At the end of 2016, prompted by the election of President Trump, I wrote about the importance of teaching with compassion. I discussed the importance of teachers being role models for students for how to be compassionate towards all people. Now, almost a year later, I’m motivated to return to this topic again, this time for reasons much more immediate and close to home.
I am a staunch and vocal believer in the pressing need for marriage equality. All Australian adults, regardless of their sexual orientation, should be able to marry the person they love and are committed to. This is an issue of human rights, nothing else. Yet Australia will be having a vote on this issue, despite equality being a basic human right. This piece is not a comment on the flaws in this process (although I do believe they are many) but rather a call to action for the young people that we need to protect during this potentially vicious debate.
While some argue that it is important that no person feels “silenced” during this debate, I would argue that of far greater importance is the protection of and compassion for our young LGBTIQ people. They are the ones who will be affected by this debate more than any other. The words of the next few weeks could have profound and long-term consequences on the self-worth and mental health of our children.
Imagine for just a moment that you are a young person, who identifies as gay, but who has not ‘come out’. You see online an article saying that you and ‘your type’, described using derogatory language, should never be allowed to marry the person you love. It says that you being allowed to marry would break the very model of society as we know it. The unavoidable implication of such views being that you are in some way less worthy, less human, shameful. While we cannot be certain how such comments could impact any one young person, it is not hard to identify some possible consequences.
The role of educators must be to show young people that they are valued and supported for who they are. They must show them that the statements they may see in the media or online from those who would see them cast as second class citizens or morally sinful are the minority. They do not represent the views of those who know and care for them. Teachers must show students they can be who they are, without fear of ridicule or abuse.
In this regard, I do not believe that the personal opinions of the teacher about marriage equality even matter. We have a professional obligation to the wellbeing of our students and this vote has the potential to cause significant harm to these same children. As teachers we are champions of promoting respect and inclusion. In this instance we must be proactive and explicit in our support of LGBTIQ students. We must be prepared to provide safe spaces, physically and psychologically, for all LGBTIQ students. We must be willing to be role models for their peers in being respectful, inclusive and compassionate.
To know where to draw the line in opinion-based discussions with students is always challenging for teachers. We are all aware of the stereotype that teachers are all “lefties” trying to brainwash the next generation. As a result, I have always been careful to not impose much of my belief system onto my students. In my career, this is the first time that I have no problem being willing to be an open and honest proponent in my classroom for what I believe is right. This is because of an incredibly simple fact: this is a matter of human rights. As a result, it is not enough to simply passively support my students. I must actively model compassion and respect for all my students.
I cannot teach my students our school values of respect and equity and stay silent on this survey. To abstain from this discussion would be hypocrisy of an incredible magnitude. To not stand for compassion, to not stand with the minority being denied their rights, to be silent, is to stand with the denier of those rights. My students, whether LGBTIQ or heterosexual, need to see that I am willing to stand up for the basic rights they all deserve.
If teachers, no matter their religious or political persuasions, are to stand for the ethical principles they espouse in the classroom, I truly believe the only compassionate action is a “Yes” vote. Anything else sends a dangerous and painful message to our children: that our LGBTIQ young people are in some way less valid human beings than their heterosexual peers. That should be unthinkable to anyone who cares for those young people. Homosexual or heterosexual is irrelevant. Love is love.