Fighting homophobia in high schools

A scene from <i>Ja'mie: Private School Girl.</i>

A scene from Ja'mie: Private School Girl.

I have some pretty halcyon memories of high school but one thing I have no nostalgia for is the homophobia.

I remember one classmate ostentatiously holding her breath in the presence of the only two girls in a openly lesbian relationship so as not to ‘‘catch" homosexuality from them. The way another two girls at my single-sex public school were the subject of bitchy gossip for months after they kissed at a party in Year 9, (ironically, I think, in an attempt to try to impress boys). The casual and unthinking use of the words ‘‘faggot’’ and ‘‘dyke’’. It was hurtful to those targeted, depressing for those witnessing it, and had a chilling effect on anyone openly expressing they might be gay or bisexual.

School is the most common place Australian teenagers will experience anti-gay taunts or violent assaults, the most recent national study, Writing Themselves In 3, found. Eighty per cent of gay, lesbian or questioning teenagers said they had experienced verbal or physical assault at school.

‘‘People at my high school found out I was a lesbian and after school one day, a group of six (girls and boys) shoved me against the wall and punched me and kicked me until a teacher saw what was happening,’’ said one girl.


Another boy said: ‘‘The change rooms before and after PE were the worst, you always had your back turned on at least some of the other boys. You never knew what they would do - hit you, trip you.’’

Homophobia among teenagers is used to degrade even those who aren’t necessarily gay or questioning.

A recent episode of Ja’mie: Private School Girl, which rang true to me, showed Chris Lilley’s monstrous character abusing a group of ‘boarders’ who she taunted as lesbians for no other reason than ‘‘they’re just sort of like fat and weird and they have stupid haircuts... it’s like - you’re a girl, act like one’’.

The effects of homophobia on people so young can be devastating, with LGTBI youth at a higher risk of depression, leaving school, and suicide.

It was partly in recognition of this problem that two major organisations that work in mental health have recently come out in support of a bill before the NSW parliament.

BeyondBlue and the Australian Clinical Psychology Association (ACPA) have voiced their support for a push by Sydney MP Alex Greenwich to remove exemptions for private schools from the NSW Anti-Discrimination Act.

Under the act, it is unlawful for education authorities to refuse admission to, or expel, a student for being gay, lesbian or transgender. But private schools and colleges were explicitly made exempt from this law.

Ex-students of private schools who have come out in support of the bill have told stories of bullying that went unpunished, being sent to counsellors who tried to ‘‘fix’’ their sexuality and being told to keep their sexual identity under wraps by their school leaders.

Supporters of the bill hope it will make students feel more secure in coming out, without the fear they could be expelled or admonished in some way for doing so.

But they also hope it will help address bullying in private schools, which educate around 40 per cent of high school students in NSW.

‘‘Exemptions under [the act] allow schools to have reduced responsibility for managing bullying behavior,’’ said ACPA in its submission on the bill. Daniel Stubbs, director of the Inner City Legal Centre, agrees.

‘‘Bullying is generally a fairly grey legal area, if you can relate it directly to discrimination you’ve got a much stronger case to relate against a school or workplace,’’ he told me last week.

Groups representing these schools are opposing a change to the law, and argue it would not help students who have come forward with stories of bullying anyway.

‘‘Removing exemptions wouldn't increase protections for the students at all, but what it would do is remove protection for the school to teach their ethos and values and expose them to litigation,’’ said Geoff Newcombe, executive director of the Association of Independent Schools NSW, stressing he had not been presented with any cases of students being expelled just for being gay.

The bill needs the support of the NSW Coalition to pass, which many observing the process believe is unlikely.

One Coalition MP said some people were concerned removing these exemptions could have a domino effect on others, such as those which allow religious organisations to discriminate when hiring or firing openly gay teachers.

If the Coalition does reject this bill, let’s hope it at least embraces other avenues for tackling homophobia and supporting students whatever school they go to. 

Jen Sainsbury, a Churchill Fellow who wrote her 2009 paper on this issue, found Australia too often left tackling homophobia to the health or local government sectors, and argued we need to follow other countries like the UK in tightening the focus on the education sector. This is backed-up by the findings of Writing Themselves In 3, which found students who described their schools as ‘‘supportive’’ of diverse sexualities were less likely to harm themselves or attempt suicide.

Some schools are already doing a good job of this, and its encouraging hearing reports of students who say discussing issues of sexuality is no big deal at their school. But given the high rates of distress many students still report, it's clear other schools could use support - or a push - into improving.

NSW has run a pilot program, Proud Schools, in a small number of schools, though its future is uncertain with an evaluation now underway. The Safe Schools Coalition, an opt-in program that has been successful in Victoria in training teachers and supporting students in dealing with homophobia, is likely to be expanded nationally thanks to funding secured in the final months of the federal Labor government. It could reach NSW as early as 2014 and would be a welcome intervention.

