“You are okay exactly as you are” Harriet speaks out in Parliament about bullying, having respect for all people and Safe Schools

Ms SHING (Eastern Victoria) — I rise today to contribute to the motion that Dr Carling-Jenkins has moved in this place. I note at the outset that it has been a respectful engagement. It is an issue with a number of facets, as set out in the notice paper. Dr Carling-Jenkins has been able to present her position and the reasons that underpin it free of interjection, and to that end I would seek the house’s continued support for a respectful engagement on this particular issue.

Safe Schools and the issue of the way LGBTI young people and people are treated is one that requires as its foundation the notion of respect.

To that end I think it is important that we do have the capacity to have these conversations and to have them in a mature and respectful way. With that in mind I would like to go to the motion that Dr Carling-Jenkins has moved and indicate that at the core of a number of elements of the motion is the notion of the importance of a lack of tolerance and a lack of acceptance of any form of bullying.

This should go without saying, but I will say it nonetheless: bullying is in fact something that destroys lives. It undermines people’s sense of self, dignity and self-esteem. It is often something which people experience early in life. They can experience it because they are other; they can experience it because of the situations and circumstances in which they find themselves; they can experience it because of the circumstances of the bully themselves. In any event, what we should not forget is that the schoolyard is often a place where bullying occurs, and it can be ferocious. I would suspect that everybody in this chamber — everybody who has ever sat in this chamber over the many parliaments that have preceded us — has experienced bullying, whether they were on the receiving end or they dealt it out.

Sticks and stones break bones, and names can also break people. This is something which I have a very personal experience of. Growing up I knew that I was other. Growing up I wished that I could, like everyone else, just fit in. But I did not just fit in, because unlike what I perceived to be everybody else — and it was not until much later that I discovered that in fact it was not everybody else, but unlike so many others — I was not completely settled in who I was. I was not completely settled in the idea that I would grow up, marry a nice boy, have children, settle down and continue with the ‘Boys wear blue, girls wear pink’ way of life that I had seen in every part of my life growing up — in magazines, in newspapers, on television; hearing about it, watching it, being exposed to it. The fact that I grew up surrounded by a heteronormative world was not sufficient to stop me from experiencing the inner feeling that I was different — that I was other.

With that in mind, I make my contribution today not as the first LGBTI woman in the Victorian Parliament but as the first out LGBTI woman in a Victorian Parliament, because I have no doubt whatsoever that there are other women who have been in this Parliament and other women who are in public office who, like people throughout society, have gone their entire lives hiding themselves from the world, hiding themselves from the reflections that they see in the mirror, living lives which may seem put a somewhat tolerable skin on it on one level but which do not truly reflect who they are on another.

I have for many years lived with the pain and the confusion associated with not being able to comfortably express who I am. It takes great courage to come out. It takes great courage to hear somebody come out and to put aside presuppositions about who or what you thought that person would turn out to be. It is enormously challenging for parents to look a child in the eye, hear them out and say to them that they love them anyway — that they love them unconditionally. That is not always the case. It is also not always the case that children are accepting of the other, that children can understand the importance of being accepting and respectful, that children understand the importance of the fact that sex, gender, sexuality, race, ethnicity and religion — personal characteristics, the essence of who somebody is — are not and should not ever be considered to be causes of derision or contempt or isolation or exclusion or bullying.

Try as we might, as a good government, as a good society, we can never rest on our laurels in relation to the need to be inclusive, to be welcoming, to be accepting of who people are, of their right to live as they are and of their right to be authentic and true to themselves. In this regard it has taken me personally a very long time to come to terms with who I am. For some people it is a very easy road. For some people coming out is something that is as natural as breathing — either that or they feel like they have never actually had to come out because they were out all along. Being LGBTI is something which is inherently as much a part of some people’s character from day one as it is for some people who conversely live their entire lives hiding who they are.

In this regard we can cite all of the statistics and quote all of the reports that we want that show the exceptions that prove the rule. We can look at what Cate McGregor said in the Australian when she indicated that she was not prepared to be an advocate for the Safe Schools program. When we break down her comments in the Australian we can see that they were based on political belief and not on who she is. We can see from research and statistics that have been produced by and published by the Australian Human Rights Commission on its federal page — by the Australian government — that Australians of diverse sexual orientation, gender or sex identity may count for up to 11 per cent of the Australian population.

