The longest five years

[Content warning: homophobia; violence; suicidal ideation]

 

Those eyelashes.

He had beautiful blue eyes, scruffy blond hair and a mischievous smile, but it’s his eyelashes I remember most more than a quarter of a century later.

The day before, my Mum had driven me the eight hours from the farm west of Rockhampton where I was raised, to this boarding school in Brisbane’s inner-west. The day after I would start year 8, and what would be the longest five years of my life.

But that January afternoon, as the new boarders got to know each other down at the pool, I was transfixed by his eyelashes, droplets of water on them glistening in the Queensland summer sun.

That moment crystallised the feelings of difference that had slowly accumulated over the previous few years. At 10 and 11, I had grown increasingly bewildered as the other boys and girls at Blackwater primary began to express interest in each other.

At 12, in this unfamiliar environment, a long, long way from home, I finally understood why.

I liked boys.

 

**********

 

It took me another month or so to learn the right language to describe who I was. But I realised quickly afterwards that being gay was unlikely to be welcomed. Not by my National Party-voting parents (my Dad had actually nominated for federal pre-selection the year before). Not by my classmates. And definitely not by my school.

This was 1991. Homosexuality in Queensland had only just been decriminalised – and even then, the Parliament had imposed an unequal age of consent for anal intercourse (to ‘protect’ boys from being recruited to the homosexual lifestyle), something that would not be repealed until 2016.

Social attitudes were changing, but at a glacial pace. Many parts of the state were still firmly stuck in the Joh Bjelke-Petersen era. My school was one of them.

Based on the Lutheran faith, it enforced both religious indoctrination, and homophobia, with steely German efficiency.

We had chapel five times a week (Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays, Fridays, and an hour-plus every Sunday), and bible studies another two or three times.

The school rules, which were printed in the student diary, were based on supposedly ‘christian’ principles, and included the statement that homosexuality would not be tolerated because it was not in accordance with god’s will.

The sex education that was provided was a superficial, hetero-normative joke. While the jokes made by my classmates, often within earshot of unresponsive staff, were frequently homophobic.

If I was going to survive here, I would have to suppress my burgeoning same-sex attraction with all my might.

 

**********

 

It is hard, even now, especially now, to find the words to describe the utter loneliness of what followed.

Being surrounded 24/7 by 180 other boys, at a school of 1600 students overall, but having absolutely no-one to talk to, or confide in.

Needless to say there were no ‘out’ role models to look up to.

So, I quickly cut myself off, socially and emotionally, rather than risk the ostracism – or worse – of letting slip my secret.

Looking back, it was probably the only rational course of action. But it would slowly erode, and corrode, my self-esteem.

 

**********

 

I became so withdrawn that the rest of year 8, and most of year 9, was a numb blur.

As an academic child – some (well, if I’m being honest, most) might say nerd – I concentrated on my schoolwork.

The only snippets I learnt about what it meant to be gay came from pop-culture.

Sneaking peaks at Outrage magazine at the newsagent between school and the local shopping centre.

Scanning newspapers for any gay references I could find. One article about homosexuality from The Australian, back when it actually did journalism, sticks out in my mind, at least in part because of the scantily clad male torso it featured.

Trying to stay up late in the dorm to watch Sex with Sophie Lee, and Melrose Place featuring Matt the (largely-sexless) gay social worker.

Not exactly the most well-rounded education on ‘gayness’, but I devoured any morsel I could get.

 

**********

 

My clearest memory of year 9 came one evening during our allocated study period, during which each boarding house year group was supervised by a year 12 student.

This particular night our allocated ‘senior’ was joined by his twin brother and their friend, and they proceeded to discuss, in front of us, what they had got up to during the previous weekend.

On the Saturday night they and some others had apparently gone to a major bridge in Brisbane, found a toilet block where ‘faggots’ (their word, not mine) congregated, and ‘rolled’ them.

They were confessing to gay-bashing. Except this was no ordinary confession. They were smiling. Joking. Laughing. They were bragging.

Long before the term ‘toxic masculinity’ was popularised, I was learning what it meant, face-to-face.

I could not be 100 per cent certain whether what they were saying was true, or just teenage ‘bravado’ (even if it was the opposite of real bravery).

But I was now absolutely sure of one thing. Being gay at this school would not just lead to social exclusion, and possible expulsion. Being gay here was physically dangerous too.

I retreated even further into my closet. It became my whole world.

 

**********

 

Unsurprisingly, denying who I was, and isolating myself from my surrounds, was profoundly damaging to my mental health.

I suffered what I would later understand was major depression.

By the second term of year 8, I was already contemplating what seemed like the only way out: ending my life.

At first these thoughts came weekly. Then every few days.

By the start of year 10, I was thinking of killing myself upwards of a dozen times every 24 hours.

There wasn’t a day from then until after I finished year 12 that I didn’t think of committing suicide.

 

**********

 

Amidst the gloom, year 10 provided the one enjoyable term of my entire five-year stint of boarding school.

That was an eight-week ‘outdoor education’ program, where each class of about 30 lived in spartan accommodation in the hills north of Toowoomba.

