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The Safe Schools Coalition is vital for the wellbeing of our young people

Speeches in Parliament
Janet Rice 25 Feb 2016

 I experienced one of my most moving days here in Parliament House on Monday. Parliamentary friends of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex and queer Australians hosted an amazing group of young trans people and their families. They were here to share with us their stories of the challenges they face to be accepted for who they are.

They told us they just wanted to be able to live normal lives, be accepted for who they are, and not have to continue to justify and fight to be accepted for who they are. They told us how having to seek Family Court approval for cross hormone treatment in their teenage years was a massive financial and emotional barrier, and it moved at a glacial pace, when they just wanted to be going through puberty with their peers, rather than having their life on hold, waiting for court hearings and court decisions. The kicker is that not once has the Family Court knocked back a young person's request for hormones where they, their family and their medical practitioners all agree that it is right for them. As one parent stated to us on Monday, the whole Family Court process is just an expensive, emotionally-draining and time-consuming rubber stamp. We need to change the law, to remove this rubber stamp.

Let me share with you what Isabelle, aged 12, shared with us. She said:

I am a girl, I was born a girl, not a boy who wants to be a girl. Unfortunately for me, I was cursed with some physical characteristics that don't match my identity as a girl. This has been very hard and very stressful. I have tried to hurt myself and have questioned whether I even want to be here in my darkest times.

She said:

I don't just want to access stage two treatment, I need to [have it] … so I can live my life and be happy.

Georgie, aged 15, who has been through the court system three times, said:

I'm a normal, cheerful, confident girl and I know who I am. But my exterior doesn't match my interior. It shouldn't be the court's decision. Only I have the right to decide what goes into my body.

Georgie's mother Rebekah Robertson agreed and expressed her frustration:

The court process is slow but biology is fast …

She described the pressure on young transgender people and their families as 'enormous and relentless', saying the court process is 'unnecessary and cruel'. These children just want to have a normal life, but they are having an extraordinary impact while they are at it. Dr Michelle Telfer, who does amazing work treating these young people at the Royal Children's Hospital in Melbourne, said that:

… because of social change, and also because we have medical treatments that we know are safe and effective, [there are] more and more young people who want treatment and need treatment.

She said:

The court process is currently standing in the way of a number of those young people actually accessing that treatment, and without access to treatment we know that the self-harm and suicide risks are much higher.

I tell you what I heard on Monday has made me passionate about redoubling my efforts to work with my colleagues across the parliament and get the law changed.

So I spent most of Monday on a high, feeling that positive change really was going to be possible. Then, just as I was about to leave for the day, Senator Bernardi spoke in the chamber, attacking the fabulous work of the Safe Schools Coalition—a program that has been proven to reduce the daily discrimination faced by lesbian, gay, bisexual, intersex, transgender and queer young people. Senator Bernardi's hateful, preposterous, inaccurate, diatribe was so completely at odds with the amazing people I had spent the day with. In the morning, Georgie's mother, Rebekah, told of the absolute love she had for her daughter. She said:

As parents, we walk ahead of our child like a landmine detector, clearing the path before them.

I am sure all the parents in this place can identify with that. But then we have Senator Bernardi insinuating that the Safe Schools Coalition is not to reduce bullying, but rather that it is really about deconstructing the moral and social fabric of our society, including the family. That morning, I listened as Isabelle told us that she is:

… scared all the time about going through male puberty and not getting the right treatment that will help me have the body that I should.

But Senator Bernardi does not care about Isabelle's wellbeing, because he believes that Safe Schools:

… promotes a radical political and social agenda and seeks to indoctrinate students to make them its advocates.

Then it got worse. Yesterday we discovered that Senator Bernardi's speech was not just corralled as the late night ravings of a homophobic dinosaur, but that Prime Minister Turnbull had caved into him and other right-wing henchmen. Rather than showing vision and courage—

Senator O'Sullivan: Mr Acting Deputy President, I raise a point of order. The rules of this Senate are clear; those reflections upon Senator Bernardi are completely out of order—referring to him as a dinosaur and the like—and the senator should withdraw them.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT ( Senator Sterle ): Senator O'Sullivan, I have sat through many debates in this chamber, and this is probably one of the nicer references to some senators. There is no point of order.

Senator RICE: Rather than showing vision and courage and rising above such claptrap, the Prime Minister acted exactly as his predecessor Tony Abbott would have. This is in the face of the amazing and necessary work that the Safe Schools Coalition has done. It would not be an exaggeration to say that the Safe Schools Coalition has contributed to saving hundreds of lives. One in ten Australians are same-sex attracted. It is estimated there are 40,000 trans young people in Australia, and only a few hundred are supported at places like the incredible gender clinic at the Royal Children's Hospital in Melbourne. One in five gender diverse young Australians have experienced physical abuse; one in three have considered suicide.

I have shared the story of my and wife Penny's relationship in this place a number of times. I would be happy to stop talking about it. But every time I do talk about it, I get the most supportive feedback thanking me: thanking me for speaking out, thanking me for giving hope to trans people—to people's sons, daughters, friends—that a happy, fulfilling life for them is possible. Someone said to me, 'Janet, you don't know how many lives you have saved.' So I will keep speaking out—keep on being a role model. Think about the work that the Safe School Coalition does. Think about the incredible impact that their program All Of Us has on the lives of young same-sex attracted and gender diverse students.

Many students want to sing the program's praises, but, because of fear of a public humiliation encouraged by the likes of Senator Bernardi and his backwards honchos, they do not want to use their real names. But they are real people, so I am going to give them names for today—not their real names. Mel says:

I had been feeling kind of lonely, hopeless and isolated for what feels like a lifetime. To have the school take this step and to be a part of the Safe Schools Coalition means the world to me.

Jess says:

I've always felt safe and comfortable and had the ability to talk to my teachers and peers knowing that Safe Schools was there to back me up if I needed support.

And Ben says:

Safe Schools Coalition helped me during this darkest period of my life. They saved my life! No doubt that the amazing work they had been and are still doing helps save lives. Go Safe Schools!

Think of the lives that Safe Schools has saved.

I look at the incredible change that has occurred since I was at high school. I did not know anyone that I knew for sure was same-sex attracted. I certainly did not know any trans people. But they were there. I had 500 fellow students at my high school. The odds are that among us there were 50 same-sex attracted people and around five trans people. Conservatives want to deny their existence, but that is exactly what causes distress and self-doubt at best and emotional trauma, depression, anxiety, suicide at worst. In contrast, teenage kids today have the opportunity to be themselves, to reach their potential and to feel loved without fear of discrimination. The Safe Schools Coalition is such an important part of this.

By caving into Cory Bernardi's hateful, homophobic and transphobic agenda the government is putting all of this valuable work at risk and also putting the wellbeing of so many young Australians at risk.

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