For Erik Ly, the importance of the Safe Schools program is simple: it saved his life.
Erik, who describes himself as a trans masculine person, went to five different high schools by the time he graduated last year.
Only his last two schools had signed on to the Safe Schools initiative, which aims to make school more inclusive for young lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex people.
“The Safe Schools Coalition saved me from taking my own life when I was being discriminated against at school for being transgender,” he said.
“They gave me a lot of hope … that one day I would be able to be myself and that I would be recognised as who I am.”
The 18-year-old is now a youth peer leader with Victoria’s Drummond Street Services, where he works with other LGBTI young people.
He says a lot of people he sees are “feeling really distressed” about criticism of the Safe Schools program, which led to the Turnbull government announcing a review on Tuesday.
Drummond Street Services reports a doubling in demand for support from anxious and distressed young people in the wake of the debate about the program and same-sex marriage plebiscite.
The organisation’s chief executive Karen Field said there had been an increase from 200 clinical cases for LGBTI young people in 2013-14 to 400 in 2014-15. The community organisation also has a waiting list that extends “for months”.
Ms Field added there has also been a particular spike in demand in recent weeks, as conservative politicians and the Australian Christian Lobby have called for the $8 million Safe Schools program to be defunded.
“Young people are presenting in increasing numbers with anxiety, self-harming behaviours and thoughts of suicide,” she said.
She said it was “personal” for these young people as the program was created to support them.
“They feel like they are under siege.”
On Tuesday, Senator Bernardi told a meeting of Coalition MPs the program was being used to “indoctrinate children into a Marxist agenda of cultural relativism”.
Other Coalition MPs also expressed concerns to the party room that the program contained material that was sexually inappropriate for young people.
Ms Field said that young people went online to seek information about LGBTI issues and when they did, were confronted with “really hurtful … ill-informed” comments – particularly on social media as a result of the broader political debate.
“These kids are really taking this on board.”
Ms Field warned that the comments were targeting a group of people who were already vulnerable.
A 2010 Australian study of more than 3000 same-sex attracted young people found 61 per cent reported verbal abuse because of homophobia, with 18 per cent reporting physical abuse.
Other studies report 20 per cent of trans Australians and more than 15 per cent of lesbian, gay and bisexual Australians report current suicidal thoughts.
“This is a time when we need our political leaders to show leadership,” Ms Field said.
The independent review into the Safe Schools program is due to report to Education Minister Simon Birmingham in mid-March.
Senator Birmingham, who has previously defended the program, issued a statement announcing the review, saying: “homophobia should be no more tolerated than racism, especially in the school environment”.
“However, it is essential that all material is age appropriate and that parents have confidence in any resources used in a school to support the right of all students, staff and families to feel safe at school.”
For help or information call Lifeline 131 114, beyondblue 1300 224 636, Kids Helpline 1800 551 800.
This article first appeared on ‘Sydney Morning Herald’ on 25 February 2016.