By spartan, I really mean it. No flushing toilets. No running water full stop. To have a hot shower you had to build the fire, and boil the water, yourself. And after all that it only lasted for a total of about 30 seconds.

Still, there was something enjoyable about having no classes, and being immersed in an environment where kids could just be kids for a bit. I finally managed to make a few friends, mostly among the female students, something that would come in handy during the remaining two and a half years of hell in that school.

 

**********

 

Even out there, however, we couldn’t fully escape the religious inculcation the school was so expert in. We still had group daily prayer. And church every Sunday.

As part of its stereotypically ‘protestant’ emphasis on self-reliance, towards the end of the eight weeks we were also made to do a 24- or 48-hour ‘solo’, where we were left in the middle of the bush, with little other than a flashlight and a bible for company.

So I read it, cover to cover, in the desperate hope I might find something in there to help me overcome my predicament.

Which began a period of about 6 months where I would engage in an individual nightly prayer, wishing I would wake up as something other than myself. Each morning I was profoundly disappointed.

I was more lost than ever.

 

**********

 

The nadir of this search for ‘redemption’ came late in year 10, when I sought the assistance of one of the pastors to be baptised.

For a couple of months that involved spending an hour each week with him, discussing faith and what it meant to me.

We didn’t discuss homosexuality. I wasn’t going to raise it, and he certainly didn’t ask.

But it must been have clear to this kind old man (and that is still how I remember him) that the young boy in front of him was drowning.

If it was, then he himself was too far out of his depth to help.

My strongest memory of that entire process was sitting in his office, listening to – but not really hearing – his words, as it felt like my whole body dissolved into the couch, until I wasn’t there anymore.

It was clear that religion was not going to be my life-raft.

 

**********

 

Perhaps surprisingly, by year 11, things had slowly started to improve.

The friendships I had made with a few of the female day students strengthened. Even if I felt I couldn’t disclose my secret to them, just having someone, anyone, to talk to, even about random, meaningless stuff, made the days seem not so long, and the nights not quite so terrifyingly alone.

I was also learning more about this whole ‘gay’ thing.

One of the advantages of being a nerd meant I was free to visit, unsupervised, the University of Queensland Social Sciences Library, ostensibly to undertake research for my school assessments. In fact, I was becoming closely acquainted with the work of Alfred Kinsey and his ‘Sexual Behaviour in the Human Male’.

I surreptitiously picked up a few copies of Brother-Sister (the 90s, Brisbane equivalent of the Star Observer), reading them cover-to-cover and then throwing them away before heading back to campus.

It was reassuring to know that a gay world did exist out there, somewhere – a suburb, and a galaxy, removed from where I was.

Pop-culture was also steadily expanding its, and my, gayze. Tales of the City (the TV series) was an eye-opener, with its heady depiction of gay life in 70s San Francisco. It even made being gay look like it could be fun.

And I distinctly recall the moment I first saw the photos of Ian Roberts in Blue Magazine (images that were committed to memory for several years after that).

Life in the dorms even got slightly easier with the installation of shower curtains. Which, unless you’ve lived in a boarding house, may not seem like a big deal, but finally provided enough privacy to do what teenage boys do… A lot…

It felt like the invisible but ever-present weight I had been carrying was slowly lifting. There was much less ‘praying the gay away’, replaced with the almost imperceptibly small beginnings of self-acceptance.

 

**********

 

Any progress I had made was stopped in its tracks by a moment of brutality.

Well, two moments.

Physically, I had matured faster than some of my peers, and at 15 had a nascent patch of hair on my chest (which, I’ll be honest, I was a little bit chuffed about).

One evening early in year 11, after study a group of about half-a-dozen boys from my year ambushed me between two buildings, pinned me down and removed my shirt.

I struggled to break free, but there were too many of them.

I called out for help, which was then muffled by one of their hands across my mouth.

No-one came.

I didn’t comprehend what was going on, until one of them took out a razor and shaved my chest.

I think the whole thing was all over in about three minutes.

Looking back, I don’t know how but I somehow managed to compartmentalise this un-provoked attack. Pretending it didn’t mean anything. That it was ‘just’ some harmless hazing. That this kind of thing happened to everyone. Didn’t it?

Perversely, the dissociation of more than three years in the closet helped me to detach myself from this incident.

I tried to move on. I was even partially successful. Until it happened again.

 

**********

 

The second assault, towards the end of year 11, was much, much worse.

The modus operandi was similar – the shaving of my by-then slightly thicker thatch.

There were more people involved, this time at least a dozen, maybe 15 (including, sadly, my year 8 crush, the one with those ‘eyelashes’).

It happened in the dorm cubicle I shared with three other students, on the floor right next to my bed, stripping away any sense of safety it had previously provided.

The fact they came prepared with shaving cream, in addition to a razor, revealed just how pre-meditated it was.

I didn’t struggle. Or call out for help. The first attack had shown there was no point.

In fact, what sticks with me is just how quiet it was.

The sound of squeaky sneakers on the wooden floor. The whirr of the shaving cream. That’s all.

They didn’t even need to talk to each other. They knew what they were doing, having taken the school’s German efficiency and applied it to brutalising another student.

This was an act of dominance, and humiliation. I was confronted by my sheer powerlessness in comparison.

