DISCRIMINATION, stigma, and isolation. These are just some of the many issues young sexual and gender diverse students may face in high school.
Adolescence is a time filled with puberty and self-exploration, yet it’s also a time when students face the most scrutiny.
[showads ad=MREC] For sexual and gender diverse students this is amplified. In the 2010 Writing Themselves In report from LaTrobe University, 61 per cent of young non-heterosexual people reported experiencing verbal abuse and 18 per cent reported physical abuse while growing up.
But times are changing.
With organisations like Minus18 and the Safe Schools Coalition rolling out inclusive teaching resources such as the recent All of Us project, schools across Australia are beginning to create safer learning environments for sexual and gender diverse students.
And while this year’s Midsumma in Melbourne will feature youth-centric events in the festival calendar as per usual, a standout is Schools Out for Midsumma — a forum on inspiring ways schools are supporting same-sex attracted, intersex, and gender diverse young people.
However, there are still lengths to go, and issues faced by these students need to be tackled.
Erik | Eighteen
WHEN Erik Ly insisted on wearing pants at one of the high schools he attended, he was sent to a room and isolated from the rest of the students for an entire day as punishment for not wearing a skirt or dress.
“My experience going through puberty and exploring myself was really hard at school because people were ignorant,” he said.
“Everyone was using a lot of slurs and it sent a really strong message that I shouldn’t be the way I was because it wouldn’t end well.”
As a trans student Ly was often met with transphobia and discrimination, from being asked by a classmate why he wouldn’t wear a dress to invisibility in gender and sex education.
“I felt like a freak, not just because of people’s negative attitudes but also because of the stuff that was taught… it completely erased my experience,” he said.
For a long time Ly struggled to find support from the schools he went to, a kind of support that also wasn’t present at home.
“My parents wanted to take me to Vietnam for conversion therapy and I was scared for my safety, so in year 11 I moved out and found a youth refuge,” he said.
Towards the end of his high school years Ly went to two public schools. They proved a refreshing change of pace, as he was not misgendered or treated differently.
“Schools need to ensure that their language is inclusive in daily conversation as well as in classrooms,” he said.
“For example, instead of addressing students using ‘boys and girls’ use ‘folks’ or ‘everyone’ or other gender neutral terms, even if the school is single-sex.
“Even though I had a great experience at some of the schools I went to, this doesn’t mean other LGBTIQ people would have a great experience because I have the privilege of being male-looking, binary-looking, and cis-looking.”
Michael | Twenty-One
SEXUALITY was only touched on once in the small country high school that Michael Naughtin went to.
During a “party safe” day in year 10 a number of people visited the school to talk about drugs and alcohol, with one doctor in particular talking about sex.
“I remember him saying that at some point or another everyone experiences a sexual attraction to someone of the same sex, but for most people it’s just a phase,” he said.
“I thought, ‘cool, I have the chance to be normal’, so I was hoping it was a phase and wasn’t letting myself admit that it wasn’t.”
Naughtin kept his sexuality hidden throughout high school and came out once he moved to Melbourne for university.
Students at his high school would commonly and nonchalantly throw around the phrase “that’s so gay”, and he would often find himself echoing them.
“I thought that if people heard me say that then they would be like, well, he’s being demeaning towards gay people so obviously he’s not gay,” he said.
“The only way I saw my community reacting to people being gay was through the media, and you only hear about the negative stories, like people getting kicked out of home, or bashed.
“Because it’s a country town the population is more spread out so you get less diversity, whereas in the urban centre you’ll be exposed to different people and have people to look up to.”
With the increased number of initiatives targeting sexual and gender diverse inclusiveness in schools, such as Minus18’s All of Us teaching resource, Naughtin believes all the areas needing to be covered are finally beginning to be covered.
“But an important issue is that when you come out as gay, lesbian, bi, or trans, you shouldn’t be grouped into the stereotype that everyone has of you,” he said.
“For some people you are and that’s totally fine, but there may be other people too scared to come out because they don’t want to be seen as effeminate.
“People need to just accept the fact that everyone’s different, you can have effeminate straight guys the same way you can have masculine gay guys.”
Nevo | Twenty
FOR Nevo Zisin, Facebook seemed to be the easiest way to come out as trans to his grade, given the generally positive response he had received the first time he came out as a lesbian.
“The response was fairly surprising in that there wasn’t much of one,” he said.
“However, I found out that people were bitching about me behind my back all along, calling me an ‘attention seeker’ and questioning the validity of my gender identity.”
On muck-up day during a group dance, the boys decided they didn’t want Zisin in theirs.
“They were saying really inappropriate and transphobic things, and I wasn’t even part of the conversation,” he said.
“Some of the guys were furious and marched to the vice principal’s office in my defence… where he essentially victim-blamed, dead-named, and misgendered me and said I shouldn’t be part of the dance if it was causing so many issues.”
Despite this, Zisin said he was fortunate to have attended his private Jewish school, as it was the only religious school in Australia at that point to be part of the Safe Schools Coalition. It also had a gender and sexuality support group.
He believes the culture surrounding sexuality and gender needs to change, helped in part by the campaigns established by Minus18 and Safe Schools Coalition.
“I really believe that in a lot of ways, high school is a breeding ground for mental illness. Add being queer to the mix and you’re in for a pretty rough time,” he said.
Zisin also believes high schools need to create more safe spaces for young women.
“There needs to be more emphasis on empowering those who are victims of misogyny and offering them a space whereby their voice is specifically valued and requested,” he said.
“For women and non-binary people it can be really hard to find a voice and speak up in classrooms dominated by loud boys.”
Tim | Twenty
AT the first school Tim Christodoulou attended, a few warning bells compelled him to hide his sexuality from his peers.
There was a boy in his grade who was effeminate and presented outwardly as being quite camp who had a tough time from the athletic students, or “jocks”.
“I noticed and registered the signs that coming out wasn’t a particularly safe thing to do,” he said.
“The casual homophobia, and the words used as weapons towards young people — like ‘don’t be such a poof’ — sent the message that I should stay in the closet.”
However, for his final years in high school Christodoulou moved to an alternative school, where there weren’t any uniforms and the teachers were referred to by their first names.
It was there that he decided to be completely open about being gay and deal with any issues people had as they arose.
“There was one situation where I had an encounter with a kid in the year above me in the school quad,” he said.
“He threw a slur at me and some of the jocks in my year level leapt to my defence and told the guy to ‘fuck off’… it was the jocks standing up for me, and it sent the message that I was safe to be who I was.”
Christodoulou believes one of the biggest issues facing queer students is knowing where to get support.
“We know young people are at the greatest risk of mental health issues because of bullying and the discrimination they encounter,” he said.
“When that happened at my first school the only person I could go to was a religious chaplain, and at the time I thought he was going to out me to the school or my family, so I started avoiding school… there wasn’t anyone I could talk to.
“This is something that a lot of young LGBTI people are dealing with, and greater attention needs to be paid to services in schools.”
For information on Minus18 and their resources, including All of Us, visit minus18.org.au.
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**This article was first published in the February edition of the Star Observer, which is available now. Click here to find out where you can grab a copy in Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane, Adelaide, Canberra and select regional/coastal areas.
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