Dr Carling-Jenkins has disagreed with that statistic, and in some ways I do not disagree with her argument that these figures may not be accurate, because they may not be accurate — because ultimately it is really, really hard to do a test of the Australian population to determine the extent to which people feel that they are different from or other than the heterosexual norms that we grow up around. A reason for that — at least in my own very personal experience — is that hiding is often the easiest and most straightforward way to accommodate a life and to live in a society that does not necessarily seem to accommodate you.

According to the human rights commission, which reports statistics that have been prepared by the Australian Bureau of Statistics, the reported number of same-sex couples more than tripled between 1996 and 2011. In 2011 there were around 6300 children living in same-sex couple families, up from 3400 in 2001. Most of these children, 89 per cent of them, are in female same-sex couple families.

There are no firm figures for Australia’s intersex population; however, Minus18 does provide case studies and information that suggests that it may be between 1 per cent and 2 per cent of the population. That is about the same as the percentage of redheads in the population; it is about the same percentage of the population as the statistics that Dr Carling-Jenkins quoted for autism and the incidence of autism in the Australian community.

But at the key of this particular motion, at the heart of this motion, lies an argument that purports to say that because children with disabilities are not adequately accounted for in an agenda about respectful engagement at school, that because we do not yet have all the resources that we need directed to that area — and I note that Dr Carling-Jenkins quoted from the Senate inquiry that found that children with disabilities were woefully under-serviced in terms of the respect they receive around respectful engagement at school — that that somehow creates some form of nexus to justify the removal of the Safe Schools Coalition program. It does not. Everybody and anybody who feels other — when they are at school, when they are in their sporting clubs, when they are hanging out with their friends, when they are at work, when they are seeking to access services — deserves the support of a government that can do more.

The Safe Schools Coalition program has not always been this controversial. This was a program that received bipartisan support. Let us not forget that. Let us not forget that governments of all levels have committed to greater engagement and positive support for LGBTI people across the board. Let us not forget the fact that in recent years we have seen significant improvements in the way that our discrimination legislation operates and that we have seen a raft of changes which accommodate a greater understanding of difference.

This program is in essence about saying to kids in secondary schools — because that is where the program operates at a mandatory level, fulfilling the government’s promise before the election — that, ‘You are exactly okay exactly as you are’. And do you know what? I would have loved to have heard that when I was at school, but I did not. I would have loved to have had my friends hear that and to have had my teachers hear that. I would have loved to have had my family hear that.

There is always more work to do. We see that children at secondary school can have access to materials that say, ‘Do you know what? You’re a bit different, that’s fine’. What we see is material that has been produced in a bipartisan way that says to kids who are same-sex attracted or gender questioning, ‘You are okay. You’re absolutely fine. Don’t worry about the fact that not everybody may get you, because as long as you get yourself, you’ll be fine’.

What we know from the statistics is that LGBTI people are at the receiving end of discrimination for their entire lives. We find it difficult to access services. We experience discrimination in so many ways. Starting at school to enhance the way in which we understand the differences is an important part of breaking down that discrimination. Eighty per cent of LGBTI kids will experience discrimination when they are at school. If we, as adults, cast our minds back to when we were at school, when we were on the receiving end of bullying or discrimination or harassment, when we had personal attributes about our essential selves highlighted and ridiculed, when we were the subject of isolation or exclusion, we know that is the sort of thing that sticks around for a lifetime. That is the sort of thing which in the aggregate leads to enormous damage to our sense of self-esteem.

The data makes it very, very clear that LGBTI people suffer from depression and anxiety at a much greater level than those who are not LGBTI. The data suggests that LGBTI people are more than seven times more likely to attempt suicide or to succeed at taking their own lives. This program is as much about the people who are around LGBTI people as it is about LGBTI people. This program provides those who receive the benefit of its resources, until recently largely uncontroversial, with the opportunity to understand how it feels to be on the receiving end of bullying or harassment. The program goes so far as to enable people to walk in the shoes of somebody who has felt other and felt different for their entire life. This program provides guidance and support to teachers and to staff. In that sense the feedback that I have received as a Safe Schools ambassador has been extremely positive. I have received feedback from teachers in schools or from staff in schools who have also wondered about the same questions: how do I treat somebody who is coming out? How do I refer to somebody who is not yet settled in how they want to be known? How can I make somebody’s life easier? How can I show respect without being condescending?

These resources are also an important message for those of us who went without them when we were at school. These resources are a crucial part of a respectful engagement that says it is okay to be exactly who you are.

It was a great pleasure and such a privilege, and a day where I needed more than a few tissues, when earlier this year the Andrews Labor government apologised for historical convictions that were issued and reinforced against men and women for homosexual activity. This was an important day in so many regards. Men spent their lives with convictions hanging over their heads for being who they were. Their families spent years in shame and confusion, often torn between the need to love and support and care for members of their families on the one hand whilst also noting that the law and society on the other had condemned them.