But the biggest psychological damage was inflicted by its mere repetition.

This was not, could not, be written off as simple ‘hazing’, lazily picking on outward physical difference.

Even if they didn’t express it – and I couldn’t say the words out loud – I knew they had worked out I was different in an inward, and far more significant way.

They were going to make me pay for it. I did. They had broken me.

 

**********

 

I didn’t report them. How could I? They constituted about a third of all the year 11 students in the boarding house. The popular boys. The rugby players. People who I continued to share a ‘home’ with, and see every morning, afternoon and evening of every single day.

I knew, without qualification, that if I complained, and any of them (or all of them) were punished as a result, the following 12 months would be living hell. The violence wouldn’t stop; it would escalate.

So I lowered my head.

I did confide in a couple of my female friends, Jo and Cindy. Who were rightly horrified and who, unbeknownst to me, reported the second incident to the school.

The school’s response was, to put it mildly, shocking.

They knew what had happened. And they knew exactly who had been involved. Nevertheless, they refused to take action unless I made a formal complaint – something which they must also have realised I couldn’t do, based on an entirely legitimate fear for my own safety.

We reached a stand-off.

The boarding house’s improvised approach was to take me out of study one night, and sit me alone on an uncomfortable chair in a fluorescently-lit corridor. They forced all of the boys who had been involved (thus conceding they knew exactly who did it) to come and apologise to me, one after another.

I don’t remember much of that experience. I certainly don’t recall any genuine contrition on their parts for the actual attack. Although I do remember several of them thanking me for not ‘dobbing’, and others apologising to me because they incorrectly thought that I had complained but now knew I hadn’t. Such were the warped moral priorities of the teenage male boarding student.

 

**********

 

About a week after those ‘nonpologies’, the school announced the student body leaders for the following year.

One of the boys who had assaulted me was named school captain.

Another was made head boarder.

If that wasn’t enough of a sick joke, because of my grades I was also named a prefect – and so would have to spend even more time alongside them.

 

**********

 

The icing on the cake of that almost unbelievably horrible year came a couple of weeks later.

As was the style at the time – but probably also as a reaction to what had happened to me – I had clippered my hair in a buzz cut.

Sitting in the back row of my Economics class, the teacher, who was also the ‘dean of student welfare’ for year 11, joked to the class, “didn’t you get enough of having your hair shaved in the boarding house, Alastair?”

 

**********

 

It was clear the school would never give a shit about me.

After four years in the closet, and beatings both physical and psychological, I barely cared about myself.

Which meant that year 12, for me, was simply a battle for survival.

The lowest point arrived in chapel one morning when, in front of years 11 and 12, a new pastor gave a sermon about a teenager from his previous parish.

The boy had come to see him, ‘confused’ about life and his place in it. The pastor claimed he had tried to help, but the boy ultimately took his life.

The pastor described how he was now in a better place, in a way that suggested this was not the worst thing the boy could have done in those circumstances.

That pastor had effectively ‘dog-whistled’ his insidious homophobia to a room full of 600 impressionable 15, 16 and 17 year-olds, intimating that they should consider killing themselves if they were confused.

Fortunately, my contrarian nature meant my immediate reaction was to think, “fuck you, I won’t do what you tell me”. It was possibly even the first day I believed I might eventually outlive that school.

But I often think about how the other 40 or 50 queer kids who were in chapel that morning reacted to his hate.

 

**********

 

The highest point of senior year came one August afternoon, as I sat in the office of my favourite English teacher, and the dean of student welfare for year 12, crying.

Yes, crying. Why was that a highlight? Because I had just committed the ultimate act of defiance in a school that was intent on erasing any student who happened to be gay or lesbian.

I had come out.

It almost goes without saying that it was the most difficult thing I had ever done. I was so emotionally spent afterwards that, even though Gayle was supportive (and wanted to help me attend a support group outside of school), I did not have sufficient energy left to take the next step. Or any steps.

Indeed, it would be another two years before I told another soul.

But it was enough that someone finally knew my secret.

It was also a pre-emptive act of remembrance. If I took my life in the weeks or months that followed, someone would know why. And they might be able to address the set of circumstances that contributed to it.

 

**********

 

The final term of year 12 was like the home straight of a marathon, as I limped and staggered towards the end. I literally had nothing left of myself to give.

Even my grades started to suffer (although I suspect Gayle encouraged some of the other teachers to give me special consideration).

But as I fell through the finish line tape, and started to maybe hope that the future could have something, anything, better to offer than the previous five years had mercilessly dispensed, the school had one last insult to add to my many injuries.

At the conclusion of each year in the boarding house, the senior students handed out ‘awards’ to the year 8, 9, 10 and 11 kids, while the year 11 students were given responsibility to dole out awards to the seniors.

Mine? In front of the entire boarding house, including staff, I had to walk up and collect the ‘Big Fat Poof’ award.

None of the staff intervened. All of the other kids laughed.

Those students had found the language to describe what the year 11s the year before – my classmates – had suspected. They saw right through me.

It almost seems appropriate my time at that wretched institution ended in one final act of humiliation before I walked out of its unwelcoming gates.

 

**********

 

A couple of days after final exams, my Dad drove me that same eight hour-trip back to my childhood farm in Central Queensland for the final time.

