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Senator Simms delivers petition in support of Safe Schools Coalition

Speeches in Parliament
Robert Simms 3 Mar 2016

Senator SIMMS (South Australia) (18:44): I seek leave to table the following letters and associated signatures: a letter from Senator Janet Rice and me relating to a petition of more than 35,000 people in support of the Safe Schools program, and a letter from the Executive Director of All Out to the Prime Minister relating to a petition of more than 36,000 people in support of the Safe Schools program.

Leave granted.

Senator SIMMS: Last week Senator Cory Bernardi here in this chamber launched his crusade against the Safe Schools Coalition, and he referenced a petition of around 9,000 people. Since then we have seen a huge public response and huge support right across the community for the work of the Safe Schools Coalition and lots of statements of support for LGBTI young people. Indeed, the petitions relating to the letters I am tabling today have signatures from 70,000 people. So it is clear that there is huge community support for this program and the important work that it does.

I want to put on the record just how distressed and outraged I have been by some of the statements made by members of this parliament on this issue. In particular, I was quite frankly revolted by the statements made by Mr George Christensen in the House of Representatives last week. I found the comments he made so odious that I do not wish to repeat them again. But let me say that I was horrified that, in 21st century Australia, we still see this kind of vile homophobia being brought into our parliament. It should be condemned in the strongest possible terms. The kinds of statements he has made are hugely insulting to LGBTI people and hugely damaging. Homophobia is repugnant, and we all have a responsibility to fight it. The kinds of sentiments expressed by Mr Christensen demonstrate that we do have a long way to go in fighting homophobia in this country, and it is a reminder of why the work of the Safe Schools Coalition is so vitally important.

Politicians making ill-informed and hurtful statements about the work of the Safe Schools Coalition and LGBTI young people often forget the human stories here. They often forget the positive impacts that flow from a program such as this for young people and their families. So I do want to take this opportunity to share one of those positive stories. I received a letter from a constituent in my home state of South Australia talking about how Safe Schools has assisted her and her family, particularly her daughter. I am going to share that with you. I am not going to refer to her name, so that I can protect her privacy. She says in her letter to me:

I am the mother of two children. My son is 9 and my daughter is 11. They both attend government primary schools in Adelaide. My daughter is transgender. From the moment she could speak, she told us that she was a girl, and that her body was 'wrong'. We are open-minded people and we thought we were listening to her, but we didn't really understand. We bought her the toys she wanted, and tried to buy her clothes in the colours she liked (mainly pink), decorated her room how she wanted it. However, we told her she was a boy, called her by a boy's name, told her that she should try and accept the body she was born with.

In 2014, when she was 10, she became suicidal and completely unmanageable. We were assisted by psychiatrists ... in Adelaide, where my daughter was diagnosed with gender dysphoria. In October 2014 she told us that she could no longer live as a boy, and needed to transition to her true, female, gender identity. At this point, while we loved and supported our daughter, we were in crisis. We wanted to let her transition, but had no idea how to do so. At the forefront of our worries was where she would go to school, and how she would be supported in her education.

This is when we became supported by the Safe Schools Coalition SA. I found a new school for my daughter. The principal was immediately supportive, but also did not know how to best protect and support my daughter. My daughter decided she did not want to be 'out' at her new school. None of us knew how to enrol her while protecting her identity ... The Safe Schools Coalition guided all of us so my daughter's wishes could be honoured.

The letter goes on to describe a whole range of supports that were provided by the Safe Schools program. This constituent further wrote to me:

As a result, my daughter's transition, both social and educational, went very smoothly. She had her happiest and most successful year ever in 2015. She told me that she can now see a future for herself.

The Safe Schools Coalition SA are still supporting us. As I mentioned, my daughter is not 'out' at school. This is because she is afraid of bullying or, as she says, that somebody 'might want to kill me'. A few weeks ago she couldn't sleep because of this worry. Her principal arranged a meeting where, along with the Safe Schools Coalition SA, they reassured my daughter that she is safe and supported. Now my daughter is sleeping well.

She goes on in her letter to say:

Sometimes my daughter says to me 'Mum, why don't some people like people like me?' I can't really answer this. In February, when my daughter saw Senator Bob Day on the Channel 9 news saying the Safe Schools Coalition should be stopped, she cried.

She further states:

Schools in Australia are better places for all students thanks to their work - the work of the Safe Schools Program. We moved to Australia in 2013 ... and have been astounded by the support my daughter has received, both educational and medical. Thanks to this support, my daughter told me last year: 'Mum, now I can see a future for myself'. Members of the Australian Federal parliament should be very proud of the work being done by professionals in many fields, including the Safe Schools Coalition, to support children like my daughter. Please do not let prejudice and hate destroy their wonderful work.

These are the kinds of important human stories that have been lost in the fearmongering and hateful rhetoric that we have seen in this chamber and in the other place. I think it is really important that we get these kinds of stories on the public record and reflect on the important work that is being done by the Safe Schools Coalition to support LGBTI young people, but also their families, in dealing with some of these issues. I know that my colleague Senator Janet Rice has been doing a huge amount of work, in particular looking at the issues that are confronted by transgender young people. That is an area the Greens are doing considerable work on.

In conclusion, this is a program that is achieving very positive results, not only in my home state of South Australia but right across our community. I do not want to see the kind of vilification, hate mongering, fear mongering and scare campaigns that we have seen happening over the last week or so discredit the really important work that is being done by this organisation. It is really important that we set the record straight there.

Often it is said in this place that somehow people have an unfettered right to say whatever homophobic bile might come into their mind, as if somehow freedom of speech is some kind of absolute concept in a democracy. I want to make it very clear that freedom of speech is not an absolute thing in a democracy. Of course, people have a right to express a view, but at the same time that is always balanced against the rights of members of our community to feel safe and protected and free from vilification and persecution. That is an important principle in a liberal democracy like Australia.

I would have hoped that that would be a principle that the Liberal Party would defend under Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull. That has not been the case. He has let this kind of appalling bigotry and hate speech off the hook. Really, he needs to come out and strongly condemn some of the statements that have been made. Also, I think that in this place and in the other place members of parliament have a responsibility to ensure that they conduct themselves in an appropriate and civil manner and do not go fanning the flames of division and hatred within our community. We should not see members of parliament basically playing politics with the lives of vulnerable young people in our community, and their families. I think that is a reprehensible thing to do. I really hope that people will reflect on the important human stories that are at the centre of programs like the Safe Schools Coalition.

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