A scene from Ja'mie: Private School Girl.

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.