Sitting in the passenger seat, I was, in many ways, the same kid I had been five years prior. My physical age might have been 17, but emotionally I was only 12; specifically, that 12 year-old boy transfixed by those eyelashes, experiencing the exciting and confusing first throes of a teenage crush.

Except those subsequent years had stripped away any optimism I might have once held about the future, as my school and classmates collectively drummed into me that who I was was something to be ashamed of.

My teenage years had been stolen from me by religious indoctrination, and homophobia – which, at least in that environment, were very closely inter-twined.

I would have to ‘do over’ my adolescence, in the months and years to come. To make stupid mistakes, and learn from them. To grow up. To fall in – and out – of love.

Fortunately, the world outside would prove a far more accepting, and interesting, place than my boarding school had been.

It’s hard to imagine how it could have been any worse.

 

**********

 

Ten years later I found myself attending my school reunion on a rainy night in a dingy function room in the Valley.

You may ask why I would subject myself to that (and I certainly am as I write this) but, at the time, I felt like I had something to prove.

Unlike Romy, it wasn’t to show how successful or popular I was, merely to demonstrate that they hadn’t broken me. After everything they had put me through, I was still standing.

It wasn’t necessarily true. My personal life was basically a mess, and would be for another few years, right up until I met my fiancé Steve. But that wasn’t going to stop me from faking it.

Nevertheless, I am thankful I went for one reason. Early in the evening, one of the boys who had been involved in the second assault on me saw me through the crowd, made a beeline straight toward me, and unprompted offered me his apology for what he, and the others, had done.

Not only was it sincere, it was obvious the incident had weighed heavily on him in the decade since.

Nothing was going to take back what had happened. But it was comforting to hear the wrong acknowledged, and to know at least one of the perpetrators was genuinely remorseful.

 

**********

 

Another decade later I went to my school’s 20-year reunion on a sunny afternoon at a bowling club down by the Brisbane River.

This time I didn’t have anything to prove, but I did have something to gain – to reconnect with some of the friends I had made during my time there. Which I did, although once again the highlight was a pleasant surprise.

Mid-afternoon I found myself having a chat with the boy (well, now middle-aged man) with those ‘eyelashes’, as well as another student with whom I had shared a dorm cubicle all the way back in 1991.

The crush was long gone (what had I been thinking?). Instead, we had a lovely conversation about our lives and what we were up to. They offered their heart-felt congratulations on my engagement to Steve, even remarking that he was a ‘good-looking fella’ (well, I certainly think so).

It was all incredibly natural, and showed how much they had evolved in the intervening decades.

Indeed, we had all changed.

 

**********

 

Well, nearly all. While it had eventually got better for me, I was soon reminded that it didn’t get better for everyone.

I sat outside on the wooden steps leading down to the green chatting with another student from my year. After I told him about my relationship, he volunteered that he had been out on the gay scene during his twenties, but that he had since rediscovered Jesus and was now straight.

Worse still, he was employed by a faith-based organisation working with troubled youth on the streets. He was likely perpetuating the same harmful messages we had received, and subsequently contributed to him becoming ‘ex-gay’, inflicting them on another generation.

While I had somehow managed to survive that horrific school, and was living a beautiful life teenage Alastair scarcely would have dreamed possible, for him those same five years seemed to be stuck on repeat.

 

**********

 

For LGBTI people, if this post has raised issues for you, please contact QLife on 1800 184 527, or via webchat: https://qlife.org.au/

Or contact Lifeline Australia on 13 11 14.

 

Untitled design (1)

At my grandma’s house, during a break between school terms.

 

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Submission to NSW Parliamentary Inquiry into Youth Suicide

Update: 19 December 2018

The NSW Parliamentary Committee on Children and Young People handed down its report on Prevention of Youth Suicide on 25 October 2018.

 

On the positive side, it acknowledged that LGBTI young people are a vulnerable group requiring specific attention, with higher rates of mental health issues than their cisgender heterosexual counterparts.

 

This included Recommendation 13 , that: ‘The Committee recommends that the NSW Government support research into suicide prevention programs for LGBTI young people.”

 

However, it is disappointing that the Committee did not go beyond simply calling for more research in this area.

 

Despite quoting organisations like Twenty10 that the increased risks of suicide and self-harm are ‘directly related to experiences of stigma, prejudice, discrimination and abuse’, and despite the terms of reference requiring the Committee to specifically consider the approaches taken by primary and secondary schools, they made no recommendations about the inclusion of LGBTI students in schools.

 

They therefore ignored the fact that the NSW Government abolished an evidence-based anti-bullying program for LGBTI students (Safe Schools) in 2017, and that the new Personal Development, Health and Physical Education (PDHPE) curriculum excludes LGBTI students and content that is relevant to their needs (something I will write more about early in the new year).

 

The Committee wrote in their report that: “The prevalence of suicide and self-harm among LGBTI young people is concerning to the Committee.” Although apparently they were not concerned enough to recommend concrete steps to make all NSW schools accepting places for LGBTI students.

