Supporting school students during Australia’s marriage equality debate

If the postal vote for marriage equality is conducted in Australia in September 2017, the debate over marriage equality will intensify and the potential impacts on young people are significant.


Already, organisations such as Beyond Blue have reported higher rates of callers seeking support regarding this issue.

We know from research that LGBTIQ+ young people are more frequently and severely bullied than other students. We are also aware that they suffer from more anxiety and depressive disorders, as well as more suicidal ideation and completed suicides.

Any campaign which is divisive and critical of the LGBTIQ+ communities will create the opportunity for harm for LGBTIQ+ young people with an added potential for harm to children of same-sex parents.

The Irish Experience

Research based on the campaign for marriage equality in Ireland reveals evidence of harm to LGBTIQ+ young people during and after the campaign.

Although all age groups were negatively impacted by the ‘no’ side of the campaign, this research found that younger LGBTIQ+ people felt the impact even more.

Younger LGBTIQ+ people were also more likely to score lower on tests of psychological well-being. They were particularly anxious and afraid about their own family members’ negative views as many of those surveyed had not yet “come out” to their family.

Children of LGBTIQ+ parents were found to be one of the most negatively affected groups. Parents told of their children coming home from school crying and felt the campaign was very cruel.

Rather than learn from the Irish experience, Australia appears determined to repeat it.

Implications for Australian students

Why would Australian young people and children be more harmed than usual? They have heard homophobic views being expressed constantly up to now. To be called ‘gay’ or a ‘leso’ is a common insult at school, whether you are LGBTIQ+ or not.

This campaign is different because it will provide a publicly sanctioned way for people to use brutal and hurtful words against same-sex attracted people. Such words and or actions affect young people who have come out but also those who might be questioning their sexuality.

Children of same-sex parents will hear their parents criticised not only for being same-sex attracted, but also for raising a family. They will be told their family is not only different and ‘not normal’, but unnatural and that their parents are not fit to raise them.

Of course, this is opinion and one that is contrary to research evidence. For example, a meta-analysis of 33 studies comparing two-parent families with same or different sex co-parents found no difference between children on a range of educational, emotional or social outcomes.

However, the release of a television media campaign arguing that marriage equality will lead to boys wearing dresses to school makes it clear that some members of the Australian community are not interested in research evidence.

These comments, among others that we won’t dignify here, also make it clear that the Australian experience has the potential to be as hurtful to vulnerable young people and their families as the Irish “no” campaign, if not more. This is because the plebiscite campaigns are currently exempt from the accuracy and discrimination rules governing commercial advertising.

Young LGBTIQ+ students and children from same-sex families will need support and schools are the obvious place for this to occur. Students will be raising questions, debating the topic and looking for support within their schooling community.

The Victorian Government has led the way with a letter to schools requesting that they prepare to provide affected students with wellbeing supports.

So, what can schools do to support students?

All school staff need to be vigilant about keeping a focus on young people’s well-being during this campaign.

School leadership teams could engage in collaborative discussions with student leaders and school staff on developing a localised school-based strategy to support students and their families. This could be achieved by consulting evidenced-based practice and relevant policy.

Teachers should be mindful of the students who they know come from same-sex families and ensure that communication between families and teachers is open and valued.

There can be a problem that some teachers, being public servants, are not allowed to discuss ‘politics’ with their students. However, they are able to notice any change of behaviour in their students and refer them if necessary to the school psychologist/counsellor.

Teachers should be extra watchful on playground duty for any homophobic bullying. Wearing high-vis vests when on playground duty increases teachers’ visibility especially in secondary schools where students are often taller than the teachers.

School psychologists/counsellors should take this opportunity to talk to teachers about the mental health of students and encourage help-seeking behaviour.

Lessons on anti-bullying could be featured at this time. Campaigns of random acts of kindness and paying it forward could be instigated. Students can be reminded that the RUOK campaign isn’t just for one day a year.


  • Support for students must be highly visible and accessible. Schools should not assume they know who will and won’t be affected.
  • Students should be reminded of Beyond Blue, Lifeline and Kids Help Line to access someone to talk to if they feel distressed about anything.

These are just some strategies that schools can adopt to support their students over the next few months. They shouldn’t be necessary but they are.


This post was compiled for #SELB by:

Professor Marilyn Campbell

Dr Lisa Van Leent

Professor Linda Graham

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this blog do not necessarily represent that of QUT.

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