A huge row is building up in the Victorian state of Australia over the denial of permission to a girl to take her lesbian partner to the school dance.
Sixteen-year-old Hannah Williams was told by Ivanhoe Girls Grammar, Melbourne not to bring her partner, 15-year old Savannah Supski, to the formal, and was asked to bring a male instead. She refused and returned home instead.
AdvertisementWhile she is sulking and switching school in protest, her father has denounced the school action as unfair. He has also lodged a complaint with the Equal Opportunities Commission, alleging the school had discriminated against his daughter.
While the school authorities are hard put to defend the 'lesbian ban, ' the state Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commissioner Helen Szoke said the school might indeed have breached the Equal Opportunity Act if it had refused to let Year 11 student Hannah Williams take her 15-year-old girlfriend to the formal because of her sexual orientation.
"Certainly it could constitute discrimination under the Equal Opportunity Act," Dr Szoke told Radio 3AW.
Newspapers are presenting dramatic accounts of the anguish of the girl.
On the night of her school formal, Hannah Williams found herself all dressed up with nowhere to go.
After inviting friends to her home for ''pre-drinks'', the 16-year-old stood on her doorstep and watched her classmates file into the darkness to attend one of the highlights of the school year.
Instead of joining them, Hannah took off her heels and black dress and went to bed, said a Sydney Morning Herald correspondent.
A few weeks earlier a teacher had told Hannah she couldn't attend the dance with her girlfriend and was asked to bring a male instead. ''It made me very upset. I thought it was unfair so I didn't go,'' she said.
''I put a lot of effort into trying to fix things. I had meetings with principals; looked through the Equal Opportunity Act; all my friends put posters up around the school and the teachers ripped them down. There was an easy solution; they just needed to let me go with my girlfriend.''
Hannah's father Peter Williams says such an edict is old-fashioned and unfair.
"The school kept saying because it is an all-girls school we want to make an event where they can meet boys in a social scenario," Mr Williams told the SMH.
"That process is anachronistic and creates feelings of discrimination among girls who are same-sex-attracted."
Hannah has since moved to Swinburne Senior Secondary College, which Mr Williams says is more accepting.
''They had a clear idea of why they ran the event, but the world has moved on. It's not the greatest time in someone's educational life to move schools.''
Savannah, now 16, is also moving schools to be with her girlfriend and was happy to hear that Swinburne Secondary College allows same-sex couples to attend formals together.
''I have been not very happy with private schools all my life and this was pushing it. It was a homophobic issue and I feel extremely discriminated against at the old school,'' she said.
Sian Supski supports her daughter's decision to leave the school.
''The idea that there had to be a gender balance at the dinner dance seemed to be discriminatory. It was a very difficult time for Savannah but she's an amazingly strong young person and we are very proud of her.''
Mrs Supski said she was disappointed Ivanhoe Girls' Grammar did not adopt a more progressive approach to same-sex couples. ''It would have been a good thing for other girls who might be in a same-sex relationship and don't feel brave enough to come out, tell their parents and be in a school situation.''
However, Ivanhoe Girls' Grammar principal Heather Schnagl said the event did not discriminate against same-sex couples.
"We are very very supportive, but the issue here is that it was a year 11 event and it was inappropriate to enable year 10s to attend."
She said Ms Williams was told to bring a male guest or come alone, although she would have been allowed to bring a year 11 girl if she wanted to.
The aim of the formal was to create an co-educational environment where male guests were invited, she said. Hannah's girlfriend was also only 15, and students of that age were not allowed at the formal, Dr Schnagl said.
Roz Ward, co-ordinator of the Safe Schools Coalition, unveiled by the state government last month to tackle homophobia in schools, said the incident was a blatant example of discrimination.
''It's a big issue for schools to be visibly supportive of same-sex couples and one of the most visible events of the year is the school formal or dinner dance. One of the six recommendations we make to schools is to allow students to take their same-sex partners or friends to their school formal and they should make it obvious that is the case,'' Ms Ward said.
Victoria's Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commissioner Helen Szoke told Radio 3AW, "There's a part of the law that talks about sexual orientation and that people shouldn't be treated differently on the basis of their sexual orientation.
"There's a reason for these laws being in place, and what we understand is that many young people who have a sexual orientation where they might be same-sex attracted are often excluded, and this can have pretty big consequences in terms of mental health problems and so on."
Dr Szoke said school rules must fit in with "the law of the land".
"The purpose of having an Equal Opportunity Act I think is to try to ensure that people aren't treated differently, that people aren't excluded on the basis of whatever their feature might be, whether it's age or sex or sexual orientation in this case," she said.