 

Original Post:

The NSW Parliamentary Committee on Children and Young People is currently holding an inquiry into the prevention of youth suicide. Full details can be found here. The following is my personal submission:

 

c/- childrenyoungpeople@parliament.nsw.gov.au

Sunday 27 August 2017

 

Dear Committee

 

Submission to Inquiry into Youth Suicide in NSW

 

Thank you for the opportunity to provide a submission to this important inquiry.

 

In this submission, I will be focusing on items (g) and (h) from the inquiry’s terms of reference: ‘Approaches taken by primary and secondary schools’ and ‘Any other related matters’ respectively.

 

Specifically, I will be discussing these terms of reference and how they relate to one of the groups that is disproportionately affected by mental health issues, depression and suicide: young lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex people.

 

The National LGBTI Health Alliance confirms that LGBTI people, and especially young LGBTI people, are at much higher risk of suicide than non-LGBTI people. From the Alliance’s July 2016 ‘Snapshot of Mental Health and Suicide Prevention Statistics for LGBTI People’:

 

“Compared to the general population, LGBTI people are more likely to attempt suicide in their lifetime, specifically:

 

  • LGBTI young people aged 16 to 27 are five times more likely
  • Transgender people aged 18 and over are nearly eleven times more likely
  • People with an intersex variation aged 16 and over are nearly six times more likely
  • LGBT young people who experience abuse and harassment are even more likely to attempt suicide.

 

Statistics for LGBTI Population:

 

  • 16% of LGBTI young people aged 16 to 27 reported that they had attempted suicide
  • 35% of Transgender people aged 18 and over have attempted suicide in their lifetime
  • 19% of people with an Intersex variation aged 16 and over had attempted suicide on the basis of issues related [to] their Intersex status
  • 8% of Same-Gender Attracted and Gender Diverse young people aged between 14 and 21 years had attempted suicide, 18% had experienced verbal abuse, and 37% of those who experienced physical abuse.

 

Statistics for General Population:

 

  • 2% of people (4.4% females; 2.1% males) aged 16 and over have attempted suicide in their lifetime; 0.4% of general population (0.5% females; 0.3% males) in the last 12 months
  • 1% of people (1.7% females; 0.5% males) aged 16 to 24 have attempted suicide in the past 12 months.”

 

These statistics are obviously incredibly alarming, and reveal the scale of the challenge of mental health issues experienced by LGBTI people, and especially young LGBTI people.

 

What should not be forgotten is that there is nothing inherently ‘wrong’ with LGBTI people, and LGBTI young people – their disproportionate rates of suicide are in response to external factors, including a lack of acceptance (or feared lack of acceptance) from parents, other family members and friends, as well as society-wide homophobia, biphobia, transphobia and intersexphobia.

 

Another contributing factor to high rates of LGBTI youth suicide – and perhaps most relevantly to this inquiry – is the school environment. While some schools are welcoming to all young people, including those of diverse sexual orientations, gender identities and sex characteristics, other schools are far less welcoming – and some are even outright hostile.

 

For the purposes of this submission, I would nominate two key factors that help determine whether a school is welcoming of LGBTI young people:

 

  • Whether it has an explicit program addressing anti-LGBTI bullying (such as Safe Schools), and
  • Whether it has an inclusive curriculum for LGBTI students, with content that is relevant to their needs.

 

The importance of these two factors is confirmed by the 2010 Writing Themselves In 3 Report (by La Trobe University), which found that:

 

  • “61% of young people reported verbal abuse because of homophobia.
  • 18% of young people reported physical abuse because of homophobia.
  • School was the most likely place of abuse – 80% of those who were abused” (p39).

 

This last statistic is perhaps the most disturbing. Instead of being a place of learning, for far too many LGBTI young people, school is a place of intimidation, intolerance, and fear.

 

Although even more worrying is the fact that the proportion of students nominating school as a site of abuse increased from 1998 to 2004, and then again from 2004 to 2010 (p45) – rather than being more welcoming today, the schoolyard and the classroom is becoming more abusive.

 

Similarly, the Writing Themselves In 3 Report demonstrated that, in far too many schools, LGBTI students are not being included in the curriculum, both generally and specifically in relation to Health & Physical Education (including sex education).

 

From page 79: “10% of young people reported that their school did not provide any form of Sexuality Education at all.”

 

Even where some sexuality education was provided, it was primarily targeted at cisgender and heterosexual students. While almost 60% of students reported that the school provided information about heterosexual relationships, less than 20% received education about gay or lesbian relationships (p81).

 

And, while approximately 70% reported education about safe heterosexual sex, less than a quarter were instructed about safe gay sex and less than 20% about safe lesbian sex (p82).

 

Finally, roughly 1 in 10 reported learning that ‘homophobia is wrong’ as part of their sexuality education (p83), meaning that almost 90% of students were not receiving this important message.

 

Unfortunately, on both of these issues (anti-bullying programs, and an inclusive curriculum) NSW is clearly failing in its obligations to LGBTI young people.

 

First, in terms of Safe Schools, it was incredibly disappointing that the NSW Government abandoned this vital LGBTI anti-bullying program in April 2017.

 

Yes, there were some significant problems with this program – although not the ones that religious fundamentalists lied about in their dishonest campaign to undermine and destroy it.

