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Whose Equality? Anti-Discrimination in New South Wales Private Schools

In the Australian state of New South Wales, there’s a series of exceptions for private schools in the Anti-Discrimination Act 1977. This means that these schools can hire and fire staff, and refuse admission to and expel students, based on their disability status, sexual orientation (actually, specifically, ‘homosexuality’), sex, age, marital or domestic status, or if they are transgender. Alex Greenwich, an independent Member of Parliament representing Sydney, has just introduced a bill called Anti-Discrimination Amendment (Private Educational Authorities) Bill 2013, which aims to remove these exemptions.  It’s unclear as yet whether this bill will pass. It has the support of the Labor Party, which is the opposition in NSW parliament. However, the Liberal and National parties, the coalition of which is in governance, have not yet announced how they will handle Greenwich’s proposal. What, then, is riding on this bill?

What’s riding on it is not only an upsetting, if not nightmarish, present for these minorities in NSW schools: it’s the future. One third of NSW students are currently enrolled in private schools, and that number is increasing.  Many of these schools are (largely Christian) faith-based institutions, which is why organisations like the Association of Independent Schools NSW and the Sydney Anglican Schools Corporation are up in arms at the possibility that they may no longer be allowed to discriminate against minorities. Sydney Morning Herald editor Josephine Tovey interviewed a number of representatives from such organisations, who argue that, should the amendment pass, they won’t be able to teach their students the ‘values’ for which their parents sent them to these schools.  It is unclear how the presence of people with disabilities, or old people, or gay people, or any particular marginalised minority, would prevent the teaching of any particular set of unarticulated values.

These protesting school representatives do not really need to define the values in question, however, because it is pretty clear that what is largely being valued here is the capacity to keep same-sex attracted people away from schools. Tovey’s article, after all, is called “While MP pushes for change, poll shows most people oppose laws allowing school anti-gay bias”. The state-run Australian Broadcasting Corporation has gone with the same angle. And no wonder: Australia is focused on matters of sexual orientation right now, with the federal government seeking to overturn the Australian Capital Territory’s recent passage of a law legalising same-sex marriage . A same-sex marriage bill has also just been introduced into NSW parliament.

It’s a little weird, however, that all the other angles are being so downplayed. Greenwich is the national chairperson for Australian Marriage Equality and does a lot of work for LGBTQI communities,  but even he’s not leading with that angle. It’s easier to talk about queer rights right now – or gay, or gay and lesbian, rights, rather, because that’s how it’s largely being framed – because they’re on the move. Private schools do not need to accommodate or admit students with disabilities, for example, and this is being justified through the idea that requiring that this be the case would somehow violate implicitly religious values. Can we talk about this, too? It rather seems to me that these justifications are about building exclusionary and elite community environments, not about upholding actual religious values. You don’t need to talk about reworking the status quo unless it’s already being reworked, and nobody wants to talk about how embarrassing it is for schools to be complaining that the required inclusion of disabled people, in this instance, would somehow violate the teachings of Jesus.

Tovey’s article mentions that Geoff Newcombe, the executive director of the Association of Independent Schools NSW, ‘didn’t know of any cases of students being expelled just for being gay’. Leaving the gymnastics of that ‘just’ aside, neither do I know of such a case, and I went to one of the Christian schools under Newcombe’s purview. You didn’t need to be expelled to suffer in that environment, however, and knowing that coming out would land you in hot water was enough to keep the queer students from coming out until after we graduated. The exception was one girl who quietly left without notifying any of us, just weeks after she came out. I still don’t know if she left voluntarily. The knowledge that the school could discriminate against you on account of your sexual orientation was enough to produce a climate of fear, and foster a space in which existent and evolving homophobic sentiment on the part of the students was silently upheld by the administration. The accommodations for students with disabilities were minimal and begrudged, and, when I graduated, the staff were debating whether to let a hijabi student enrol in the school the following year. I hope she backed away and found a less discriminatory school, Christian or otherwise, private or public.

The reasons to let this bill pass aren’t just legal ones, but social ones. One hopes that, should it pass, NSW private schools will pass into an era in which they have to really engage with what values of love, faith, and equality mean, and what they really want to pass on to their youth.

Photo by Orin Zebest, licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license