“LGBTI people have – time and again – shown strength and resilience in the face of adversity.
However, discrimination continues to have a devastating impact on the health of our
communities. That’s why these outdated laws which entrench discrimination need to change.”
These poignant words come from a letter signed by 47 LGBT+ organizations addressing the ongoing issue of the acceptance of gay/transgender teachers and students in religious schools in Australia. Australia’s Sex Discrimination Act of 1984 allows private religious schools to discriminate against and either fire or expel teachers and students based on their sexual orientations or genders. Members of the LGBT+ community who attend or work at these schools are unable to come out, for fear of being legally driven out of their place of work or education. Most of the backlash surrounding this policy has been in regards the student side: Students are unable to attend certain schools simply because of their identity—something so blatantly discriminatory it seems surprising that it is still legal. Even if the student is allowed to remain at school, the policy fosters bullying and ostracizes LGBT+ children, contributing to Australia’s continued issue with accepting LGBT+ individuals. According to the National LGBT+ Health Alliance, members of the LGBT+ community between the ages of 16 and 27 are five times more likely to commit suicide than the average person. This discrimination in schools only exacerbates the problem.
Advocates for keeping the policy in place insist that it’s all about respecting religious freedom and creating the environment that parents are paying for. They argue that “if a parent sends their child to a school and they are paying for that school then they expect that school in their leadership, in their teaching faculty, to uphold the values that they believe in.” Yet by “upholding religious freedom,” the law curtails the rights that any citizen—no matter their sexuality or gender—is entitled to.
The law affects teachers just as much as it affects students. Teachers at religious schools who are a part of the LGBT+ community live in fear of losing their jobs simply because of who they are. While some states protect students from expulsion based on identity, only one state protects teachers. As soon as they come out, most LGBT+ teachers in religious schools are either fired or forced to resign. This creates school environments that lack diversity and teachers for LBGT+ students to look up to, creating an even more hostile environment. It’s also emotionally harmful to teachers: many are shunned or bullied into resigning by their coworkers or the school administration.
Yet somehow, despite all of this, the issue doesn’t attract the attention it should. As the rest of the world attempts to foster inclusion and recognition for the LGBT+ community, Australia continues to struggle with its approach to the subject, especially in the context of religion. Current laws foster continued discrimination, and not enough people are talking about it or even acknowledging it. As stated by a teacher forced to resign from his school, “That conversation hasn’t moved forward. Society has moved on.”