back to top

Celebrities Pushed For A New LGBTI Anti-Bullying Program. A Day Later, The Idea Was Canned

Over a year of intense criticism from conservatives has left Australia's conversation about LGBTI kids incredibly strained.

Posted on

On Tuesday morning, a bunch of Australian celebrities and other prominent citizens released an open letter to prime minister Malcolm Turnbull, calling for a national anti-bullying school program that focused on LGBTI kids.

On Wednesday, the campaign was no more.

The letter, which you can read in full below, asked for the government to fund an anti-bullying program to the tune of $6 million, with a focus on "tolerance and mutual respect" of and for LGBTI people.

Signatories included singers Troye Sivan and Missy Higgins, producer and songwriter Paul Mac, author and journalist Tracey Spicer, comedian Joel Creasey, actor Guy Pearce and former Australian Idol host turned political candidate James Mathison.

Shortly after its release the letter began attracting criticism. One line in particular raised the ire of many LGBTI people: "Make no mistake of our request: we do not seek a program that seeks approval of the way certain members of our society live. We seek only mutual respect and tolerance."

The word "tolerance" was too much for many to bear.

What do we want? Tolerance! When do we want it? Whenever it's convenient for you, my sincere apologies for existing!

Tolerance: "You're gross but I'll refrain from bashing you." Acceptance: "You're a bit different and that's cool." I know which I prefer.

The letter also stated that the new program should be free of controversy – unlike the previous LGBTI-focused anti-bullying program the Safe Schools Coalition, for which funding ends in June.

"We understand and accept that programs implemented in recent history, such as Safe Schools, have become highly politicised and controversial," the letter read.

Safe Schools became the target of nationwide controversy in 2016 when conservative media outlets and politicians furthered a campaign against the program initiated by conservative Christian lobby groups.

It was labelled by current members of parliament as "social engineering"; a program to bully heterosexual kids into submission to the homosexual agenda; and akin to "paedophile grooming".

It's in this political context that the ill-fated celebrity letter was born.

If you are gay, high-profile, and want to save Safe Schools, please slide into my DMs. I have a plan. Thanks

In a personal open letter posted to Medium on Tuesday to explain the group's original letter to Turnbull, organiser Ben Grubb said the idea was intended as a compromise with good intentions.

"After a confidential discussion with a key decision maker in Canberra about what the government would and would not fund, I set out to help in the lead up the budget, where the government decides what to fund and what not to," he wrote.

"No one likes to compromise, I know, but the fact is that LGBTI kids are committing suicide because they are being bullied by their peers."

Author and mother of a transgender son, Jo Hirst, told BuzzFeed News that "tolerance" is manifestly insufficient for a transgender child.

"[The celebrities] have no idea what they're talking about," she said. "For a child to feel comfortable in going to school, they would have to know they were as included as all the other children. That they were on equal terms with all the other children, they were as important as all the other children, that they were not different in any way.

"They would have to have their legal rights accepted – that's part of it – but it's more than that."

The letter to Turnbull was viewed by some as a slight against those who had borne the brunt of the backlash against Safe Schools over the past year.

LGBTI rights campaigner Sally Rugg wrote: "You can't throw LGBTI activists, the community and the ACTUAL SAFE SCHOOLS COALITION under the bus because you are a rich, cisgender celebrity and you think, despite not being part of the campaign, not speaking to politicians, academics, teachers, activists and young people and their families affected by this issue, that you have a better idea."

One person who has been heavily involved in the Safe Schools Coalition for years told BuzzFeed News that the message of tolerance, not acceptance, offered by the letter was actually less than what the Liberal states rejecting Safe Schools have pledged to provide in their local programs.

The Australian Christian Lobby, one of the most forthright voices against Safe Schools, even cautiously welcomed the proposed new program this week.

In his first post to Medium, Grubb explained that Troye Sivan's mother, Laurelle Mellet, had attempted to save Safe Schools in a 2016 campaign, but had not been successful. He felt something was better than nothing.

"I really hope that we get acceptance and approval of LGBTI people in Australia," he wrote. "I mean that. That is the end goal we all should aspire to, I hope. But given the current political climate and discussions had with decision-makers, it does not look like we will get that  –  at least not right now."

But his response to those who had criticised the original pitch to Turnbull was only met with more criticism. Comedian Em Rusciano, whose name appeared on the letter, claimed she had never signed on to the letter on Twitter. (Grubb disputed this in a response to her tweet.)

@armyluisyenking Amy when I signed this form it was just to support Safe Schools. The language they have used is terrible, I am very upset.

By Wednesday morning Grubb had posted a second personal letter on Medium, withdrawing the campaign and issuing a full apology.

"One of the biggest mistakes I made – and it was made by me alone –  was in the drafting of the letter, with the word 'acceptance' omitted from the framework proposed for teaching, and the letter referring to not seeking “approval” of the way certain members of our society live.

"Instead, the words 'tolerance' and 'mutual respect' were used. Acceptance was removed during the drafting after confidentially consulting a Canberra decision-maker on what they believed the government would potentially back to fund such a program."

Grubb wrote that four people he approached to sign the letter warned him against pursuing the campaign.

"These red flags should have been warning signs to me," he wrote.

Ivan Hinton-Teoh, a campaigner with the LGBTI rights group just.equal, told BuzzFeed News the community reaction to the celebrity letter was understandable, and the sentiment behind it should be used for good.

“Our challenge, as it always has been, is to harness this motivated goodwill and guide it,” he said. “Lets continue that work with these allies.”

It takes courage to admit you got it wrong. A full apology from @bengrubb over his Safe Schools petition. https://t.co/BZkIDlDn4O

Grubb apologised to the LGBTI community for a perceived "pandering to conservative views" by removing the word acceptance.

In an opinion piece for Fairfax Media on Tuesday, writer and performer Maeve Marsden said the LGBTI community, too, had to consider the way it responded to criticism of Safe Schools.

"As a community, we defended Safe Schools by asserting that it wasn't an educational tool for sexuality and gender diversity, but rather an anti-bullying program," she wrote. "Sadly, this defense backed us into a corner."

"If we are just preventing bullying, why do queer and trans kids need special treatment? If we believe in inclusivity, why wouldn't we want an anti-bullying program that protects everyone? ... When it comes to the bullying of LGBTI kids, it's a symptom of broader attitudes and lack of understanding. To really combat homophobic and transphobic bullying we cannot reduce the issue to just kids being immature and cruel. We need to address the source."

When federal funding runs out the Safe Schools program will survive with state or territory funding in Victoria, the Australian Capital Territory and Western Australia; South Australia has not decided whether it will continue funding; and Queensland and the Northern Territory will continue to make current resources available to their schools.

In NSW and Tasmania governments have pledged to include LGBTI-specific content in their existing anti-bullying programs.

Lane Sainty is a reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in Sydney, Australia.

Contact Lane Sainty at lane.sainty@buzzfeed.com.

Got a confidential tip? Submit it here.