Roz Ward looks happy. More than that, she looks relieved. There is an air of quiet catharsis as she shifts her weight from foot to foot.
Her staff embrace as if they’ve survived a war. Ward’s partner wipes away tears.
We are at the GLOBE Community Awards – Victoria’s queer Oscars – and the controversial founder of Safe Schools Coalition Victoria has just taken out the People’s Choice Award.
On stage she punches the air. The audience inside Mural Hall’s grand ballroom on the sixth floor of the Myer building on Melbourne’s Bourke Street is on its feet.
Dressed in a neat black blazer, shirt and pants, the 36-year-old addresses the room. “It’s been a pretty fucking rough year.”
It’s not clear whether she means for her personally or for the LGBTI community as a whole. Both are, by any objective measure, correct.
For the past nine months, Ward has morphed into a cartoon villain for the right, facing relentless attacks as the public face of an anti-bullying program conservatives claim is a Trojan horse for a “Marxist agenda of cultural relativism” promoting “radical gender theory”.
For the queer community, still fighting for marriage equality amid an increasingly ugly public debate on their human rights, it has been a year of smears, slurs and the horror of the Orlando Pulse nightclub massacre.
The trophy handed to Ward – which I later learn she won by a landslide – seems to mean something to a lot of people. Before she leaves the stage, the crowd erupts as she shouts, “We’re still here. We’re still queer. And we’re not going anywhere.”
For the English-born academic, the award is respite and recognition at a time when she has felt “under siege”.
The emails and phone messages – which are still coming – have been so vicious she now screens all calls. Critics, parents and even teachers have branded her everything from dangerous and evil to a “dictator tyrant” and a paedophile.
There have been death threats. Some promised she would face “divine justice”. One of the most troubling was an email that said, simply, “I know where you live” and then stated her home address.
Everyone in her Safe Schools team, including Ward, has undergone counselling as a result of the heightened attention on the program. Some staff members have taken stress leave. They now only visit schools in pairs.
The Murdoch press has led the attacks, along with Christian groups and Liberal politicians, contending that Ward’s personal politics are driving Safe Schools’ content. She is an open supporter of Marxism and an active member of Socialist Alternative.
In June, the media frenzy peaked when The Australian published a Facebook post from her personal account, in which she described the Australian flag as racist and called for it to be replaced with the red flag of socialism.
A few days after the awards ceremony, we meet at a cafe next to her La Trobe University office in Melbourne’s CBD. Softly spoken and a little awkward, she points to the spot on the turning circle opposite the front door where News Corp journalists camped out for days following the Facebook incident.
“I’ve been surprised how relentless it’s been,” she says.
Security gates were installed at La Trobe and a guard hired to monitor the entrance after Ward returned to her office one afternoon to find a business card from a Herald Sun reporter on her desk.
From February to June, The Australian averaged one negative story about Safe Schools every day – many of them focusing on Ward. Her partner began screening the morning papers and relaying edited versions.
With News Corp and the Australian Christian Lobby calling for her head, Ward was suspended from La Trobe, and then reinstated after a public backlash against the university. The suspension, she says, was her lowest point. Banned from contact with La Trobe staff members or students past and present, she was “gutted”.
“Nobody knew how long that was going to go on for. So my team, who I’d been supporting through all of this shit, were suddenly told they should not talk to me and I was told I should not talk to them. These were my friends.”
The Facebook post also led to her resigning from an advisory role on the Victorian government’s LGBTI taskforce. Ward will not confirm it but sources say she had little choice when a senior government official told her it would be best if she stood down.
I ask how she could not have anticipated that, at the height of a media storm around Safe Schools, her Facebook post would be viewed as naive at best and at worst deliberately inflammatory.
“If I’d thought The Australian would have picked it up I wouldn’t have posted it,” she tells me. “I feel like the actual substantive content of it, which I was just posting to my friends – that putting up a rainbow flag is good but there’s still a lot of work to be done for LGBTI people in Victoria – I stand by that statement. And I do think the Australian flag is racist.”
It is Ward’s defiant stance that has infuriated her critics and emboldened her supporters. Not once has she considered resigning from Safe Schools. She believes the focus on her personal politics is a diversion.
