It is the year of our Beyoncé 2016, and I am a 33-year-old lesbian. I started realising that boys did not excite me like they did my friends when I was about 11 years old, and I have now been completely comfortable saying the words “I am a lesbian” for 10 years.
I don’t know if you are a mathematical expert, but you might notice that there is an 11-year-gap between me realising something was different, and me being comfortable enough to express out loud what that difference is.
The main reason is that for those 11 years, I was attending school.
In an article on Tuesday, the Australian newspaper ran an “exclusive” story with the very subtle headline “Activists push taxpayer-funded gay manual in schools”, discussing religious groups decrying a teaching guide called All of Us that was released in November last year as part of a Safe Schools Coalition programme. Let me interrupt myself here to make it extra clear that there is no such thing as a “gay manual”, because you cannot teach someone to be gay. And (unfortunately), gay people are not like cars; there is no manual with diagrams about how they work and how to fix them.
The Safe Schools Coalition is simply a collection of organisations and 490 member schools that are working together to build safe and inclusive schooling environments for same-sex attracted, intersex and gender diverse students. The “gay manual”, available for anyone to read online, is an anti-bullying tool to help teach students to have empathy for their classmates who may identify as LGBTI.
Yes, school can be tough for just about everyone. You’ll get teased if you have red hair, you’ll get bullied if you are nerdy, and kids will find a way to make fun of your surname regardless of what it is.
However, there is still a very distinctive line between this kind of bullying and the kind of experiences that LGBTI kids suffer. For example, 61% of young LGBTI people report experiencing homophobic abuse. About 18% report physical homophobic abuse. Shockingly, approximately 80% of this bullying happens at school. The educational experiences of young LGBTI people are disrupted, with many changing schools or dropping out. On top of this, LGBTI teenagers are also more much likely to experience depression, self-harm, and suicide than their heterosexual counterparts.
Walking onto your school bus or through the gates of your school every morning and not knowing if you will be emotionally or physically okay by the end of that day is not something young people should have to worry about.
That is why the Safe Schools Coalition is a much bigger concept than any specific details in a booklet that religious groups want to argue. Simply by existing, and by schools choosing to sign up to it, the programme is immediately telling LGBTI students incredibly clearly that they are accepted, and that they are wanted as they are. It tells them that they don’t have to change themselves to be safe, but that their environment will be changed to make it safe for them. I didn’t have that kind of guarantee, and I can only imagine the positive effect it would have had on my life.
I did not experience any homophobic bullying in the time I was at school. This is purely because there was literally nothing – no “gay manual” – and nobody to tell me it would be okay if I came out. And in reality, it might not have been. So instead, I worked incredibly hard to keep my sexuality a secret for the entire time, terrified of what the outcome would be for me if other people found out.
Day in and day out, I kept a huge part of myself completely hidden. As my peers began to discuss boys they had crushes on, I played along. As it started to become expected that I would have interest in boys at school, I played along. As it became expected that I would be interested in sex with boys, I played along. Having everyone believe that you are heterosexual might prevent direct verbal or physical homophobic bullying, but it is an absolutely exhausting and soul-destroying endeavour to pull off. These should not be the only two choices LGBTI kids have.
The fact that some religious groups are spending their time fighting a programme designed to protect our most vulnerable young people is disappointing, and telling. If All of Us and the Safe Schools programme help these young people feel protected, and if it contributes to saving even one life, it should only be applauded.
As I sit and write this I can hear school kids playing in the playground of the school across from me. They sound like they are having the best time of their lives, and that they do not have a care in the world. And that’s exactly how it should be, for kids of all kinds, in every school across Australia. – By Rebecca Shaw
Image – AFP