“Less theory, more facts”: that’s the catch-cry of governments and commentators concerned about progressive, “post-modern” values in education. Well now the facts are in on schools anti-homophobia programs.
“Breaking the Spell of Silence”, a study by the University of Tasmania’s Dr Doug Bridge has shown that one such program, Pride and Prejudice, significantly reduces the prejudices of school students towards gay men and lesbians.
Originally developed in Victoria, Pride and Prejudice began being implemented in Tasmanian schools in 2003 through a unique co-operative arrangement between Tasmania’s sexuality support and education NGO, Working It Out, the State Education Department, school communities concerned about homophobia, and philanthropic foundation the Tasmanian Community Fund.
The course is aimed at grade eight and nine students who, for one hour a week over six weeks, move through general concepts of prejudice and discrimination towards the myths and stereotypes surrounding homosexuals. In week four students are able to direct their questions to a panel of young gays and lesbians from their local area, a component of the course many students claim is particularly valuable.
Pride and Prejudice is only one part of Tasmania’s response to school homophobia. Repressive policies which banned discussion of homosexuality in state schools and, in turn, fostered anti-gay bullying and abuse, were overturned in wake of the decriminalisation of homosexuality in 1997, and replaced with an anti-discrimination policy with a cutting-edge anti-homophobia component.
A Departmental Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender and Intersex Issues Reference Group was established which has overseen the publication of a variety of support materials for teachers and students, as well as professional development courses.
Meanwhile, Tasmania Together, the state’s economic, environmental and social blueprint, commits all parties and the school system to ensuring all state teachers are trained in sexual diversity issues by 2020.
However, by 2002 it was clear that policy-making was not enough to reverse the legacy of criminalisation and censorship. Local studies and national studies with local cohorts indicated that the 11 per cent of Tasmanian school students who do not identify as heterosexual were still experiencing exceptionally high rates of isolation, discrimination, alcohol and drug addiction, early school leaving and suicide ideation. Hate-based abuse, and the harm it causes to the abused and their schools, continued to be reported on a regular basis.
To address these problems, Pride and Prejudice was selected from several possible class-room programs for two main reasons.
It directs focus on the lives of gays and lesbians rather than seeing them through the prism of sex education, anti-violence or disease prevention.
It also enhances school capacity to deal with homophobia by engaging staff and students in activities beyond the program, rather than leaving them with a false sense of having “done” homosexuality at the end of their six weeks.
But there is a dearth of evidence showing that such programs work which has continued to limit its take up. It also empowered the opponents of sexual diversity programs.
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