Sexuality in the spotlight at Warrnambool conference

Regional communities have an important role to play in supporting gender and sexual diversity, the co-founder of the Safe Schools Coalition says.

Roz Ward, who co-ordinates Safe Schools across the state, said smaller communities like Warrnambool had huge potential for supporting its young people.

“There’s a massive amount of potential strength in rural and regional communities to support LGBTI people but then there’s also bigger risks if they don’t,” she said.

Talk: Safe Schools co-ordinator Roz Ward, University of Wollongong's Kate Senior and York University Toronto's Jen Gilbert were among the key speakers in the Schooling and Sexualities: 20 years on conference in Warrnambool.

Talk: Safe Schools co-ordinator Roz Ward, University of Wollongong's Kate Senior and York University Toronto's Jen Gilbert were among the key speakers in the Schooling and Sexualities: 20 years on conference in Warrnambool.

“In some ways to me, the closeness of rural and regional communities can mean young people have a very supported experience, or they can have a very isolating experience, so it goes both ways.” 

Ms Ward was among the speakers at the Schooling and Sexualities conference hosted by Deakin Warrnambool over the weekend.

The event brought together some of the world’s leading experts on the issues, including Ms Ward, who has helped build Safe Schools, the nation-first program that supports gender diversity and sexual diversity in schools. 

Ms Ward said the opposition Safe Schools had faced was nothing new.

“There’s always been repression of LGBTI people and there’s always been resistance to that from LGBTI people, in our eyes,” she said.

“The period that we’re in now is not unique and the debates about Safe Schools aren’t unique to Australia,” she said. Ms Ward said she was already seeing the benefits of Safe Schools in country areas.

“I’ve noticed real shifts in rural and regional communities and the engagement of schools and the impact that can have on young people in really positive and empowering ways. It has actually started to develop young leaders in those communities,” she said.

“There’s a lot of really good work to build on.”

Associate Professor in Education Jen Gilbert, from Toronto’s York University, also addressed the conference, focusing on how lessons about consent should form part of sex education.

“We’re trying to understand how young people understand consent, what sexual decision making in adolescence looks like and how we could support young people to feel competent in those arenas,” Dr Gilbert said.

“The conversations we’re having in Canada are very similar to the ones here. I think there’s a lot to learn by looking at both countries.”

Dr Gilbert said talking about consent as part of sex education was already the norm in Canada.

“Certainly it’s something that young people name as one of the things they really want to see in their sex education. Sex education changes so much from school to school, region to region, but across these contexts young people are really keen to have conversations about consent as part of sex education,” she said.

Associate Professor of Public Health Kate Senior, from the University of Wollongong used the conference to showcase a new educational game developed after extensive research with young people.

“I worked for six years on a sexual health project looking at young people’s decision-making around relationships and sexuality,” she said.

The study of 171 young people, both indigenous and non-indigenous, helped develop the resource, which aims to create a safe space to talk about issues.

”Young people were quite vulnerable in their relationships. They talked about sexual health as being highly stigmatised, so were anxious about going to see doctors and things like that,” Dr Senior said.

“We’ve formalised the way we engage with young people with a game that can actually be taken into schools.”

The game is currently going through its first print run and is aimed at young people aged 15-25.

One of the conference organisers, Deakin University’s Emma Charlton, said it was exciting to have the event in Warrnambool.

“It’s been so stimulating in terms of ideas and I think issues around schooling and sexuality are so important for rural and regional spaces,” she said.

“We need to make schools safe places to support young people to be happy and to be able to be themselves.”

Dr Charlton said a book or special issue in a journal would be now be compiled on the conference and the issues it examined. It was the third conference on schooling and sexuality hosted by Deakin University and the first held in Warrnambool.

She said health professionals, teachers, academics and young people had been among those taking part

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