The recent resurgence in anti-LGBTQIA+ sentiment promoted by far-right conservatism poses a threat to the safety and mental health of LGBTQIA+ people, and particularly LGBTQIA+ students. LGBTQIA+ rights and visibility have improved substantially in many nations around the globe since the 1990s but there is now a backlash.
And our research shows, young LGBTQIA+ people are at significantly greater risk of absenteeism from school because they feel unsafe in their educational environment, in part due to a lack of visibility and gender-affirming actions.
The most stark example of this concerted effort to push LGBTQIA+ identities back into the closet and out of public discourse is Florida’s ‘Don’t Say Gay’ laws, which restrict the teaching of gender and sexuality in Florida schools.
This was later compounded by the Stop the Wrongs to our Kids and Employees (W.O.K.E) Act, which allows parents to oppose the inclusion of books in school libraries and curricula.
So far, just 11 parents have been responsible for more than 600 of the 1000+ complaints about books in the 2021/22 school year, many on the basis of references to gender and sexuality. This far-right conservatism also underpinned the repeal of Roe v Wade,restricting everyone from accessing reproductive health care and impacting their bodily autonomy.
Think it can’t happen in Australia?
Anti-trans activist Posey Parker found an audience for her ideas in her visit to Melbourne, with neo-Nazis present in support. The closure of the Safe Schools program, which offered LGBTQIA+ gender and sexuality education is another example of the general reduction in support for LGBTQIA+ inclusion in schools. The legislative landscape in Australia has not suffered the same reversals as the United States, with anti-discrimination legislation at both a state and federal level offering protection.
This finds its way into schools through state government requirements that schools provide a safe and inclusive learning environment. Our recent research reveals this is not consistently enacted in school policy. As we said earlier, our research shows LGBTQIA+ students are at significantly greater risk of absenteeism from school.In our findings, the disconnect between policy and practice was clear. In 2021, the Queensland Department of Education developed the Diversity Policy to reflect legislation to support, affirm and protect LGBTIQA+ students.
But when we looked at one Queensland school region during our research, only four out of thirty-six state secondary schools had an LGBTQIA+ specific inclusion policy that was publicly available to LGBTQIA+ students and their families.
What we found in Australia
And if you were looking to the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA) for LGBTQIA+ voice and representation, it’s clear LGBTIQA+ people and their experiences are invisible in statements regarding diversity and in the Australian Curriculum itself.
On a separate site, intended to enhance the Australian Health and Physical Education Curriculum, schools are encouraged to use the materials from the Queensland Government’s Respectful Relationships Hub. Here, students may have one lesson during years P-12 on the human rights of all diverse peoples, with LGBTIQA+ people briefly mentioned, in Year 11. Just one lesson in 13 years. Just one.
Our research showed the devasting impact upon mental health, wellbeing, and longitudinal outcomes for LGBTIQA+ people when not supported through policy, inclusion, visibility and representation in schools. The Writing Themselves In surveys conducted by La Trobe University, spanning from 1998 to 2021 consistently demonstrate most LGBTQIA+ youth experience discrimination, lack of affirmation and feelings of unsafety while at secondary school.
Our scoping review of literature regarding the experiences of LGBTIQA+ youth in Australia identified six ways to include, affirm and protect LGBTIQA+ students in schools. We also found the literature unanimously showed the benefit of LGBTQIA+ specific inclusion and anti-bullying policies and LGBTQIA+ representation in the curriculum. But Queensland school policy does not consistently include LGBTQIA+ students, and some actively stymie gender-expression through restrictive uniform policy.
Include, affirm, protect
The six key themes identified in inclusive school environments were:
- schools having LGBTIQA+ specific inclusion policies
- LGBTIQA+ specific anti-bullying and harassment policies
- an inclusive curriculum that acknowledges and affirms LGBTQIA+ identities and relationships in both general and sex education classes.
- Beyond policy, the creation of affirming school structures such as choice in uniform and toileting facilities,
- The creation of LGBTQIA+ groups and spaces
- staff professional development to further support these school structures were also identified as strong supports for LGBTQIA+ youth.
In much of the literature reviewed, there was an overarching finding – that a combination of these strategies could be adopted to develop a whole of school approach to LGBTQIA+ inclusion.As our research and the findings of others suggest, there is work still to be done to ensure the physical and psychological safety of LGBTQIA+ young people in schools. Through a combination of policy reform, changes to school structures and the development of a more representative curriculum, schools can achieve meaningful change. For the benefit of LGBTQIA+ people the disconnection between Australian law, Australian school policy and individual schools’ application of these laws and policies must be amended.
Kahlia Seeley is a Guidance Officer with the Department of Education, Queensland. She holds a Masters in Education from University of Southern Queensland, Australia. Her interest in research, policy and practice is in the areas of wellbeing, inclusion and behaviour support for young people. You can find her on Instagram or on LinkedIn