 

Chief among the actual shortcomings of Safe Schools was the fact that it was an entirely optional program, meaning only a small proportion of schools had even begun to implement it by the time it was axed. Further, the schools that chose to implement it were likely the same schools that were already LGBTI-inclusive, while those that were less inclusive were far less likely to adopt the program.

 

Instead of abolishing Safe Schools, the NSW Government should have been working to ensure that it was rolled-out more widely, and ultimately to reach every school in the state (following the lead of Victoria) – because LGBTI students and young people exist in every school in the state.

 

Perhaps even worse than axing this program is the fact it has been replaced with a ‘general’ anti-bullying program and one that, based on media reports, does not include appropriate materials and resources to address the specific needs of LGBTI students and young people.

 

As reported in the Star Observer (Experts Slam NSW Anti-Bullying Resource as ‘Missed Opportunity for LGBTI Youth’, 21 July 2017:

 

“Leading health organisation ACON has expressed concern over the lack of LGBTI-specific tools and information in the new [anti-bullying] resource, despite liaising with the government in the months leading up to its launch.

 

Chief Executive of ACON Nicolas Parkhill said the new resource failed to meaningfully address the bullying, abuse, and discrimination faced by young LGBTI people.

 

“Bullying is an acute problem for young LGBTI people and this resources does not respond to their unique needs,” he said.

 

“Of concern is the absence of tools and resources that specifically address LGBTI bullying in schools – especially when we know it affects a significant proportion of young people.

 

“The government’s own report released earlier this month stated that 16.8 per cent of secondary school students in Australia are attracted to people of the same sex. That’s one in six students…

 

“We believe this resource falls short in responding to LGBTI bullying and there needs to be more emphasis placed on the needs of young LGBTI people.”

 

Based on this critique, it appears that the NSW Government has axed a program that was specifically designed to address anti-LGBTI bullying – which, as we saw earlier, is a contributing factor to LGBTI youth suicide – and replaced it with a ‘generalist’ anti-bullying program that does little to reduce this behaviour.

 

That is clearly not good enough.

 

Recommendation 1: The NSW Government should roll-out the Safe Schools program, or a similar program that specifically and explicitly deals with anti-LGBTI bullying, in every school across the state.

 

The Personal Development, Health and Physical Education (PDHPE) Syllabus is also not good enough in terms of how it includes – or, in many cases, excludes – LGBTI students and information that is relevant to their needs.

 

Earlier this year, the NSW Education Standards Authority (NESA) released a new draft PDHPE K-10 Syllabus for public consultation. Unfortunately, it fell far short of what is necessary to educate LGBTI students across the state, or to contribute to a reduction in youth suicide among this group.

 

As I outlined in my submission to NESA about the draft Syllabus (see Every Student. Every School. Submission on Draft NSW Personal Development, Health and Physical Education (PDHPE) Syllabus K-10), its problems include that:

 

  • It does not define the terms lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or intersex
  • It does not guarantee that all students in all schools will learn about these sexual orientations, gender identities or sex characteristics
  • It does not include sufficient LGBTI anti-bullying content, and
  • It does not offer appropriate, or adequate, sexual health education for students who are not cisgender and heterosexual, including a lack of information about sexually transmissible infections and diverse sexual practices.

 

If the PDHPE K-10 Syllabus is implemented without significant and substantive changes to the draft that was released, another generation of LGBTI young people will grow up without being told in the classroom that who they are is okay, and without learning vital information on how to keep themselves safe.

 

That would represent a failure of the NSW Government to exercise the duty of care that it owes to all students across the state.

 

Recommendation 2: The NSW Government should ensure that the PDHPE K-10 Syllabus is inclusive of LGBTI students, and provides content that is relevant to their needs, including comprehensive sexual health education.

 

The previous two issues – anti-bullying programs, and an inclusive curriculum – relate to term of reference (g) (Approaches taken by primary and secondary schools).

 

However, there is one final, non-school related matter that I would like to raise in this submission (under term of reference (h) – ‘Any other related matters’).

 

That is the issue of ‘ex-gay therapy’ or ‘gay conversion therapy’. As the name suggests, this practice aims to convince LGBT people that who they are is wrong, and that they should try to stop being who they are and instead attempt to be cisgender and heterosexual.

 

Let us be clear – ‘ex-gay therapy’ or ‘gay conversion therapy’ is not therapy, and does not offer anything ‘therapeutic’ to the people who are subjected to it. It is not counselling, nor does it have any basis in medical or scientific fact.

 

It is fundamentally harmful, and preys upon vulnerable people, exploiting their fears, their isolation and their insecurities. It leaves the vast majority of people feeling far worse, and can cause, or exacerbate, depression and other mental health issues, including leading to suicide.

 

Ex-gay therapy is psychological abuse, and the people who continue to ‘offer’ this practice are psychological abusers.

 

The NSW Government should outlaw this practice both because it is wrong, and because it is inherently harmful. This should be implemented by a criminal penalty for anyone conducting ex-gay therapy, with a separate penalty for advertising such services.

 

The imposition of ex-gay therapy on young LGBT people is particularly heinous, given they are especially vulnerable. Therefore, the fact that a person being subjected to ex-gay therapy is under 18 should be an aggravating factor for these criminal offences, attracting an increased penalty.

