I WAS 12 years old when I figured out that I was gay.

At the time I thought being gay was the worst thing that a person could be.

Around the playground, the word “gay” was most frequently used to mean bad, weak, soft, disgusting.  

When I figured out that this was me, I was crushed. And I was scared, especially at school.

Hiding the truth was a daily struggle. Someone wrote on a toilet door “Jason Ball is a faggot”. I scrubbed it out and tried to pretend it didn’t matter. But it cut deep.

I was terrified of people finding out I was gay. So I made a promise to myself that I would never act on these feelings.

I would go through life, get married, have kids, and no one would ever know about who I really was.

But it was exhausting. At 15, after years of trying to hide my true self, I reached a point where I thought maybe it would be easier if I didn’t exist.

I thought about taking my own life. I thought that would be easier than dealing with the shame and embarrassment of people knowing I was gay.

But I was one of the lucky ones because I made it through those years. Sadly, far too many from our community don’t.

I often wonder how much pain I would have been spared if Safe Schools had been around when I was growing up. It makes me even more determined to stand up for this groundbreaking program that is quite literally saving lives.

I was proud to be named the first ambassador for the Safe Schools Coalition, to raise awareness of the damaging effects that homophobia and transphobia have on the mental health and wellbeing of LGBTI people.

Young people in our community are up to six times more likely to experience depression or attempt suicide than their peers.

It’s important to know that it’s not being gay, or being transgender that leads to negative mental health outcomes.

It is caused by the discrimination, marginalisation and bullying they experience.

It is a national disgrace that a program designed to protect them from that persecution is being attacked.

What is even more shameful is many of these attacks are being led by our elected politicians.

Instead of standing up, instead of showing leadership, instead of condemning the comparisons of the Safe Schools Coalition to grooming by paedophiles, our Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has been silent.

Our Assistant Treasurer Kelly O’Dwyer, the member for Higgins, the seat that I will be contesting at the next election, has been silent.  

Their lack of political and moral courage, to stand up to the bullies in their own party, makes them part of the problem.

The damage that this hateful, misinformed rhetoric will do to young people struggling with their sexuality or gender identity is devastating.

I want to send a clear message today to all those young people. You are loved. You are valued. You are okay exactly as you are. Most importantly, you are not alone. We stand with you and will fight with you every day for your right to feel safe at school.

The Safe Schools Coalition, through its teaching of acceptance, belonging and empathy, promotes inclusion and celebrates diversity in our schools.

It makes school a safe place to learn. And it give our young people hope.

As Harvey Milk once said: “You’ve got to give them hope. Hope for a better world, hope for a better tomorrow, hope for a better place to come to if the pressures at home are too great. Hope that all will be all right. And you and you and you, and all of you, you have to give people hope.”

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