Dr David van Gend is a family doctor from Toowoomba. He’s also the president of a group called Australian Marriage Forum. He’s written an open letter to the Australian Education Minister, Christopher Pyne. Van Gend is asking that Pyne reconsiders the decision to fund the Safe Schools program throughout Australia and goes on to quote a range of studies and provide information. I understand that he is talking about Safe Schools Coalition Australia (SSCA), which the government is funding. The program forms part of the National Safe Schools Framework and specifically the SSCA program is about creating safe and supportive school environments for same-sex attracted, intersex and gender diverse people by reducing homophobic and transphobic bullying and discrimination in schools. I note that it’s about reducing and not eliminating. The National Safe Schools Framework is described as providing Australian schools with a vision and a set of guiding principles that assist school communities to develop positive and practical student safety and well-being policies. A very noble cause indeed, and a clear recognition that bullying of students needs to be addressed, no matter what the cause. Reading van Gend’s letter isn’t much fun. It’s the normal anti-gay stuff that I’ve seen a thousand times. I’ve picked some of his more outrageous bits to think about:
The political justification for ‘Safe Schools’ programmes, or the associated ‘Gay-Straight Alliances’, is that there is a plague of gay-based bullying in our schools, and the only way to counter that is through celebrating homosexuality. That justification, however, is doubtful.
A disturbing two-thirds of non-heterosexual young Australians have been bullied about their sexual orientation, according to a new report that reveals widespread homophobic harassment and violence in schools, at home, work and at sporting events. The Growing Up Queer report, to be released on Friday, also found 16 per cent of respondents had attempted suicide and 33 per cent had harmed themselves largely due to homophobic harassment – mostly verbal among students and, in some instances, teachers.
This is a current research paper with relevant Australian data based on a sample of 1,000 people. The figures are disturbing and certainly not worthy of the being equalled to something of a plague. If two-thirds of young gay people are being bullied then we need to address it. Van Gend goes on to quote a UK study, also of 1,000 people. However, he attempts to use this study to minimise the impact of bullying on gay people.
In one large study comparing a thousand homosexual and heterosexual adults in the UK, published in the British Journal of Psychiatry in 2003, the researchers found no increase in bullying of gay men compared to heterosexual men, whether at school or subsequently, whether verbally or physically. “Reports that gay and lesbian people are vulnerable to such experiences because of their sexuality are often taken at face value”, these researchers noted, with other studies failing to draw a comparison to heterosexual students. In other words, there are many reasons to be bullied at school – for being too smart, too dumb; too fat, too weak; or for being “gay” even when you are not gay. A report in the news only last week finds one-third of 10-year-olds in Australia report being bullied for various reasons. That is something many young people go through, and the claim that homosexual people suffer disproportionate bullying appears to be “taken at face value”.
He omits the following sentence from the report:
Bullying at school was reported no more often in gay than heterosexual men, but the gay men who had been bullied regarded their sexual orientation as the main provocation. Gay and lesbian participants were more likely than heterosexual participants to have consulted a mental health professional in the past, regardless of current mental state.
It is quite telling that he cherry-picks his information to support his contention. He uses a study that is over 10 years old, well before marriage equality was a reality in the UK. There are plenty of recent studies around, it doesn’t take much to find them. Van Gend then moves the subject from school bullying to illicit drug use by gay people. He seems to be suggesting from a 2010 report by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare that somehow gay people are more likely to abuse drugs and alcohol, but I’m not sure of the connection to bullying, nor does he really identifying why he is making that link. A quick review of the 2013 AIHW report shows a decrease in the use of alcohol, specifically fewer 12–17 year olds are drinking alcohol and the proportion abstaining from alcohol increased significantly between 2010 and 2013 (from 64% to 72%). The misuse of alcohol and drugs is always disturbing, and van Gend is suggesting that it’s because gay people can’t cope and they turn to alcohol, when heterosexuals don’t cope perhaps they resort to letter writing instead of alcohol. Van Gend then makes some observations from his profession:
From my observations as a family doctor, the pressures that depress a young gay man are more intrinsic than extrinsic: the sense that something has gone wrong deep inside; the depressing and degrading effect of his compulsive sexual encounters; the unresolved anger at what he sees to be the cause of his sexual confusion, such as childhood abuse by a male.