 

The prohibition of ex-gay therapy, and the protection of vulnerable LGBT people – and especially young LGBT people – from this practice is urgently required to help remove another cause of mental health issues, including possible suicide, of LGBTI youth in NSW.

 

Recommendation 3: The NSW Government should ban the practice of ‘ex-gay therapy’ or ‘gay conversion therapy’, making both conducting this practice, and advertising it, criminal offences. Offering these services to LGBT people under the age of 18 should be considered aggravating factors, attracting increased penalties.

 

Thank you for taking this submission into consideration. Please do not hesitate to contact me at the details provided should you require additional information, or to clarify any of the above.

 

Sincerely

Alastair Lawrie

 

There's no place for discrimination in the classroom-7

NSW schools have an important role to play in preventing LGBTI youth suicide – one that they are currently failing to fulfil.

Dear Malcolm Turnbull, You can take my $10 and shove it… into the hands of someone who needs it

UPDATE 23 June 2016:

 

On Monday June 20, I received the following response from the Liberal Campaign Headquarters to my letter to the Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, calling for him to abandon the unnecessary, wasteful and divisive plebiscite on marriage equality:

 

Campaign Support (Liberal Party of Australia)

Jun 20, 18:10 AEST

 

Dear Mr Lawrie,

 

The Turnbull Government believes that a decision on same-sex marriage should be made by a vote by all Australians via a plebiscite as soon as possible after the election.

 

The Prime Minister has publicly supported same sex marriage for a long time and will be voting in favour of same sex marriage.

 

If the majority of Australians vote ‘yes’ in the plebiscite, the Parliament should respect that decision and legalise same-sex marriage in Australia.

 

Thank you for taking the time to write.”

 

It is perhaps unsurprising that, given the brevity of this response, what it doesn’t say is just as interesting as what it does.

 

Specifically, the email does not include ANY qualifications about what would constitute a majority – all it says is “if the majority of Australians vote ‘yes’ in the plebiscite, the Parliament should respect that decision and legalise same-sex marriage in Australia.”

 

Indeed, that is exactly the same language used by the Liberal-National Coalition in their response to the pre-election survey by LGBTI organisations across the country (for more, see #rainbowvotes).

 

In the last few days, there have been multiple reports (on The Stirrer, on samesame.com.au and in crikey) highlighting the possibility some conservative Liberal and National MPs might seek to sabotage the outcome of a plebiscite by imposing additional requirements for ‘success’ – for example, that it would need to be supported by a majority of people, AND in a majority of electorates.

 

In fact, it is almost inevitable that the likes of Cory Bernardi and Eric Abetz will try, and there must be a real risk that they will succeed.

 

But, the response from Liberal Campaign HQ – both to my letter, and to the #rainbowvotes survey – means that, if Malcolm Turnbull and his Government are re-elected, and then seek to include any additional hurdles whatsoever to the passage of the marriage equality plebiscite, they will be nothing short of liars.

 

For a range of reasons (including that, if there is a change of Government on July 2, the plebiscite can still be avoided), I hope we don’t find out –but if we do, and the requirement of a majority of votes in a majority of electorates is imposed, then ‘dishonest’ will be one more adjective we can use to describe the disappointing prime ministership of one Malcolm Bligh Turnbull.

 

ORIGINAL POST:

 

Full Title: Dear Malcolm Turnbull, You can take my $10 and shove it… into the hands of someone who needs it. You can give me my rights for free, and in doing so spare Australia a divisive and harmful plebiscite campaign.

 

The Hon Malcolm Turnbull MP

Prime Minister of Australia

PO Box 6022

House of Representatives

Parliament House

Canberra ACT 2600

 

Thursday June 16 2016

 

 

Dear Mr Turnbull

 

You can take my $10 and shove it… into the hands of someone who needs it

 

I am writing to you once again on a subject I have previously written to you about[i].

 

Specifically, I am writing one last time in the hope you might abandon your Government’s proposal to hold an entirely unnecessary, fundamentally wasteful and inevitably divisive and harmful plebiscite on marriage equality should you win re-election on 2 July.

 

I call on you to demonstrate the leadership on this issue that, so far, has been lacking. Please drop the proposed plebiscite, and commit to passing marriage equality in the ‘ordinary way’: through a parliamentary vote.

 

A marriage equality plebiscite is entirely unnecessary

 

Given you have previously argued before the High Court, I know you can read a court decision. In which case, I am sure you are aware the High Court has already conclusively found[ii] that Commonwealth Parliament has the power to introduce marriage equality. There is absolutely no need to hold a referendum or plebiscite on this topic.

 

Indeed, holding a national public vote on such an issue, where constitutional change is not required, is almost unprecedented in our nation’s history[iii] – the last time a plebiscite was held on a substantive matter of public policy was 99 years ago (the second plebiscite on conscription during World War I).

 

Even if you haven’t familiarised yourself with the Court’s decision, or the history of plebiscites in this country, you have been a Member of Parliament since late 2004, just months after then Prime Minister John Howard passed legislation to deny lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex Australians the right to marry simply because of who they are.

