The erasure from Australian schools of education about LGBTIQA+ people

by | Feb 15, 2024

author profile picture

About Paula Gerber

Paula Gerber is a Professor in the Faculty of Law at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia and a leading expert on international human rights law. Paula’s research, teaching and advocacy has a particular focus on the rights of LGBTIQA+ people, children’s rights and the rights of Indigenous peoples. She has written and edited numerous books, journal articles and book chapters on human rights issues, including most recently the 3-volume collection Worldwide Perspectives on Lesbians, Gays and Bisexuals (2021) and the 2-volume collection Critical Perspectives on Human Rights Law in Australia (2021) (with Melissa Castan). Paula is also chair of Kaleidoscope Human Rights Foundation, a not-for-profit organisation that works to advance the rights of LGBTIQA+ people in the Asia-Pacific region.

Australia achieved marriage equality in 2017. You would be forgiven for thinking that the next step on the journey towards achieving equality for LGBTIQA+ people would be that the school curriculum would become more inclusive of persons of diverse sexual orientations, gender identities and expressions and sex characteristics (SOGIESC). However, the reverse is the case.

Australia appears to be on a similar path to the United States, where, following the Supreme Court decision of Obergefell v Hodges allowing marriage equality at a national level, States began enacting laws to erase LGBTIQA+ people from the school curriculum at breakneck speed.  For example, Florida enacted the Parental Rights in Education Act (commonly referred to as the “Don’t Say Gay” law) in 2022. The very name of the legislation – parental rights – speaks volumes about the motives behind the law: protecting the sensibilities of parents, not the rights of children. Arguably, the United States can violate children’s rights with greater impunity, because it is the only country in the world not to have ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC).

Article 29 of the CRC requires that all countries that have ratified this treaty must ensure that children receive an education that includes “development of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms” and which prepares “the child for responsible life in a free society, in the spirit of understanding, peace, tolerance, equality of sexes, and friendship among all peoples, ethnic, national and religious groups and persons of indigenous origin”. Of course, respect for human rights includes respect for the rights of LGBTIQA+ people.

Opponents of marriage equality in Australia argued that allowing same-sex couples to marry would inevitably lead to changes in the education system, which would see children being forced to celebrate homosexuality and to learn about group sex and anal sex. These arguments failed to sway the Australian public, with 7,817,247 people (61.6% of respondents) voting in support of marriage equality.

The attainment of marriage equality in Australia did lead to changes in the education system; schools became less safe for LGBTIQA+ students. These regressive changes occurred because of the fear-mongering campaigns by opponents of marriage equality claiming that marriage equality would lead to the introduction of “radical sex and gender programs” in schools.

These campaigns were successful in persuading governments to defund the Safe Schools initiative. Safe Schools was an LGBTIQA+ specific anti-bullying program started in Victoria in 2010, in response to “the need identified by school communities, parents and teachers for greater support for LGBTIQA+ students, who are at higher risks of bullying and suicide and to ensure that schools create safe and inclusive environments.” The Federal Government and other state and territory governments followed Victoria’s lead and Safe Schools initiatives were rolled out across Australia. However, following the moral panic that was sparked by the No to Marriage Equality Campaign, Safe Schools was defunded in favour of general anti-bullying campaigns that do not recognise the distinctive vulnerability of LGBTIQA+ children.

While the National Curriculum contains some references to sexuality and gender diversity within the Health and Physical Education Dimension, they are general descriptions framed within a heteronormative model. It has been observed that “being queer-inclusive goes beyond acknowledging not everyone is straight at the start of the class”. Being truly inclusive means stripping away the assumptions embedded within sexuality education about any person’s gender, sexuality, identity and/or genitals.

Making Australian schools safer and more inclusive for LGBTIQA+ young people, will require a multifaceted approach that:

  1. addresses the lack of a National Action Plan for human rights education;
  2. deepens the coverage of SOGIESC in the national curriculum;
  3. provides teacher training that provides teachers with the knowledge and skills to provide education that is inclusive of LGBTIQA+ students; and
  4. includes programs designed to foster inclusive, respectful and safe school environments.

Embracing these suggested reforms would improve Australia’s compliance with Article 29 of the CRC and also be consistent with the United Nations Free and Equal initiative, a global campaign to promote equal rights and fair treatment of LGBTIQA+ people, including within schools.

Want to learn more?

Share this:

Related Content


Submit a Comment