In the Premier’s speech in which the apology was given this year he noted that two women were the subject of a prosecution under homosexual offences for holding hands on a tram. Two women in the 1970s went for a tram ride, they held hands and they were prosecuted. So when we look at the aggregate of every book, of every movie, of every television show and of every love song where it is about boy meets girl, boy falls in love with girl, something minor happens to challenge that love and everything works out well in the end, and we look at a world in which until recently it was criminal to be gay, we see how far we have come but we also see how far we have to go.

We have a number of initiatives that are about making sure that children in Victorian secondary schools do not feel wrong for feeling other. These initiatives are pretty straightforward. These initiatives are directed to a group of people that suffer fundamental disadvantage because of who we are. Where we can set up a system that provides support and active guidance for people to be themselves, then we diminish the harm that bullying and discrimination can cause when experienced throughout school. When we tell people that there are ways to have conversations that are respectful, that are geared towards accepting someone for who they are, then what we do is change the shame that has been a veil over so many LGBTI Victorians’ lives, over so many LGBTI Victorians’ families’ lives and we turn it into pride. Because, as the Premier said when he issued the apology for historical homosexual convictions, pride is the opposite of shame and pride only comes where we make a concerted effort across the board to accommodate and accept and support people for being exactly who they are.

It has taken me a long time to be able to talk this frankly, because it is not easy, and it is not easy because everything in the world, unless you listen carefully, says that you should be other, that you should be straight and yet I am not, and so many of us are not. We deserve the resources that enable other people to understand that that is okay, because we go through that battle every day until we settle on being comfortable with who we are. It was difficult for me to have that element of myself become one of the catchpoints for my role as an upper house MP. It was enormously difficult because I did not want that to become the centrepiece of who I am at the expense of everything else. I know that I have ticked a lot of diversity boxes in my time — being a little bit Asian, being a little bit out, being a little bit regional, being a lawyer — these things are — —

Mr Leane interjected.

Ms SHING — The lawyer bit is the worst, I am sure. Thank you, Mr Leane. The thing is I have to come out multiple times a day and I have had to do that ever since I decided that I was not comfortable hiding who I am. Every little bit helps — every little bit of respect that can be created in our classrooms and in our workplaces, in the way in which we fill out forms and in the recognition that we have when we apply for documentation that reflects our identities. It is so crucial that these symbolic changes are made. It is so crucial that we have a gender and sexuality commissioner. It is so crucial to the work that we are doing to be progressive and to continue this momentum that we have an equality task force, and if that means that standing here in tears, as I am, in front of a camera like a dork is part of that change, then so be it, because it is about time we made it easier. It is about time we made it easier, not just for LGBTI Victorians and their families but for that overwhelming majority of people who want to be part of respectful engagement on the breadth of the community as it is.

We cannot change the fact that LGBTI folk are everywhere. We are everywhere. Watching Melrose Place every Wednesday night throughout the 1990s did not make me straight, so I do not know how eight sets of resources on an education home page is going to turn people into something that they are not. The formative years of being a teenager are when the majority of same-sex attracted and gender diverse people begin to question and begin to explore. Providing them with resources in order to do that and providing teachers and staff with resources to allow that to happen in a respectful way is crucial.

We have come a long way in the sense that we now have Kinky Boots playing at Her Majesty’s Theatre and it is sponsored by 3AW. This is the 3AW with the morning program that has derided the Safe Schools coalition program and an afternoon program that has called it a waste of money. This is a musical which encourages people to be who they are and to love who they are, and this is a musical which — spoilers ahead — indicates to people that the best way, in the case of the protagonist, to be a man is to accept others for who they are.

The vast majority of people who I deal with in this role in public service accept me for who I am, but having said that, there are a number who do not. That number is small, but it is very, very vocal, and that number is prone to being vicious on occasion. That number is prone to telling me that I am an abomination, that I am a disgrace and that I should be ashamed, and so in standing here today I refuse to be an abomination, I refuse to be a disgrace and I refuse to be ashamed. But in doing that I note that it has got to be happening to kids in secondary school, because if it is happening to me as an elected member of Parliament, if it happens to me in my workplace and it happens to me out in the broader community, then it has got to be happening in our playgrounds and it has got to be happening at our bus stops, and I know it is happening in our workplaces.

