QUARTERLY ESSAY 67 Moral Panic 101



Amy Middleton

I was aware of my sexuality, and my non-heterosexual orientation, from about eight years of age. This childhood sexual awareness didn’t come from any outside force: my parents had explained the basics and given me a copy of Where Did I Come From? but it was still about five years before I’d receive any classroom teaching about sex, desire or anatomy.

I found this early sexual awareness confusing and distressing; I was an observant kid, and very aware of how constrained everyone became when the subject of sex was raised. When I took this distress to my mum, she was informative and compassionate, and urged me to honour my instincts. Unsurprisingly, my distress eased when I received guidance and information in place of awkwardness and silence.

This kind of experience is very relevant to the debate around Safe Schools. I believe educational resources on sex and gender should be available for school-age kids. Diversity starts young, and ignoring that fact can be dangerous for some kids, even life-threatening.

The advocates for silence around diversity – the journalists, politicians and pundits who fear the impact of such frank discussions with children – are not the individuals most affected by this debate or its outcome. The success of Benjamin Law’s essay lies in his observation that although these hostile voices may be the loudest, they are far from the most crucial.

My anecdote also speaks to a truth identified in Moral Panic 101: “The notion of transgender children neatly braids some of our biggest anxieties . . . we don’t want kids prematurely sexualised.” Of course, kids and sex can be a frightening mix: it can be hard to know when to open up and when to remain quiet. But the individual who stands to suffer the most from fear, hesitation and silence around sexuality and gender is the child. As Law points out, we – the parents, politicians, teachers or journalists – should be grown-up enough to handle our own fear and discomfort, in order to better protect those looking to us for help.

Law also astutely observes that the arguments from both sides of this debate have something in common. On one hand, there are those concerned for children who identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and intersex and the statistically poor mental health outcomes they currently face in Australia. On the other, there are those concerned for children growing up in a society that challenges traditional notions of sex and gender, and what that might mean for their development. Both sides are worried about the welfare of children, and yet this essay is one of the first widely circulated reports on this issue that includes real anecdotes – like the one I’ve shared above – from the very children we are all apparently trying to protect.

If we all agree that children’s welfare is at the heart of this debate, then surely their perspectives are important. If you believe kids lack the maturity to know what they need in terms of information, we should then be listening to the people on the front-lines – those with lived experience of identifying as LGBTIQ, those who have guided them through their journeys, and the experts most familiar with issues of sexual and gender diversity in children. It seems those on the front-lines were largely unmoved by the media-fuelled furore around Safe Schools: as Law reports, the number of principals signing up to the program continued to climb throughout the media storm.

Law’s is also the first report to detail what was actually rolled out as part of the Safe Schools program. As it turns out, there is no curriculum. There is no mandatory teaching. All it requires is a pledge to work towards promoting feelings of safety among a group of vulnerable kids. And what’s offered is a bunch of optional resources and an elective teacher training course. This is not a radical commitment, no matter which side of the debate you’re on; it’s an opportunity for schools to take steps that might save the lives of kids like Tyrone Unsworth.

As a journalist, I’m a passionate believer in the value of personal stories as a means to tease out complex issues – the bulk of my work as publisher of Archer Magazine involves sharing lesser-heard voices on the subject of sex and gender. Now in its tenth print edition, Archer Magazine has amassed a community of readers more fiercely loyal and loving than I could have imagined when I founded the publication back in 2013. The audience is niche, but that’s of no real consequence: tens of thousands of readers have attached themselves firmly to this masthead because they seek support and representation from the media. Archer’s LGBTIQ-focused stories offer solidarity in a world that often tells us we are unwelcome or not accepted. 

Journalists and editors have a duty of care to provide space for these voices where possible, or, at an absolute minimum, to avoid denigrating them to the point of causing harm. Moral Panic 101 depicts a conservative newspaper conducting a despicable, relentless scare campaign about Safe Schools – a crusade that flatly ignored the very real risks involved in its line of attack. The safety of LGBTIQ kids is too serious an issue to become a political ping-pong ball or a media power-play. The focus in discussions of Safe Schools should always have been the wellbeing of the individuals who need the program most. According to the National LGBTI Health Alliance, LGBTIQ children are at far more likely to self-harm or experience depression and are five times more likely to attempt suicide than straight cisgender children. Protecting their welfare and respecting their experiences is fundamental in ethical journalism, and this responsibility was shamefully disregarded in the media storm around Safe Schools.

It isn’t easy for members of the wider community to put themselves in the shoes of people experiencing oppression. In October I wrote an article for the Sydney Morning Herald about what it feels like to be pregnant and in a same-sex relationship during the marriage equality postal survey. The article was shared widely and I was inundated with messages from friends and allies expressing sadness and frustration on my behalf. I was surprised by their surprise – for me, the impact of this debate is bordering on banal. The feeling that my sexuality is a discussion point for the nation, seeing people campaigning against my rights in my own neighbourhood – these are unsettling and humiliating experiences, but this is my life. My community is intimately familiar with these sorts of experiences and understands their effects.

The reaction to my article reminded me that others can’t possibly share this perspective, and that voices like mine are especially crucial right now. Similarly, in the discussion of Safe Schools the voices of trans kids, experts and those directly engaging with the Safe Schools program are crucial. Far less important are the voices of overbearing politicians with abject opinions, religious lobbyists with fearful predictions, and journalists drumming up public outcry through factual inaccuracies and fear-mongering.

I’m grateful to Benjamin Law for separating fact from falsehood, and for holding the media to account for causing harm to a vulnerable group. Most of all, I commend him for amplifying the voices that are truly crucial in this discussion, over those that, frankly, we could stand to hear from a lot less.


Amy Middleton is the founding editor of Archer Magazine. She has written for Australian Geographic, the GuardianRolling Stone, Daily Life, the Big Issue, the Bulletin, Junkee, Meanjin and the Lifted Brow.


This correspondence discusses Quarterly Essay 67, Moral Panic 101. To read the full essay, subscribe or buy the book.

This correspondence featured in Quarterly Essay 68, Without America.


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