One of the most powerful gay rights campaigns of recent years has been Dan Savage’s ‘It Gets Better’ project, which used personal videos made by adults to reach out to teenagers, particularly LGBTI ones who may be contemplating suicide, and let them know that there is life beyond high school and the bullies.

Life does get better, as most people will tell you, beyond the emotionally charged, hermetic environment of high school.

But teenagers shouldn't have to wait it out. It’s up to adults to help make adolescence more enjoyable, more safe and more liveable for them while they're still at school.

35 comments so far

  • let's also stop discrimination and bullying over weight, looks, height, race, and political persuasion too. The amount of abuse some students get for believing in the Liberal party is terrible I tell you!

    Understand that people want a lovely world, but do we ever really believe the world can be all PC and beautiful?
    What would social commentators write about?

    Date and time
    November 07, 2013, 8:59AM
    • Oh for gods sake. If you don't have anything helpful to say, don't say anything at all. I take it you weren't bullied as a gay teenager.

      Date and time
      November 07, 2013, 9:53AM
    • Jessem - I'll bet you also believe in the "you can have an opinion about gays just as long as it's not against them" attitude too. It's amazing how convenient it has become for minorities to be able to attach "phobia" to anything so they have a way to howl down dissenter's.

      Date and time
      November 07, 2013, 10:54AM
    • "I take it you weren't bullied as a gay teenager."

      I was - extensively. Not for being gay, but for a variety of other reasons. I think it's foolish to focus on one target of bullying. It's not being gay that's the cause for bullying, it's being different. Anyone different is a target, whether you're fat, short, smart, pimply, red-haired or anything else that's different from the majority crowd.

      Until we deal with the more fundamental problems inherent in our tribal human nature, bullying is never going to stop. It will just find new targets each time.

      Date and time
      November 07, 2013, 11:41AM
    • @david - I think we are a little bit better than that as a society. Or perhaps you're not. It's not OK to lampoon someone's race, religion, etc. Why their sexuality? What do you actually want? I bet you would be ther first to cry wolf if you were vilified for whatever you are. Just a silly comment.

      @Jack - it's not a free-for-all. As a society we have some rules. You can't actually just say what you like. There happen to be consequences. And we're talking about kids here. So what if it's called a phobia. It's because it is an unnatural fear where a disproportionate reaction is shown. Sounds about right to me. Would love to live in your dog-eat-dog world.

      Date and time
      November 07, 2013, 11:50AM
    • @Jack
      No mate. People have opinions on what ice-cream flavour is the best, or whether Tom Waits is more awesome than Beyonce (he is, by the way).
      Being prejudiced against non-hetero people is not you expressing an opinion. It is you being a tool.
      Furthermore, it is just as arbitrary as being against left-handed people, or redheads, or people taller than 6 foot, or people named 'Jack'. Would you protect my right to an "opinion" or "dissent" if I wanted to tease all Jacks until the Jack-community had higher substance-abuse, self-harm, and suicide rates? How about if the law of the land prevented all Jacks from doing what everyone else could do? Or if "Jack" became synonymous with anything bad, as in "OMG, that haircut is so Jack"? I wonder if the Jack minority would sit by and allow the rest of us to have such an opinion. Or do you think you wouldn't argue to be treated with decency, respect and love, just like the rest of us non-Jacks?

      Date and time
      November 07, 2013, 12:59PM
    • Davd/Jack

      In my experience, I have found that the most homophobic in our society are the people who are struggling to come to terms with acknowledging their own true homosexual identity.

      The one who knows all
      Date and time
      November 07, 2013, 2:56PM
    • Yes David, and members of the ALP get given grief as well as those that vote Green... What exactly is your point?

      pj rushcutters
      Date and time
      November 07, 2013, 3:19PM
    • The one who knows all - Keep telling yourself that, you're just creating a large mob of Charlotte Dawson's that are likely to break the moment their beliefs and existence are challenged.

      All this PC doesn't create a strong society, half the country will be fragile precious things in 20 years because of all this rubbish

      The Children
      Date and time
      November 07, 2013, 3:35PM
    • Heisenberg - Predictable self opinionated response and you've basically reinforced my point. You are saying "disagree with me on the issue of same sex relationships and you are a bigot, a homophobe blather, blather, blather". What I am saying is that if you can't see the difference between being ruthlessly teased about your sexuality (which I agree is wrong) and listening to someone who is respectfully expressing their opinion against same sex marriage on the basis of their religious views then it's you who has a significant problem and a childish attitude towards dealing with anyone who disagrees with you.

      The problem is, even if the latter were to occur, the predictable response to someone who disagrees with gay marriage on religious grounds is "you're backward", "it's irrelevant", "it's out of date" and phrases to that effect followed by the predictable "you're a homophobe, you're a bigot" which basically says to me that you are incapable of coming up with a coherent and sound reply to the other person's views. Every article I've ever read is filled with comments like these and then you and people like you get your noses out of joint when it's pointed out that for all the talk of "tolerance", the gay community are among the least tolerant of anyone who disagrees with them.

      Date and time
      November 07, 2013, 4:45PM

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