With Safe Schools funding scrapped in some states and under attack in others, it’s up to many schools to decide how to make their classrooms LGBTI friendly. Jess Jones explores one high school in regional NSW that’s doing just that.
Imagine standing in front of your entire small-town high school and declaring that you’re gay.
It may have been inconceivable years ago, but that’s just what happened at Colo High School: one of last year’s school captains was openly gay, and felt confident enough to mention his sexuality during his school election speech.
Alex Stefan, a teacher at the school north-west of Sydney, says the reaction of the student’s classmates was perhaps more profound than his proud declaration.
“He stood up in assembly in front of the entire school and said, ‘My name is Tom and I am a gay male,’ and then continued with his speech,” she says.
“And nobody laughed or flinched. It was amazing for him to feel comfortable enough to say that. And there was no sniggering or negative reaction to that at all.
“I think he’s made such a big difference in the school. A lot of the younger students would have seen him being comfortable in himself and realised that it is okay. And he was so well-liked and such a good ambassador for the school.”
The school’s inclusive environment is in large part a testament to the Stand Out diversity program, which was founded three years ago by a group of teachers and students.
Stefan is the coordinator of Stand Out, and says the program was created after Wear It Purple day one year, when staff at the school realised their LGBTI students needed more than one day a year for inclusivity.
“It’s kind of like a mentoring program where our senior students who either are on the LGBTI spectrum or are straight allies mentor our young students,” she says.
“It’s created a culture now where our young people feel a lot more comfortable to be themselves and to come out in high school.
“For a lot of us who are older, we remember our own experiences from when we were in high school, and it not being a safe space. That’s what we wanted to create for them where they could be themselves and feel supported.”
The national Safe Schools program was created to foster this kind of inclusive environment for young people, but it has been under attack since its inception.
The federal government scrapped the funding, leaving states to bear the cost if they wanted the program to continue running.
Victoria is continuing to fund it, while in Queensland, Safe Schools will cease being funded from next month.
New South Wales lost its state funding earlier this year, leaving individual schools to decide for themselves if and how they will work towards LGBTI inclusivity in the classroom.
Stefan says Colo High and the wider community have become much more inclusive of diverse young people.
“When I first started working here nine years ago—Colo is a small community, it can be kind of closed-minded at times—it was quite a homophobic place. And over the years it’s come such a long way,” she says.
“It’s all because of the students who are changing the minds of the community around them. It’s them deciding that they want change, and a lot of it comes from our straight allies as well, which is amazing.”
One student with two dads had tried to hide her family structure at school for a long time before Stand Out.
“Once we started this program she realised that it was okay, and people are still going to accept you,” says Stefan.
“When she started feeling comfortable to tell people, most people thought it was really cool.”
Stefan says the importance of safe spaces for LGBTI students is paramount.
“When they’re happy at school, their learning becomes a lot easier as well. We see them thrive. It sets them up in such a positive way for their futures.”
Prudy Cullen is a former student of Colo High School who was involved in Stand Out before graduating last year.
Cullen says little to no homophobic or transphobic bullying now goes on at the school.
“Since the program’s been happening, we’ve only had one incident of bullying, where one of our younger members in year seven was being bullied for being gay,” she says.
“He didn’t really want to do anything about it, he was a bit scared. But some of us ended up baking him a cake and sitting with him at lunch time as a show of support, that we’re there for everyone. Ever since then he wasn’t bullied.”
The way students speak to each other has changed since the program was introduced, with casual homophobia all but disappearing.
“We did have that phase a couple of years ago where everyone was saying ‘that’s so gay’ and ‘faggot’ and things like that, but since then everyone’s sort of more aware of people who are around them,” says Cullen.
“Now, if anyone does say things like that, there are more than enough people who aren’t afraid to say that’s not cool.”
Cullen says the program has led to more acceptance of LGBTI people in the town, and she hears a lot of positive feedback from the community about the program.
“They say things like ‘I’m so happy you guys are doing this, I wish something like this existed when we were in school’. And everyone is so much more open to the idea of everyone being different and that being okay.”
Cullen says the program helped many students find the confidence and courage to come out. She thinks other schools should definitely have similar programs.
“People think things like the Safe Schools program are exclusive to rainbow children, but it’s more than that,” she explains.
“It’s about everyone as a whole being happy, being safe, feeling supported by everyone around them. Having someone they can talk to and having the stability of support.
“Having a group for that purpose definitely creates a safer and happier environment. In school that’s so important because that’s where kids are learning the foundations of their identity for later life.”
Cullen remembers seeing one student in particular go from being very quiet and reserved to outgoing and confident. She recalls seeing him in a Stand Out meeting one day.
“He was standing on a chair and singing, and the other kids said they were going to call him Britney [Spears]. He was so happy. Every time I think back to what we do he always comes up in my mind,” she says.
“I can’t describe how happy it made me feel, seeing these young kids just so happy to be themselves, and shining so bright.”
“When Safe Schools was gutted, everyone at Colo said: Well, they may stop, but we’re not stopping. We’re going to keep going until we’re all the way there. Every hurdle that comes up, we get over it.”