School can be hell for queer youth

Anti-homophobia programs are needed in all schools

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“From the age of 12 until the age of 19, when I finally accepted my homosexuality and ‘came out’ to family and friends, I was suicidal. I was totally alone in the world, feeling as if no one would ever accept me for who I really was. My parents were outwardly homophobic. To my friends, being called gay was the worst insult in the world. I attended a religious boarding school, which adopted homophobic policies and allowed a homophobic culture to flourish and survive. This compounded the situation. Suicide didn’t just seem like an attractive option, it seemed like the only option.” This is Alastair Lawrie’s story. He made it through, recently serving as the Australian National University Students Association Sexuality Officer. He is now an activist opposing homophobia in schools.

Claudia, aged 16, had a miserable time at high school. She tried to kill herself because she was teased so badly for being a lesbian. It never ended, and Claudia ended up severely depressed and was hospitalised for two months. Doctors were worried that she would harm herself. The impact of this bullying and harassment was that Claudia dropped out of school.

Alastair and Claudia’s experiences are, unfortunately, not unique. New research shows that homophobic discrimination against Australian teens remains entrenched in schools. In May this year, Writing themselves in again: 6 years on, a report by the Australian Research Centre in Sex, Health and Society at LaTrobe University was released. Interviewers surveyed 1,749 same-sex-attracted people aged between 14 and 21. They were from all states and territories and came from cities as well as rural and remote areas. Twenty-one percent of respondents were from non-Anglo backgrounds.

The report compared results with a similar 1998 study and found no change in violence, with schools identified as the most dangerous place. Nearly half of those surveyed experienced unfair treatment or abuse because of their sexuality. Two hundred and eighty of the young people interviewed had experienced physical violence because of their sexuality. Of those who experienced abuse, 74% reported self-harming behaviour.

Young gays and lesbians were also likely to be more sexually active than their heterosexual peers. Eighty percent of those interviewed said that sex education courses at school were “useless.”

Gutless bureaucrats. Lynne Hillier, the report’s lead researcher, calls for a “zero tolerance response to homophobic violence in schools.” Hillier argues that many teachers are nervous about taking a position, “because they do not think they will get departmental backing.” Her research team demands that Education Departments in all states and territories give clear and unambiguous directions that “it is the school’s responsibility to deal with homophobia and that the department will back them.”

Last year, a lesbian student teacher at a Victorian primary school had her final teaching round terminated by the principal after she honestly replied to students that the woman who picked her up after school was her partner. Despite the clear breach of the Equal Opportunity Act, the student teacher decided not to complain for fear of future victimisation. She did, however, get strong support from her university.

In March this year, the New South Wales National Party leader demanded a ban on children’s books dealing with gay families, calling them “politically correct claptrap.” Premier Bob Carr responded by ordering an investigation into the use of the books! The books in question, The Rainbow Cubby House and Koalas on Parade, were written by Vicki Harding and her 8-year-old daughter Brenda. They were developed by the Learning to Include project and feature diverse families, including those with two mums or dads. The latest census figures show that 40,000 Australian gay and lesbian couples have children.

In June, the NSW Government was at it again. Education Minister Carmel Tebbutt banned an innovative anti-homophobia program used in a Western Sydney high school. No wonder teachers and school communities feel unsupported. The recipe is too simple. Take a handful of bigots whipped up by Fred Nile, the National Party or Family First. Send them off to the tabloid press to start screaming about the “homosexual propaganda,” “brainwashing children at a sensitive age” and the “innocence of youth.” Wait for the headlines and watch the politicians and bureaucrats fold.

Slow progress. When Gay Liberation blasted onto the Australian political scene in the early ’70s, concern about homophobia in schools was high priority. Most homosexual teachers remained in the closet. In 1974, Penny Short, a trainee teacher, had her scholarship revoked after publishing a lesbian love poem in a student newspaper. In 1977, Greg Weir was refused employment in Queensland because of his gay liberationist activism. This sparked a national campaign spearheaded by the Australian Union of Students.

The Melbourne Gay Teachers and Student Group formed in 1975. In Living Out Loud, historian Graham Willett describes the group’s mission as ensuring “job security for homosexual teachers, the right of students and teachers to be open about their sexuality, that schools accepted responsibility for educating students about homosexuality and — ultimately — a positive change in attitudes throughout the education system.” The group published a pioneering work, Young, Gay and Proud. Although, initially distributed to high schools through the teachers’ union, the book was later banned by the state government!

In the early ’90s, the NSW Gay and Lesbian Teachers and Students Association met with the Minister for Education after some high-profile homophobic attacks in Sydney schools. The group called for a compulsory section on homophobia in the Personal Development Curriculum, proposed that all school libraries have books with positive lesbian and gay role models and that schools be required to treat homophobia in the same way as racism and sexism. Thirteen years later, the Carr Government can’t bring itself to defend the Learning to Include project.

Queers exist — get used to it! Schools are a particularly sensitive arena of struggle for a couple of reasons. In a capitalist society, children are treated as the property of their parents and have few rights of their own. As a result, many people are susceptible to arguments that parents have rights to veto what their children can learn about. This idea needs to be challenged head on. Schools have a social responsibility to educate about the values of the society. In Australia, it is unlawful to discriminate against people because of their sexuality. Anti-homophobia must be part of the curriculum.

Myths still abound that homosexuals “recruit” and that positive gay and lesbian role models and anti-homophobia programs can drive otherwise straight kids into the arms of same-sex partners. In reality, positive role models and anti-homophobia programs will help otherwise closeted kids feel good about who they are.

Beacons of hope. Education unions have an important role to play. In the ’70s, the Victorian Secondary Teachers Association established an Open Subcommittee on Homosexuality to develop policy and support lesbian and gay members. Australian Education Union News this year put out a call for gay and lesbian union members to re-form an activist group within the union (Call the AEU on 03-9417-2822.) The NSW Teachers Federation currently plays a very positive role. It has labelled the Tebbutt decision “appalling” and held a party to launch Learning to Include.

In South Australia, Sexual Health Information Networking and Education (ShineSA) hosted a full-day workshop on Safety in our schools: Responding to Homophobia. Forty Adelaide teachers attended. Wirreanda High School invited ShineSA to run a full day of anti-homophobia training for all 67 members of staff. The aim was to make the school a safer place for same-sex- attracted students and teachers. In Victoria, a semi-rural school used its drama program to challenge homophobia. This became a catalyst for the adoption of a whole-school approach which included putting support systems in place.

Tasmania provides an inspirational model of how quickly things can change when there is an active movement and departmental leadership. In 1994, the Secretary of the Department of Education issued a memorandum banning all discussion of homosexuality in Tasmanian schools. By 2000, Tasmania adopted an official anti-discrimination and anti-harassment policy. Officially supported anti-homophobia materials are distributed by the Ministry of Education to all schools in the state. This reversal was won through a hard-fought battle by the gay community and its very broad base of supporters.

In Victoria, Princess Hill Secondary College, an inner city school, showed the way by being the first-ever secondary college to register a contingent to march in the annual Pride march. On its registration form, the school stated that “all at Princess Hill are expected to embrace gay-friendly values. Non-discriminatory practices and a bully-free school are where we are heading. We are proud to be a gay-friendly school.” The Freedom Socialist Party was proud to march at Pride this year alongside the school community of Princess Hill Secondary College. We need many more gay-friendly schools marching next year and an education bureaucracy which will unequivocally defend their right to do so!

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