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Breaking the Spell of Silence

This article was published on Online Opinion on March 29th, 2007.

“Less theory, more facts”: that’s the catch-cry of governments and commentators concerned about progressive, “post-modern” values in education.

Well now we 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 to be implemented in Tasmanian schools in 2003 through a unique cooperative 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% 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 direct 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 the dearth of evidence showing that such programs work continued to limit its take up. It also empowered the opponents of sexual diversity programs.

As Dr Bridge, notes in his final report on the effectiveness of Pride and Prejudice in Tasmanian schools, until recently there was,

“a largely untested assumption that anti-homophobia programs taught on a whole class basis may lesson discrimination and bullying in schools”.

This gave free rein to people like Australian Family Association Victorian vice-president, Angela Conway, to reconfigure the old myth that prejudice is unassailable, and only inflamed if it is challenged.

In the Sunday Herald Sun on October 15 last year she declared that tackling class room homophobia,

“would have the reverse effect (to that intended) and, by highlighting sexuality, encourage bullying”.

Victoria’s then Opposition education spokesperson Martin Dixon agreed saying that “focusing on differences in sexuality could have a negative impact”.

Dr Bridge’s study into the impact of Pride and Prejudice shows this to be completely untrue.

The study was conducted earlier this year through the Faculty of Education’s Institute for Inclusive Learning Communities in three of the secondary schools currently implementing Pride and Prejudice (two state and one Catholic, of which two are urban and one rural).

Based on rigorous pre and post course testing the study found that,

"attitudes held by secondary school students toward gay men and lesbians were significantly more positive after the program".

This result parallels the result of a similar study conducted by Deakin University into the impact of Pride and Prejudice in Victorian class rooms.

Both studies leave no room for doubt; prejudice against gay men and lesbians is not an inevitable fact of school life and can be reduced. They hold out the hope that schools can be places where everyone thrives regardless of their sexual orientation. In a small but important way, and in direct contradiction to Conway and Dixon’s pessimism, these studies vindicate the great Enlightenment dream of individual and social improvement through education.

Interestingly, as well as substantiating long-held assumptions about the efficacy of anti-homophobia programs, the Tasmanian study explodes other long-held assumptions.

It fails to find any significant correlation between homophobic prejudice and either racist prejudice or low self esteem.

What this says to me is that education authorities must continue to tackle homophobia directly and not assume that general programs about prejudice, or raising student self-regard will do the job.

The study also found that while programs like Pride and Prejudice are necessary they are not sufficient.

After the course’s implementation the attitudes of a tiny number of students remained untouched.

Dr Bridge points to how deeply embedded homophobia remains in the school system and society, and how important it is to develop new and ever more effective ways to tackle it.

To this end he includes, amongst his recommendations for an expanded implementation of Pride and Prejudice, the need for a,

“further project exploring how to address homophobia embedded within the curriculum be developed and undertaken.”

On the basis of Dr Bridge’s findings the Tasmanian Education Minister, David Bartlett, has committed $50,000 towards ensuring that Pride and Prejudice can be implemented in every Tasmanian secondary school.

In the Minister’s words,

“The program is interactive, engaging and challenging, giving students an avenue to discuss a range of socially sensitive issues and topics.

“As well as encouraging students to explore their thoughts and feelings about sexuality and gender difference, Pride and Prejudice helps transform school culture by focusing entire school communities on the need to break down prejudice and change school culture.

“The extra $50,000 will be used to extend the program to all Tasmanian secondary schools and also employ 15 specialised trainers by December next year to work with students in Government and non-Government schools.

“My Department is committed to working with Working It Out and other organisations to ensure that gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender young people are able to gain an education in environments that are free from bullying and harassment.”

Such commitments are vital if Tasmania is to continue leading the nation towards fairer learning environments from which one of the last and most obnoxious forms of prejudice has been eliminated.

But if Pride and Prejudice is to fulfill its promise more is needed.

The Government’s funding and leadership must be complemented by commitment to implement Pride and Prejudice and related anti-homophobia initiatives at a local community level.

In the last few years, immigration of large numbers of gay and lesbian people to rural and regional Tasmania has heightened concern about prejudice and its adverse social impact.

This concern runs deeply in many local communities. The nation recently witnessed this when a gay couple in the North West town of Penguin were the targets of anonymous hate mail.

One way to channel concern about prejudice is with cooperative arrangements, aimed at the on-going implementation of Pride and Prejudice, between regional and rural schools, local communities and NGOs, and municipal authorities.

Already there are plans being mooted for such arrangements in several Tasmanian districts.

If these plans come to fruition, the transformation in Tasmanian school culture, and Tasmanian society more generally, will be even more dramatic than the education and social policy transformation the state has seen over the last ten years.


Rodney Croome is a spokesperson for the Tasmanian Gay and Lesbian Rights Group, a member of the Tasmanian Education Department’s GLBTI reference group and a long-time school anti-homophobia advocate. In 2003 he was made a Member of the Order of Australia for his gay and lesbian human rights advocacy.


Further information:

A summary of findings and recommendations of Breaking the Spell of Silence's can be found at http://tglrg.org/more/255_0_1_0_M/

The report's author, Dr Doug Bridge, can be contacted for more information, and a full copy of his study, on 03 6226 2549 or Douglas.Bridge@utas.edu.au

For more information about the Pride and Prejudice program and its implementation in Tasmania, contact Working It Out coordinator, Susan Ditter on 03 6231 1200, 0429 346 122 or coord@workingitout.org.au

For more information on the prejudice and discrimination facing same-sex attracted young people visit http://www.latrobe.edu.au/ssay

For a timeline on the Tasmanian education system and homophobia visit http://www.rodneycroome.id.au/other_more?id=1762_0_2_0_M2 and further information about change in the Tasmanian education system visit http://www.rodneycroome.id.au/other_comments?id=704_0_2_0_C


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