“I’m happy to be the kind of shield for Safe Schools Coalition if somebody has to be, so it might as well be me. And I don’t think that me resigning would change any of the opposition,” she says.
“In a lot of ways, the nature of the attacks being about me or about Marxism or whatever shows a certain amount of social progress in that they can’t just say, ‘I fucking hate gay people’, so they have to say, ‘Oh, no, it’s a Marxist thing’, or ‘It’s Roz Ward’, or ‘It’s this sinister agenda’. They can’t just say, ‘I don’t want my kid to be told that it’s okay to be gay.’ ”
Ward maintains that much of the “contested gender theory” conservatives want removed from Safe Schools content is actually grounded in Australian anti-discrimination legislation.
“The law says that your gender identity is protected and is not based on the sex you’re assigned at birth or any medical interventions … That’s not a crazy gender theory. I didn’t make that up. That’s not my idea, that’s not what I learned in gender studies – that’s the law.”
Ward now seems hardened to the hate mail she receives. When she forwards me some of the emails, it is striking how many make comment on her appearance. One correspondent, who identifies himself as a parent and a teacher, urges her to stay away from his kids and his profession. “I’d call you a bitch,” he adds, “but you’d probably be offended because you most likely identify as an ‘it’ rather than female.”
This, she insists, only serves to underline what is really behind the opposition to Safe Schools and why she has been painted as the villain.
“If you’re appealing to people who already may have a tendency to homophobia or transphobia, then it’s useful to have somebody that appears ambiguous in their gender and is kind of unapologetic about their sexuality and their personal politics.”
In March, an independent review of the Safe Schools program found its content was consistent with the goals of the national curriculum but recommended minor changes, including restricting some classroom resources to secondary schools only.
However, Education Minister Simon Birmingham went beyond the findings of the review, ordering the program be removed from all primary schools and making parental consent a condition, which critics argued would effectively out LGBTI students to their parents.
Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull announced the government would cease to pay for the program when its current funding agreement expires at the end of 2017. Opposition Leader Bill Shorten has promised to restore funding if Labor wins the next election, pledging an additional $6 million.
In Victoria, where the program was founded, Premier Daniel Andrews has fiercely defended Safe Schools and insisted it will continue unchanged with every government secondary school to become a member by 2018. His Liberal counterparts have vowed to cut the $1.04 million state funding if they win the next Victorian election.
Roz Ward has been an activist from an early age. As the daughter of two teachers, growing up in rural Somerset, she became a vegetarian when she was 13. In her year 7 schoolwork, she wrote passionately about refugee rights, sexism and the gender pay gap. As year 12 student union president, she led a mass walkout from her school to protest the 1997 introduction of university tuition fees.
While she didn’t come out to her parents until she left home, Ward had a girlfriend as a teenager and it was her schooling that would partly drive the thinking behind Safe Schools.
“In Britain in the 1980s the Thatcher government passed Section 28 of the Local Government Act, which said that schools were banned from promoting homosexuality as a normal lifestyle. So there was a big culture of fear but still so many teachers who wanted to prevent bullying but didn’t know whether they could actually say that it was okay to be gay.”
After moving to Australia in the early 2000s to be with her then partner, Ward worked in the LGBTI sector and founded Safe Schools with the support of the Foundation for Young Australians and an $80,000 grant from the Brumby Labor Victorian government.
She was moved to act when 2010 research from La Trobe’s “Writing Themselves In” study found that 75 per cent of LGBTI young people had experienced physical or verbal homophobic bullying. The majority of the abuse had happened at school.
Safe Schools has since received $8 million in federal funding – until recently, receiving bipartisan political support – and operates in more than 500 schools across Australia.
Like many in the LGBTI community, Ward believes the attacks on the program are part of a culture war led by conservatives who feel their dominance being threatened by the wider push for equality.
Despite the recent campaign against it, the growth of Safe Schools has not slowed. None of its member schools have pulled out.
Ward sees opposition to the program as something that will one day be no more than a chapter in the history of the struggle for LGBTI rights in this country.
“One of the things my partner says about it is it’s a hard thing to be either a hero or a villain. You’re either getting a standing ovation or a death threat – there’s no in-between,” she says.
“It’s a weird space to be in because I’ve never felt like I’m a hero, but I don’t think I’m a villain. I’m just somebody trying to do something good that I think is pretty simple.”