There are reasons that LGBTI people suffer greatly disproportionate rates of depression and anxiety. There are reasons why we try to kill ourselves. There are reasons why we are overrepresented in the number of people who commit suicide. The Safe Schools Coalition program is not the answer in and of itself to curing those reasons, but it is a really big step in the right direction.

What it does is it starts a commentary and a narrative that is not about Marxist ideological agendas. It is not about making a political football, as Dr Carling-Jenkins indicated. It is about saying to people just like me, ‘You are okay exactly as you are’. It is about saying to people, ‘You can be who you want to be, you can live the life that you want to live and you ought be given the same opportunities to be respected for who you are as everybody else’.

I do not claim to have any greater moral authority on this issue than anyone else but, geez, I have experienced a lot of it firsthand. And in my 40 years of being around, I have met with as many people and talked with as many people who disagree with my right to be who I am as I have those who need the support of a government and a community that provide resources to allow people to flourish and to live their lives in the best way, to give them happiness and to allow them to contribute. As I said earlier in my contribution — —

Sitting suspended 2.44 p.m. until 2.58 p.m.

Ms SHING — As I was saying before the literal sprinklers kicked off after my virtual sprinklers had been going for some time with me in tears over this motion, I experience discrimination and I experience being other. I experience all of that and have the obligation to turn the other cheek. In turning the other cheek I am also keenly aware of the fact that in doing so I might allow people to conclude that behaviour that excludes people for being different and behaviour that excludes LGBTI people for being who we are is okay. It is not okay. In this regard the commitment of $1.34 million over four years to have this program operate in Victoria seems to me to be an extremely worthwhile investment.

As I indicated earlier, a lot of what we do as LGBTI people is hide. That is not the case with all of us because many of us are audaciously proud from the day that we are born. I envy that. I envy that sense of self that is so resolute in some people that no matter how shaken their surroundings may be, no matter how vitriolic the abuse they face may be and no matter how difficult their lives may become, they never sway or resile from being who they are.

But we live in a real world where humanity is a broad church, and in that sense so many of us do hide. I hid. I hid throughout school. I hid at my year 12 formal when I wore a tuxedo and went along with a boy who also wore a tuxedo. Everyone smiled indulgently after they had gotten over the concern that perhaps I was undermining the formal dress movement by choosing to don a cummerbund and tails instead. I was not doing it as a political statement. I was not doing it for any Marxist ideology. I was not doing it because I believed myself to be some sort of outer eastern suburbs version of Nelson Mandela on the issue. I was doing it because it was who I was, and I was isolated for that. I was teased for that. I was isolated and teased by some of the people in my life who were meant to be there for me unconditionally. Therefore any opportunity to educate people about the hurt that this sort of treatment can cause is important.

This is not about Roz Ward. This is not about Karl Marx. This is about not about Trotsky or The Communist Manifesto. This is not about reds under the bed. This is about LGBTI people being able to look at ourselves in the mirror and know that we are okay exactly as we are. This is about providing the tools so that LGBTI people do not have to hide.

I continue to get these emails from people who have all sorts of views. I will continue to be trolled, as I am sure anyone with any particular characteristic does from time to time. But kids at secondary school do not deserve that. People starting out in their first jobs who are asked to tick a box to indicate their gender and do not feel they are able to do so without lying to themselves do not deserve that. People who dress differently, like I did with my tuxedo choice— it was a terribly 90s version of a tuxedo, I assure you — want to present a certain way because it helps them to reflect on the outside who they are on the inside. They do not deserve that.

In being part of the Andrews Labor government, nothing has made me prouder than participating in a progressive agenda that is about systematically dismantling sources of discrimination against LGBTI people that have survived far longer than they should have. I have had meetings with people who ardently disagree with me on religious grounds, for personal reasons and for social reasons. They have listened politely to me and I have listened politely to them, but at the end of those meetings these people get to go away and be content in the knowledge that their views are the right ones, whilst I get to feel the slightest twinge of not being okay.

The thing about this particular debate is that for LGBTI folk it never ends. There is that sense that you are never truly going to quite fit in to the Melrose Place-watching, Beverly Hills 90210-obsessed popular culture that prioritises a kit home with a picket fence and a lovely husband and two kids who turn out not to have any same-sex attracted or gender diverse issues of their own. The fact is that I do not fit into that mould, and so many others do not either.

In the same way that we are turning our minds to better equity of opportunity for people from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds, in the same way that we are accommodating difference and in the same way that we understand and recognise — or at least some of us in the political world understand and recognise — issues such as the gender pay equity gap and other issues that strike at the heart of gender-related disadvantage, what we see here is an opportunity for Parliament to reflect the broader community sentiment that says that it is no big deal for kids to grow up and realise, or to have always known, that they are LGBTI.

