Listen to our rainbow story

Disclaimer: Some of the content contained in the interviews may be distressing to listeners. Federation encourages listeners to seek support where necessary.  

 Federation’s policy is to use language that recognises all sexual orientations and gender identities. This article references times in history before language use was more inclusive, and therefore some members may find the narrow use of language distressing and offensive. 

Federation’s colourful history in the LGBTIQA+ space is played out in the memories of past and present members through a series of podcasts released during the Diversity in Education conference earlier this year. 

The seven podcasts tie together as an oral history of the union’s activism and leadership on LGBTIQA+ issues ranging from its first participation in Mardi Gras, through the dark days of AIDS to the fallout over Safe Schools. 

Federation’s first Women’s Coordinator Gail Shelston recalls the relief when 1975 Annual Conference voted to continue the women’s program regardless of whether it received federal office funding. 

“The basis all along as, I saw it, was getting rid of discrimination on the basis of sex, race and class,” she says. “Now I would add, within that, more refined [issues] sexual orientation, more connection with women in the developing world, more awareness of complexity of the connection between First Nations people and the issues of sexism and discrimination. 

“All of that’s my hope, we keep forging ahead to an increasingly lovely world.” 

Federation Deputy Secretary Mel Smith tells of the “shameful” attacks on the national Safe Schools initiative by certain quarters of the media and other opponents. 

“It was really exciting, it was really great to see and, of course, all of the drama that happened afterwards and hate that came, particularly towards people who were transgender, people who were LGBTIQA+ generally, and the political fallout from that has been quite terrible. 

“It’s led to a lot of hurt. But I think the aims of the program were really good. It was based on sound research … it’s just a shame some parts of the community weren’t prepared to be accepting and really made a political football out if. It could have been so much more positive.” 

Country Organiser Waine Donovan said sitting on Federation’s LGBTIQ Restricted Committee has been quite the education, as members pass on what their students are talking about. 

“So that was the most, probably, enlightening thing for me because I was hearing terms that I never knew existed and being part of the LGBTIQ+ Restricted Committee that continues to this day because everything changes and evolves and language changes. 

“Where we used to talk about the gay and lesbian army, now it’s all the other LGBTIQ titles that we know of today. That’s why I say being part of this committee has been the most enlightening thing for me because, in life, every day is a school day.” 

Retired Federation officer Frank Barnes once ruffled the feathers of Ita Buttrose as he fought for an education campaign at the height of the AIDS health crisis. 

“I remember one of the early conferences, and Ita Buttrose was chairing the meeting, and I got up and said, well, we need to start sex education, including AIDS, with kids from kindergarten onwards. Well, can you imagine the response?   

“And these were really fantastic people, but Ita said, ‘we might get it for years 11 and 12’ and I said by then they’ll all be dead! She thought I was mad but I didn’t care. You’ve got to be brave sometimes and make sure that things can happen.” 

Former Federation officer David Wynne says the union’s journal Education played a vital role during the HIV-AIDS health crisis. 

“As we had lots of members who were HIV positive in rural and more isolated areas, the journal presented an opportunity where everyone was getting access. It also meant there were a number of articles written to allay the fears of those people who weren’t involved in the community. There was a lot of educating that needed to be done, so we used Education. At the time, of course, we didn’t have any computers, web abilities or social media so it all had to be through written forms of communication through either newsletters or the journal.” 

Federation Professional Support Officer Jenny Moes spoke of Federation’s work through its LGBTIQA+ Restricted Committee in getting the Department to march in this year’s Mardi Gras parade. 

“We should be proud of where we’ve brought the Department and will continue to push the Department and others into a future that is actually diverse and accepting. I’d like us to continue to explore our role in that and our knowledge and acceptance in that space. Our space is not just an industrial space … our role is to assist teachers but it’s also to assist teachers to assist their students.” 

Past president Maree O’Halloran recalls when Federation didn’t have a float in Mardi Gras and says how important the union’s inclusion is now. 

“I used to teach in country NSW and I know the rates of suicide, for example, for young gay men, is still very high and when I was teaching there was very high. We need that visibility, we need them to see that they can be proud, so it’s really important for teachers to be marching. 

“The time when I was president, we didn’t have our own float so we marched with Unions NSW. But we always made sure we were there and visible and it was the Teachers Federation supporting them. That visibility is just really critical.” 

All seven podcasts from this series (and more) can be accessed on our website or by clicking here.