Friday, 28 July 2017

Saving Safe Schools From The Bigoted ACL (Australian Christian Lobby)

An innocuous-looking item appeared in my Facebook feed yesterday that told me a protest was being planned today against the Australian Christian Lobby's conference on "Gender Theory: Casualties and Consequences". The ACL has attacked the Safe Schools initiative, a program meant to protect young LGBTQIA persons in schools from bullying and harassment. As is usual with religion-based ideologies, the human issue of vulnerable young people needing support at a difficult period in their lives takes a back seat to religious dogma.

Maybe there's something to Facebook's profiling technology, because I was fired up to go as soon as I learnt about this.

I used to be a hot-headed idealist as a young man, and one would think I would have mellowed with age or become more jaded. But for some reason, I seem to get angrier about injustice today than ever before. As a humanist, libertarian and atheist, I feel very strongly about this particular topic for many reasons. One, I empathise with children and young adults struggling to make sense of their identity and feelings during a phase of their development that is confusing and an emotional roller-coaster even to straight and cisgender people. Two, I believe that people have a right to live their lives free of harassment, bullying and the forced opinions of other people on what is right and wrong for them. Three, I have absolutely had it with irrational superstitious beliefs being given sanctity and used to legitimise plain bigotry.

Gay teenagers and young adults are known to suffer higher rates of depression and suicide than straight people, and a major cause of this is social opprobrium, not to mention outright bullying and harassment. High schools are hotspots of discrimination against kids who are "different". There are also studies that show that 46% of transgender men and 42% of transgender women attempt suicide in their lifetime. It's absolutely heartbreaking in addition to being unacceptable, yet it's completely preventable if society can only accept people of different identities and orientations openly, without a hint of discrimination.

I felt I had to be part of this protest.

The protest was to be at 1830 in front of the St Barnabas Church in the city. So I went there straight after work and found that I was among the earliest at the site. I saw a few well-dressed, middle-aged people hanging around outside. I also saw a police van parked on the road opposite the church with a few policemen standing around. Obviously, the police were well aware of the controversial nature of the church conference, and were standing by to ensure that things stayed peaceful.

St Barnabas Church on Broadway

Can't say I envy these guys. Every time anything controversial happens, they have to be on alert to keep things from getting violent.

I waited for a while and then thought of asking one of the well-dressed people outside if they were there for the protest, but then thought better of it. That was a good decision. A little later, I saw a girl in her twenties standing there to one side, and something told me she was more likely to be there for the protest, so I went up to her and asked. My hunch was right. She was there for the protest too, and was as mystified as myself that no one else seemed to have turned up. A couple of minutes later, a man dressed in a suit like an usher or security person came up to the general gathering with a list of names clipped to a pad and asked if there was anyone waiting for a ticket, because there were some left. A ticket to what, someone asked. To the conference, he replied. Many of the well-dressed, middle-aged people went up to him to show him their tickets, and I realised that they were from the "other side". They were there to attend the ACL conference. It was a good thing I didn't ask one of them about the protest!

The usher then led the well-dressed bunch into the church. I was a bit disappointed, thinking the other side had the strength of numbers while the ones protesting their bigotry hadn't even bothered to show up. The girl had already started walking up the road, so I thought I would leave too. But when I reached the street corner, I realised that the protest was on, merely on the other entrance to the church on the adjacent side. There was quite a lively gathering there. A couple of people made speeches, to be greeted by periodic cheers from the crowd. There were slogans raised, and I remember a few of them:

"When gay rights are under attack,
What do we do?" "Stand up, fight back!"

"ACL, don't you dare!"
"Safe schools everywhere!"

"We're here! We're queer!"
"We're fabulous! Don't f*ck with us!"



I signed a petition, and struck up a conversation with one of the young people there. I couldn't tell their gender, and I noticed that they had a lot of facial piercing. I'm a square on the outside, but shockingly liberal on the inside, so we had a nice conversation. At one point, this person tried to pass me a pamphlet on socialism, and I declined with a laugh. I told them that I had been a socialist sympathiser as a student more than 30 years ago, and had moved left and right like a pendulum more times than I could remember.

I signed a petition

Sometime later, the crowd moved back to the main entrance to continue the speech-making and slogan-shouting there. There were more middle-aged, well-dressed folk entering the building past a line of police, and being let in by security guards. I realised that almost all the people protesting outside were young and dressed informally. It was such a contrast. All the decent-looking folk there were lining up on the side of bigotry, and the scruffy crowd shouting rudely and lewdly was fighting for actual decency.

The genteel folk making their way in to hear bile (just take the second 'b' out of 'bible' and you get the idea)

I was born 30 years too early. This is the crowd I belong in.

Every time a new set of well-dressed people made their way up the stairs to enter the church, the protesters would start chanting, "Shame, bigots, shame!" One man shouted at the churchgoers, "Jesus would be ashamed of you!" I couldn't help thinking that if Jesus was a real person and everything he was cracked up to be, he was more likely to be out on the street with the protesters than with the decently dressed people inside the church.

At one point, one of the speakers asked if anyone from the crowd wanted to say anything, and a couple of people went up and said a few words. Stage fright has never been one of my fears, so I volunteered too. I got my recent friend to take a few pictures of me while I spoke. This is roughly what I said (although I may have been just a little less coherent):

I'm straight, I'm cisgendered, and I'm part of the older generation. But I support marriage equality (cheers from the audience), and I'm here to stand up against homophobia (more cheers). I support the Safe Schools program, because it helps the most vulnerable members of our society - children and young people struggling with questions about their identity. I think they deserve all the support they can get at this time, and they absolutely don't need to be made targets of bigotry and hatred, such as what the ACL is engaged in. I just wanted to show my support. Thank you.

Me saying my piece, under the watchful eyes of the law

I was happy I had stood up and said that, and it felt like a big weight off my chest. I'm tired of watching impotently as self-styled moral guardians do the most immoral things and get away with it with the help of powerful politicians.

The crowd then moved back again to the original venue for some more of the same. Another young person who looked male but introduced themselves as April then struck up a conversation with me. April was a student at Sydney University, and after a while, also tried interesting me in the socialist movement! I had another laugh at that.

As the cheerful slogan-shouting was going on, an earnest man in his thirties was weaving his way among the crowd, handing out hellfire and brimstone pamphlets. One of the girls in the crowd enthusiastically grabbed one of the pamphlets with "HELL" written in big letters, gesturing to it and herself as if to say, "Yup, I'm going to Hell!" Another man in the crowd engaged him in conversation, and I overheard the earnest chap telling him "...I believe the Bible is the word of God..." I couldn't bear to stand around and listen to his self-righteous drivel, and walked off.

This experience of taking part in protests is actually new to me. I haven't had this experience as a student, which is probably the best age to experience such a heady rush of revolutionary fervour. As Felix Paturi described it in The Escalator Effect, in my student days, I was one of those who "neither studied nor rioted, but simply wasted time". The only protest I remember was when I was in my first year as an engineering student, and a fourth year student fell from the top floor of his hostel. It was alleged that the institute's hospital had been insufficiently responsive, which resulted in his needless death. A large number of students then skipped their classes to gather outside the hospital. I was there too. People shouted slogans, made speeches, and got the doctors to stand there uncomfortably while all the invective was being hurled. After this show of rebellion which lasted for perhaps an hour, everyone quietly went back to class. (This was IIT Madras after all, where every student knew which side of his idli was sambar-ed.)

Today felt a bit different. The generational divide between the people inside the church and those shouting outside said it all. Bigotry is rapidly becoming something of the past, and the future is about tolerance. The ACL has already lost, whether it knows it or not.
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