I’m not sure about his qualifications, if he’s just a family doctor I hope that he is referring these young gay men to appropriate support. I’d suggest with his reputation as a conservative doctor, that the only young gay men who visit him are taught from their religious background that something is wrong. Van Gend is unlikely to reassure them that everything is ok or that they are normal. He also then assumes that his patient is having compulsive sexual encounters and that he was abused by a man during his childhood. None of which he supports. No indication of numbers or resolutions. He then states:
It trivialises a homosexual person’s suffering to blame it primarily on the external environment – or alleged excess of bullying at schools. There are less insidious means to address the perennial problem of bullying — for all students — than by normalising homosexual behaviour in the curriculum.
There seems little room for doubt about the impact of bullying. Homosexual people have no need to suffer. It has been concisely demonstrated in the Growing Up Queer report that external factors do impact on the well-being of gay people. We as a society should make every effort to minimise suffering for all of our citizens, not just those that he would classify as ‘normal’. He then uses information from The American College of Pediatricians, he acknowledges that they are a conservative medical group and claims that they are represented across 47 states. He neglects to tell us that their membership is about 100 professionals and that they are a break-away group from the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP). They broke away after the AAP supported gay adoption. Interestingly the AAP has around 60,000 members. So, who are you going to trust? Van Gend then sets about suggesting that when left alone, young men will turn out heterosexual. He considers homosexual feelings to be some type of confusion. He’s suggesting that it’s just a phase that young men go through. Finally, after taking us through the standard rhetoric of what makes someone like me gay and how I shouldn’t be treated as a normal citizen he then talks about HIV and venereal disease. As if this is the singular most important reason why we shouldn’t treat gay people as normal, because it’s bad for our health:
Even using the simplest, most objective measure of harm – the burden of venereal disease (and in Australia it remains the case now, as for the last 25 years, that around 85 percent of new cases of HIV/AIDS are in “men who have sex with men”) – it is obviously harmful to lock a young man into a lifestyle that he might have avoided, were it not for the assertion of homosexual normalcy, by programmes such as ‘Safe Schools’.
It’s so easy to carry that ‘warning’. No doubt he still thinks that heterosexual people only have sex after they are married and then only have sex with one person. He clearly demonstrates the need to educate young people about safe sex. His method of abstinence has never worked. History is full of tales of sex outside marriage. We used to call those children bastards. I don’t understand this concept of locking someone into a lifestyle. He is referring to the gay lifestyle, of course. Sexuality is not something that you can pick. Sure, there are some that don’t fit the mould of one or the other, but generally speaking once you’re happy with your life, why would you need to change? The sort of lifestyle he is talking about is one I know well. Pretending to be heterosexual. There is a lot of pain in denial. My advice is to avoid it at all costs. Van Gend also cherry picks the ‘venereal disease’ information. I’m not sure of the percentage of men who have HIV in Australia. However, he ignores the bigger picture. 50% of those with HIV worldwide are women. Over 35 million people have died from AIDS related illness. To suggest that we can make HIV/AIDS disappear by asserting that homosexuality isn’t normal is short-sighted and shows a complete disregard for the reality of our world. Quite frankly it’s disturbing to have a family doctor practising with such a limited view of sexuality. I’d be so bold as to suggest it’s just outright dangerous. Van Gend is perfectly entitled to express his opinions but when he takes those opinions into the public sphere and uses his profession as a way to lend it credibility then he needs to be scrutinized and held to account. The one thing missing from van Gend’s letter is his motivation. Considering his faith background he is very likely catholic and still of the opinion that gay people are disordered and an abomination. While he might not actually stone people like me to death, he probably thinks that his god was on to something with that idea.