lowy Institute Media Awards, later published in the New York Times as ‘The Dying Art of Disagreement’.
Stephens focused on the role of journalism and perspectives of disagreement as presented by the media and the audience’s responsibility, which he summarised as “shut up, listen up, pause and reconsider and only then –speak”.
“Free men and women do not need to be protected from discomfiting ideas and unpopular arguments” Stephens said, urged people to allow for the possibility of persuasion by what the other person may say.
For those (like me) whom find themselves often disagreeing with the majority, Stephens was most encouraging when he said that to say ‘I disagree’ is an act that “defines our individuality, enlarges our perspectives, re-energises our progress….” At the same time, it reminds me of the importance of acknowledging the thoughts and opinions of others and its role in broadening my own understanding of the societies I transit between.
That said, in light of the prevailing anti-LGBITQ speech vocalised by Papua New Guineans, to say ‘I disagree’ is important.
Equal opportunities should be afforded to and enjoyed by all. To denounce another individual’s sexual orientation and us it as the basis for exclusion demands reflection by every person of who they are, the question Benjamin Law posed in closing his Quarterly Essay: “What is it to live in the world seen exclusively through the lens of those around you, and not as you see yourself? Is that a life worth living?”
Now is an opportune time for Papua New Guineans to examine closely how Australia resolves its own fraught debate (through a postal survey of all things) about the rights of a minority group in its society which wants to equalise its right to marriage.
Our observations should be twofold: how PNG’s conversation with Australia may be affected, if at all, by the outcome relative to the PNG government’s lack of progress in the same area; and whether the PNG diaspora in Australia will influence a more considered conversation in PNG about LGBITQ rights.
When I reflect on these matters, I keep coming back to one word. Acceptance.
As a child of the PNG diaspora, my late primary school years in Australia resembled those of Benjamin Law; although in my case I was singled out because of the colour of my skin, the texture of my hair and my accent, but subjected to a similarly atrocious derogatory name-calling.
At that time, racial attacks commonly targeted student who didn’t embody the features of the school’s predominant Caucasian demographic.
It was hurtful. Sometimes stomach-weakening. But mostly students, teachers and parents were intolerant of and clamped down hard on the perpetrators. Also on my side was Australia’s push towards multiculturalism, cross-cultural awareness and the introduction of public symbolism like Harmony Day during that time.
And – looking back on it from this distance - being a part of a minority early in life can teach valuable lessons about empathy, compassion and tolerance.
After reading Law’s essay, I couldn’t help but wonder how the Safe Schools debate would resound with Papua New Guineans. In this context, I believe Moral Panic 101 is a crucial text for Papua New Guineans with children in the Australian education system.
Understanding how young people may feel, think and make decisions when immersed back in PNG society is crucial, especially if it can be said that PNG’s current attitude towards people of LGBITQ orientation is seen as hateful, cruel and unjust.
Growing up in a conservative, Lutheran home, I had little (if any) exposure to homosexuality. It wasn’t discussed and I don’t recall my family having any friends or acquaintance who would fit the description LGBITQ.
At the same time, neither was there condemnation or derogatory references. It made for a transition from childhood into young adulthood with a decent amount of tolerance intact.
It was at high school in Australia that I was introduced to language and imagery depicting homosexuality, with a small handful of students quietly identifying as being lesbian, gay or bisexual. I felt uncomfortable but not angered.
Sure it conflicted with my weekly Sunday teachings and what I understood of PNG culture but, within the school setting, there seemed a general willingness to overlook it as simply ‘experimentation’.
That’s not to say there was acceptance of LGB students. Rather they were considered as not causing harm to the majority. Besides, inter-school fighting driven by racism was at the forefront of schoolyard issues.
However, since this time this mood has darkened in the present generation of school students. As Law recounts in the opening of his essay, Tyrone Unsworth at just 13 years old ended his short life by suicide, after repeated attacks from fellow students because of his sexuality.
When reading social media comments by Papua New Guineans about LGBITQ, my overwhelming reaction is sadness. The speedy references to the Bible, various understandings of morality, PNG being a ‘Christian country’ and personal condemnation to some form of hell depict hypocrisy, cruelty and inhumanity.
The iron refusal of those Papua New Guineans who continue their frenetic anti-LGBTIQ-speak despite the thoughtful objections of their fellow countrymen illustrates a failure to cultivate the personal habits of useful disagreement that Bret Stephens urges for us all in debate.
But let me return to the fact highlighted by Law that LGBTIQ Australian have “the highest rates of suicidality of any demographic in the country.” What about Papua New Guinea?
What statistics do we have about the prevalence of suicide in our country? We know about the endemic violence, there is overwhelming physical evidence, but what of the invisible impacts of suicidal ideation, self-harm and suicide attempts? How often are LGBITQ Papua New Guineans engaging in acts of suicidality and what is being done to prevent this?
Here’s the thing. Some Papua New Guineans seem fine with encouraging our children to not accept LGBTIQ so as to not be ‘corrupted’ or ‘converted’ from heterosexuality, as if that were possible. Yet I wonder if these same people are as vigilant in shielding young people from witnessing (or partaking in) horrendous acts of violence against others, especially girls and women.
Safe, supportive and inclusive. Three words that are repeated and emphasised throughout Benjamin Law’s Safe Schools essay.
The Safe Schools Coalition says “it’s the experience of homophobia that is harmful. That this experience can lead to self-destruction, self-harm, suicide is what we should all, as a society, be in fear of.”
Safe Schools matters to me as I have young children growing up in a time where the Australian education system has available the option of providing students a program that promotes a safe school environment that includes teacher-led student support for gender diversity and addressing schoolyard homophobia.
It matters to me as an adult in constant transit between two societies.
Australian society is willing to bring to the forefront of national conversation the rights of a minority group. But Papua New Guinean society rejects this same minority group receiving recognition and acceptance within our communities.
Only time will tell how Papua New Guinean young people who are exposed to both societies and paradigms will address the current climate around LQGBTIQ rights in PNG. With the aid of supportive and inclusive adults, like those of my own primary school days, we may just may get there faster.
Benjamin Law writes of the Melbourne suburb of St Kilda playing host to an annual event for students with same-sex partners. Here, in the safety of like-peers and adult advocates, deflated self-confidence, bullying and depression are overshadowed by love, affection and a genuine sense of connection amongst 17 year olds.
If we permit ourselves to focus on the human experience and the emotions that come with it, individual differences of gender and sexual orientation should not be a barrier.
Being made to feel safe everywhere is for everyone.
Acceptance is for everyone.
Love is for everyone.
Human rights is for everyone.
“No freedom until we’re equal. Damn right, I support it” (Same Love, Macklemore and Ryan Lewis).