Former teacher and student at Citipointe Christian College say school’s religious dogma left them scarred

SBS News [Crows Nest, AU]

January 31, 2022

By Caroline Riches

When Dan started to explore his attraction to other boys as a teenager, the voices of his teachers and pastors at Citipointe Christian College in Brisbane swirled in his head. Time and again, they told him that sex existed only within a marriage between a man and a woman, and people like him would “go to hell”.

“As a 13-year-old, you feel that the adults in your world tell the truth and you own that truth. I knew that there must be something wrong with me. I thought I have to hide this now, I have to keep it a secret,” he told SBS News.

Confused and shamed as the years wore on, Dan confided in a pastor in Year 12 and was met with a “horrible reaction”.

“I was referred to one of the pastors of the church who put me through prayer counselling, but essentially it was conversion therapy, which was getting me to turn straight and not have attraction to boys. There were all these ways I had to change my behaviour and I knew that I was being watched.”

Now in his 30s and openly gay, Dan says the religious teachings he received at the school were an ongoing work of “undoing”.

“Things that were supposed to form my education ended up attacking the core of who I was and caused me trauma and damage. That was supposed to be a place of learning.”

“You can’t really ever take those thoughts and feelings away, you have to work around them and learn to live with them. You can see counsellors and therapists, but really the damage is done at that point. You have to find a way to move on and not let it affect your future relationships.”

Citipointe Christian College is embroiled in a scandal around a new contract issued to parents days out from the start of the new school year. It states a child’s enrolment can be terminated due to sexual orientation, gender identity or sexual activity.

The private primary and high school in the Brisbane suburb of Carindale receives government funding and is one of Queensland’s largest independent schools. It teaches the beliefs of the Pentecostal Christian Church.

Parents have allegedly been given a week to sign the new contract, which some legal experts say is in breach of Queensland anti-discrimination laws.

The document, seen by SBS News, has been described as openly homophobic and transphobic, likening homosexual and bisexual acts to bestiality and paedophilia.

“We believe that any form of sexual immorality (including but not limited to adultery, fornication, homosexual acts, bisexual acts, bestiality, incest, paedophilia and pornography) is sinful and offensive to God and is destructive to human relationships and society”, the contract says.

The contract also stated that the school will only acknowledge a student’s gender assignment at birth and not a student’s gender identity.

“The College believes that by creating each person, God in his divine love and wisdom gifted them their gender, as male or female. The College therefore acknowledges the biological sex of a person recognised at birth and requires practices consistent with that sex.

“I/we agree that where distinctions are made between male and female (inclusive of, but not limited to, for example, uniforms, presentation, terminology, use of facilities and amenities, participation in sporting events and accommodation) such distinctions will be applied on the basis of the individual’s biological sex.”

A petition on that aims “to show Citipointe that we will not stand for such blatant transphobia or homophobia” has garnered nearly 70,000 signatures in two days.

Dan says he is not surprised by the contract given the school was guided heavily by its religious beliefs, and he still worries about the damage that religious dogma presented as education causes young people.

“It’s damaging because you have these people going out into the world who don’t understand sexuality, they don’t understand contraception. It’s damaging on so many levels. There’s a fear of human sexual nature in general. The teaching around that is so abhorrent.”

Terry (not his real name) worked as a teacher at the school for eight years. He says he’s still paying a price for the Christian values of his youth that denied him his true identity.

Despite knowing he was gay since he was a boy, he grew up in the church and was led to believe sexuality was a choice.

“Growing up in the 80s in Queensland, being gay I felt was an immense shame, a fundamental loathing of who you are. So you choose the path of least resistance. I threw myself into church. I chose to be straight. I married a woman and fully engaged in that lifestyle as a married, straight Christian man even knowing that I was gay and I wasn’t being true to myself.”

Terry says he lulled himself to a sense of belonging at the school and didn’t have a bad experience there. But years later at the age of 30, while teaching at another Christian school, his world imploded.

He suffered a mental breakdown and admitted he was gay for the first time – to a psychiatrist. It made him realise the damage he’d suffered for denying his true self all those years.

Now nearly 50 and divorced, Terry is living as an openly gay man and working as a teacher in the state system, which he says is “built on diversity, inclusivity and acceptance”.

But while he has come to terms with who he is, he says he’s still working through issues.

“I’m on anxiety meds and antidepressants now. When you don’t live authentically for so long, there’s a price you pay. To choose to be straight was the hardest decision I’ve ever made and ultimately, it’s unsustainable.”

Terry says he has connected with other former students and teachers of Citipointe who all continue to work through a shame that’s hard to shift.

