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Family values. An autotheoretical exploration of the backlash against Safe Schools in Australia

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posted on 2024-04-30, 03:03 authored by Rosalind Ward
In Australia in 2016 and 2017, conservative and right-wing politicians and commentators led a serious and sustained public backlash against the idea that schools should be more active in their inclusion of diverse genders and sexualities. The focus of the backlash was a program called Safe Schools Coalition Australia (Safe Schools), a modest intervention that had been funded by state and federal governments to address homophobia and transphobia in schools. The program, emerging from a university public health research centre, took an affirmative, whole-school approach aimed at celebrating and supporting diverse genders and sexualities. As co-founder of Safe Schools, and as a prominent political activist and socialist, I became the central, symbolic target of an organised, conservative anti-Safe Schools movement. Drawing on the personal and political experiences at the centre of the Safe Schools backlash, this work is a combination of autotheoretical creative writing and an exegesis. Stitching together stories in the cherished hands of generations of feminist and queer activists that made the personal political, this creative work attempts to connect theoretical lessons with affective offerings. In particular, the decision to centre autotheory at the heart of my methodological process has provided an opportunity to work with historical materialism and a Marxist ideology critique in new ways. The central argument in the exegesis is for a (re)consideration of Marxism as a theoretical framework that can help us to understand gender, sexuality, and the family as integral features of capitalist production and reproduction in both material and ideological ways. As a specific response to the current conjunction of crises, I also argue that Marxist praxis offers more than just hope for radical change, it continues to provide the tools for revolutionary transformation. This PhD project has been shaped by the experience of multiple crises, and investigates the connections between capitalism, crises, and cultural backlash. The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on health, social welfare, and income inequality are only just beginning to be measured. The number of preventable deaths caused directly or indirectly by the pandemic are still being counted. Many millions are likely to never get counted. The devastating outcomes of changes in the climate caused by human activity and capitalist production are becoming much harder for politicians to ignore. Seasons are beginning to lose their traditional, common sense meaning. Storms of unprecedented proportions thunder around the world. The idea of national borders and the need for their ‘security’ continues to promote racism and render human beings as ‘stateless’, permanent refugees without hope of protection. It is in this context that political conservatives opened up what have been defined as a new round of ‘culture wars’, a series of public campaigns deliberately concocted to redirect public and political attention onto ideas of race, nationalism, gender, and sexuality. Through a re-examination of the productive interlocutory work of Marxists and feminists in the 1970s on the role of the heteronormative nuclear family, my theoretical work focuses on the production and social reproduction of (late?) capitalism as a framework for a new Marxist autotheoretical approach. At the centre of the arguments made in the combined work of this project – both artefact and exegesis – is the idea that the heteronormative nuclear family continues to play a crucial material and ideological role in the production and reproduction of capitalism. Understanding the importance of the family to the structures of capitalism means that, especially at times of crisis, we can uncover the ideological work that becomes necessary in order to defend heteronormativity. Further analysis of this ideological work, and creative reflections in the form of autotheory, provide the basis for extending our understanding of the backlash against Safe Schools and the terrain of the culture wars that are still to come.


Degree Type

Doctorate by Research


© Rosalind Ward 2021

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