Natalie*, a mum from South Australia, has watched the ugly debate over the Safe Schools Coalition anti-bullying program take a toll on her transgender daughter.
11-year-old Rebecca* moved schools when she transitioned, with the help of staff from the LGBTI anti-bullying program. She's going well at her new school – but the past weeks of intense debate over the Safe Schools Coalition has been hard.
"She does read the paper now, we can’t shield her from everything," Natalie told BuzzFeed News.
The anti-trans rhetoric from lobbyists, politicians and the media has left Rebecca terrified of being outed.
"She has a fear that someone will kill her if they find out about her. We say, no, that will never happen."
A government review into the Safe Schools Coalition was triggered after conservative MPs raised concerns about the content of the program aimed at supporting LGBTI students.
As a result, education minister Simon Birmingham announced several changes to the program on Friday, including amending lesson plans and restricting certain resources to one-on-one counselling sessions between students and staff.
Birmingham also introduced significant changes around communication with parents. Schools will now have to seek approval from relevant parenting bodies, such as Parents & Citizens (P&C) groups, before Safe Schools can be introduced to a school, and permission slips will be sent out to parents with an option for their child to sit out of the program.
However, parents of transgender children are deeply worried about the toll these changes might take on their children.
One function of Safe Schools is to help schools where individual students are transitioning genders. When Rebecca started at her new school, Safe Schools Coalition staff took care of the "nitty-gritty", Natalie said.
"They helped with everything from how to organise enrolment so her confidentiality could be maintained to answering questions from the classroom teacher and the principal about how best to support her."
Rebecca's principal is very supportive, but her classmates do not know she is transgender. If they find out, the plan was to have a Safe Schools Coalition staff member speak to her classmates and help explain what being transgender means.
BuzzFeed News understands that Safe Schools staff will be free to continue their work advising principals and teachers on how to help individual transgender students without gaining the permission of parental bodies or individual parents.
However, from now on, if a transgender student's classmates are involved in the process – as Rebecca's would be, if she is outed – the full parental consent measures will apply.
These changes are frightening for Natalie and Rebecca, because if she is outed and the school P&C doesn't approve the program, 11-year-old Rebecca could be left to explain her identity by herself.
"Before school started this year, my daughter couldn’t sleep. She was frightened about the other kids finding out," Natalie said.
“I don’t think it’s been thought through, the implications of this change."
A spokesperson for the Department of Education confirmed that consent from parents committee and from individual parents as well would be needed for any Safe Schools Coalition discussion in the classroom.
Jo Hirst, the mother of a transgender seven-year-old who transitioned with the help of the Safe Schools Coalition, told BuzzFeed News her reaction to the changes was "horror and shock and bewilderment".
Whether or not a parents committee would approve would depend on "where you live," Hirst said.
"My school wouldn’t have been an issue, but at some schools, you might have parents who find the idea challenging and frightening," she said. "We shouldn’t have to beg for our children to be accepted."
Even if the school P&C agrees to introduce the program, Hirst said individual parents opting out their kids could leave children like her own son at risk.
"What happens if some kids get the message and others don’t? You might have a transgender child who’s transitioning, and everyone learns and celebrates the fact this child has a new name and is using new pronouns now. And half the class doesn't get that information."
The Australian Human Rights Commission called for "careful consideration" of the government's parental consent measures.
“While we recognise the rights of parents to be informed and engaged in their child’s education, it is important to ensure children who have not yet ‘come out’ to their family can still access the program and its resources,” said Children's Commissioner Megan Mitchell.
Names have been changed to protect Rebecca's privacy. The Safe Schools Coalition declined to comment for this report.
Lane Sainty is a reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in Sydney, Australia.
Contact Lane Sainty at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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