“I know that pain. That pain of feeling you’re not valued, you’ve got shame, you’ve got guilt. A sinner who can’t get redemption.”

Both Terry and Dan expect the reaction to the contract among the school community to be mixed.

Dan suspects the biggest divide will likely to be between the parents and the students.

“Parents can say, ‘I want my kid to go to this school because it lines up with our beliefs’ but the kids don’t get much of a choice here,” he said. “Kids are very much connected to the world around them and are going to learn about sexuality in a way that we couldn’t, so I think kids will be upset about this but their parents will feel that they have to sign it.”

Supporters and members of the LGBTIQ+ community stood outside the school on Monday in a show of unity.

SBS News contacted Citipointe and the International Network of Churches, which governs the school, for comment on the contract and the treatment of former students and staff.

Both refused to comment, instead highlighting a media statement on the school’s website that quotes the school’s principal, Pastor Brian Mulheran, who says the parent contract is designed to make the school’s religious beliefs “fair and transparent”.

“We are seeking to maintain our Christian ethos and to give parents and students the right to make an informed choice about whether they can support and embrace our approach to Christian education,” he said in the statement.

“Citipointe does not judge students on their sexuality and gender identity and we would not make a decision about their enrolment in the College simply on that basis.

“We believe each individual is created in the image of God, with dignity and worth equal to every other person. We unequivocally love and respect all people regardless of their lifestyle and choices, even if those choices are different to our beliefs and practice.”

Parents and students urged to seek legal advice

According to one expert, the contract may be in breach of the law. Matilda Alexander, patron of the LGBTI Legal Service in Queensland, says the contact is in breach of the Queensland Anti-Discrimination Act 1991, which makes it unlawful to discriminate on the basis of sexuality.

“The contract seems to me that it is both direct and indirect discrimination and that is unlawful under the Queensland laws and there are no exemptions allowing religious schools to do this on the basis of their faith,” she told SBS News.

Ms Alexander says the contract poses a range of different legal ramifications, depending on the circumstances of the case, and a range of legal risks for the school.

“If a student were enrolled at the school and suffers mental damage because they’re forced to wear a uniform that doesn’t align with their gender identity and that is quantifiable, the school could be in breach of a duty of care. There are also significant concerns under privacy law, so a student who is transgender who is forced to wear a uniform not of their gender identity may otherwise out them in a situation where they would otherwise pass as their chosen gender,” she said.

Ms Alexander encourages parents and children in the LGBTIQ+ community to seek free legal advice at LGBTI Legal Service, which regularly exercises protections in favour of LGBTIQ+ students in both public and private schools.

The Queensland Human Rights Commission has published a guide for trans and gender diverse students.

LGBTIQ+ rights advocate and spokesperson for Just Equal Rodney Croome said he was “appalled to hear about the contract” and worries about an increased risk of discrimination against LGBTIQ+ children if the religious discrimination bill passes federal parliament.

“We know that young LGBTIQ+ people are some of the most vulnerable people in our community when it comes to stigma, discrimination and suicide. The very negative attitudes towards sexual and gender diversity only make the situation worse for those young people,” he told SBS News.

“Every school environment in Australia should be a safe place for young LGBTIQ+ people. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a state school, an independent school or a faith-based school.

Debate on the controversial bill is expected to recommence in February following a series of hearings and inquiries.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison claims the bill would fix a weakness in Australia’s discrimination laws and has compared the bill to existing sex, racial, disability, and age discrimination laws.

Mental health advocates and equality activists fear that the Citipointe Christian College’s new contract has already caused irreparable damage, both inside and beyond the small community.

Adrian Murdoch, spokesperson for Minus18, which aims to improve the health and wellbeing of LGBTIQ+ youth, told SBS News the organisation “strongly and actively opposes any law or policy that forces a young person to suppress their true identity for fear of being kicked out of school, rejected by their community and isolated from their friends”.

He quoted a 2020 La Trobe University report, Writing Themselves in 4, which showed that two-thirds of all the trans and gender diverse participants (67.9 per cent) reported feeling unsafe or uncomfortable in the past 12 months at their educational setting due to their sexuality or gender identity.

Donna Trucillo, 58, a teacher of many years who now works as a relief teacher and mental health educator, says many people will already feel deeply hurt by the contract.

“Any kid who identifies as non-binary or homosexual immediately are going to feel like they don’t belong there. But it is also going to make them feel like there is something wrong with them. It will have repercussions for them for the rest of their life. It may also be the triggering point for self-harm, for a suicide attempt, for depression or anxiety,” she told SBS News.

“And the ripple effect is not just that student or young person. It’s their family, it’s anyone who loves them, anyone who is their friend. They will all be damaged by this.”

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