How a row over one word sank an LGBT petition in Australia

Guy Pearce, Missy Higgins and Troye Sivan Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Celebrities including Guy Pearce, Missy Higgins and Troye Sivan were attached to the petition

It was a well-meaning campaign designed to address bullying of LGBT students in Australian schools.

But a day after its high-profile launch - backed by some celebrities - the petition was withdrawn following a swirl of controversy.

So what happened?

On Tuesday the open letter, organised by a Sydney man, called on Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull to commit A$6m (£4m; $4.5m) to funding a new anti-bullying programme.

With a focus on LGBT [lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender] issues in schools and domestic violence, the programme would target "all forms of bullying, including that which is based on religion, race, gender, faith, sexuality, disability, skin conditions, social standing or political persuasions", the letter said.

It followed an intensely debated similar scheme, Safe Schools, which was launched in 2014 but was significantly curtailed and then dumped in one state after criticism from conservative politicians, lobby groups and sections of the media. The critics said it raised sexual issues that were inappropriate for teenagers and young children.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption LGBT anti-bullying programmes have been intensely debated in Australia

Tuesday's proposal was intended to "de-politicise" and remove "controversy" surrounding LGBT education in schools. Celebrities including actor Guy Pearce and singers Troye Sivan and Missy Higgins attached their names to the petition.

It even attracted qualified support from an unlikely source. The Australian Christian Lobby - a conservative group critical of Safe Schools - said it "cautiously welcomed" the new proposal.

What went wrong?

But it attracted immediate criticism for urging "tolerance" - rather than "acceptance".

"Make no mistake of our request: we do not seek a program that seeks approval of the way certain members of our society live. We seek only mutual respect and tolerance," the petition said.

Critics of the wording included LGBT advocates and, quickly, goodwill that might have flowed from passionate supporters of Safe Schools descended into anger.

Image copyright Twitter/@Senthorun Raj
Image copyright Twitter/@Amy Coopes
Image copyright Twitter / @lizduckchong

"It sounds to me like I'm supposed to beg people to be tolerant of my child's existence," Leanne Donnelly, identified as a Sydney mother of a transgender teenager, told the Special Broadcasting Service.

"Equality and acceptance is the starting point, not downgrading to tolerance."

Some celebrities attached to the letter said they had not seen the wording before it was published.

Image copyright Twitter / @EmRusciano

Petition organiser Ben Grubb, a PR adviser, wrote a lengthy apology to the LGBT community following the backlash.

"Acceptance was removed during the drafting after confidentially consulting a Canberra decision-maker on what they believed the government would potentially back to fund such a program," he wrote, adding his involvement in the campaign was personal not professional.

"This is a decision I deeply regret and I am truly sorry for. I am sorry to the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex community, many of whom have told me that by doing this represented the letter pandering to conservative views."

He said he would arrange for the petition to be taken down. It and an accompanying publicity video are no longer visible online.

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