What is a big deal — and I can tell you this personally — is documentation that asks what someone’s gender is and the way in which language is couched to exclude people who do not necessarily easily fit into one category or another. What is a problem is Parliament lagging behind the significant progress that we have made to be better representatives of the communities for whom we are here.

I do not pretend to have an understanding of every facet of the LGBTI community’s views at hand today. What I do know, however, is that I have had parents in tears in my electorate office, thanking me for being out because their child has a role model.

I do not pretend to be a good role model, but I also do not pretend to be hiding anymore. And in not hiding, I think that what I am trying to achieve — as this government is trying to achieve — is a better recognition of the importance of fundamental equity to the way in which good society operates. In understanding and recognising the fact that some kids just have two mums, some kids just have two dads, some kids have one mum or one dad, some kids are raised by single parents, others are raised by families. We need to understand that there is no demon lurking at the heart of any and all of the permutations that make up a family.

In debating and discussing the plebiscite, we need to understand and to recognise that whilst it may be an ideological battleground for some, for people like me it is about being able to be treated equally. For people like me, it is about being able to understand that fundamentally I am okay exactly as I am.

This program was always ripe for review, for dismantling, for analysis and for manipulation along political lines, but at its core it is nothing more than something which is there to provide assistance; something which is there to facilitate dignity; something which is there to correct misinformation, to allow people to be who they are; something which hopefully sets up people from secondary school to be more compassionate. If there is a politically motivated downside to that, I fail to see it. If there is an ideologically driven subtext here, someone needs to point that out to me, because this is not about anything more complicated than saying to people like me, ‘ You are okay’.

There are so many ways in which we can debate this issue. There are so many ways in which narratives can be manipulated. We will see fact sheets and we will see news grabs, and it is all too easy to tweet 140 characters to show your ardent support of or your opposition to something like the Safe Schools Coalition program. But putting aside the peripheral elements of Dr Carling-Jenkins’s motion as I believe them to be, this is about making sure that our kids have the best possible opportunities to flourish, to learn well, to access services and to make themselves active and participating parts of society without needing to be ashamed. This is about saying that everybody matters.

We have, as I said earlier in my contribution, a long way to go. As the human rights commission page indicates, 80 per cent of homophobic bullying involving LGBTI young people occurs at school and has a profound impact on their wellbeing and education. Wellbeing is at the heart of what good government can facilitate. Education is at the heart of what the Andrews Labor government is here to deliver. It is on our number plates — how can we be wrong?

What we are saying though is that education is about something more than the bricks and mortar of mathematics and of English. What we are saying is that the resources that are provided, no matter where people live, should actually be tailored to inclusive environments within the school and education community.

I am proud to be the ambassador for the Safe Schools Coalition program. I am proud that I have stood here today and bared my soul to the three people who are probably watching online and the 13-odd people who are here in the house, because I believe that we are here to leave the community in a better state than we found it. I firmly believe that if I had had Safe Schools, I would have felt a much keener sense of self and a much better sense of dignity as a consequence, that I would have had the language to understand and communicate who I am, that I would not have hidden and that so many others would not have hidden.

This is all about, as Dr Carling-Jenkins indicated, respect, but it is respect within a very particular part of the community. It is respect demonstrated to and demonstrated within the LGBTI community. The flip side of shame is pride: pride in seeing the Premier walk at the Pride March and hearing the apology for homosexual historical convictions. That two women were convicted for holding hands on a tram a mere 40 years ago — which is when I was born — shows that we still have a long way to go, but geez, we have come a long way. It shows that there is value in continuing this incremental effort towards being more progressive and inclusive. It shows that, much like children with disabilities, much like people who require support and assistance, programs that engender a greater sense of inclusion and of dignity and of self-esteem are never a bad thing.

We can make this about all of the politics in every encyclopaedia that we can find here in the parliamentary library, but as someone who knows firsthand — and I suspect that I am not the only one here in this chamber who has hidden — I wholly support initiatives like this. I wholly support the access to resources that provide staff and teachers with the tools they need to guide children, young people, kids from year 7 and 8 through to year 12. Schools that provide primary education that require or request resources to guide children should also be provided with them. Schools should be provided with resources so that they can have the necessary dialogue to make sure that everybody is part of an inclusive classroom, to make sure that we understand that there is nothing wrong with a kid who may want to dress a little differently so that her outside matches her inside. For that reason, and with pride, I confirm that the government does not support this motion.