 

Since then, there have been several further parliamentary votes on this issue, including the last major vote in September 2012, when, with the exception of one Senator, the Liberal and National Parties again collectively voted to deny equal rights to LGBTI people.

 

It seems extraordinary to me, and to a large number of other Australians, that Coalition MPs and Senators are comfortable in using their position in parliament to reject the human rights to fellow citizens but insist on holding a plebiscite before they will use that exact same power to allow LGBTI people to wed the person they love.

 

A marriage equality plebiscite is fundamentally wasteful

 

As confirmed in the Federal Budget on 3 May, you and your Government have set aside $160 million to hold the marriage equality plebiscite[iv]. With some decisions yet to be made (including whether there will be public funding for ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ campaigns), the final cost could turn out to be even higher.

 

For context, the Australian Electoral Commission has announced that there are 15,676,659 Australians enrolled to vote at this year’s election[v].

 

In other words, it is your policy to charge every Australian voter $10 for the ‘privilege’ of returning to the polls less than 12 months later to vote on something your Government could pass in a matter of weeks, for no cost.

 

10 dollar note

A marriage equality plebiscite, which is entirely unnecessary, will cost every voter at least $10 to hold.

 

That is incredibly wasteful, especially at a time of ongoing Budget deficits and with both Labor and the Coalition now forecasting a ‘return to surplus’ in 2020-21 (at the earliest).

 

Of course, for many people $10 remains a lot of money and it would be preferable to leave this money in the hands of voters rather than spend it on something as entirely unnecessary as a plebiscite on marriage equality.

 

But, if you remain committed to spending this $160 million, there is a very long list of better ways to allocate these funds[vi], including:

 

  • Programs to alleviate poverty and homelessness
  • Funding more nurses
  • Funding more teachers
  • Undoing cuts to foreign aid or
  • Supporting the resettlement of refugees from Syria and Iraq.

 

It would be remiss of me not to also mention that the amount of money you currently plan to waste on this plebiscite is twenty times the funding which was allocated to Safe Schools ($8 million over four years), a vital program to address homophobia, biphobia, transphobia and intersexphobia, and one your Government has announced will have its funding cut in 2017[vii].

 

So, as someone who can afford to pay the $10 but who fundamentally disagrees with your proposed plebiscite, I implore you: please take my money and give it back to the people who need it, or spend it on something worthwhile, not on an exercise that could be avoided simply by parliamentarians doing their jobs.

 

A marriage equality plebiscite will inevitably be divisive – and harmful

 

There is one aspect of a plebiscite that is already crystal clear, beyond any doubt whatsoever – and that is it will be incredibly divisive. The reason I can say that with such confidence is the behaviour of one organisation that will play a central role in publicly advocating a ‘No’ vote: the Australian Christian Lobby.

 

Not only have they argued for anti-discrimination and anti-vilification laws to be suspended for the duration of any campaign[viii] (which, logically, would only be necessary if they intended to breach them), ACL ‘homophobe-in-chief’ Lyle Shelton has repeatedly demonstrated his willingness to denigrate the lives and relationships of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex Australians.

 

This includes recent comments linking Safe Schools and marriage equality to the rise of Nazism[ix], as well as his repeated suggestions[x] that same-sex parenting would create a new ‘Stolen Generation’ – statements that are at once offensive to both rainbow families and to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

 

An extended national debate during which groups like the Australian Christian Lobby, and individuals like Mr Shelton, would be granted a ‘megaphone’ to express their views will inevitably cause harm, in at least two profound ways:

 

  • First, it will create an environment of division, hatred and fear in which violent attacks on LGBTI people become more likely.

 

Just this week, we have seen the terrible consequences of widespread and systemic homophobia, in the tragic deaths of at least 49 LGBT people in an Orlando nightclub. But violence based on prejudice, even on a much smaller scale, can still be devastating for the people affected.

 

Earlier this year, a man who lives nearby to my fiancé and me, in inner-city Sydney, was ‘gay-bashed’ twice in one night. Once, by a group of people on the street. And then a second time, by a so-called ‘good Samaritan’, who helped him back to his apartment block but then, upon discovering there was a boyfriend rather than a girlfriend waiting upstairs, turned around and said “you’re one of those fags ya f**king queer c**t” before hitting him in the face again.[xi]

 

If this is the level of verbal and physical violence that is happening in 2016 in ‘our’ Australia, the country that you and I both call home, then I shudder to think what will happen after three, six or even 12 months of homophobic, biphobic, transphobic and intersexphobic hate-speech is inflicted upon the population.

 

  • Second, it will lead to, or exacerbate existing, mental health issues among young and vulnerable LGBTI people.

 

There is also absolutely no doubt that subjecting young and vulnerable LGBTI people to months and months of negative public debate, in the political sphere and in the media, will cause harm.

 

They will hear people and groups repeatedly saying that LGBTI Australians do not deserve to be treated equally under the law simply because of who they are. That they should not have children simply because of who they are. That their relationships are lesser simply because of who they are.

 

For months and months, young and vulnerable LGBTI people will be told that they are lesser simply because of who they are. This campaign will have an adverse impact on the mental health of many – far, far too many – Australians.

 

I know because I am one of the many who have experienced depression because of the homophobic environment in which they grew up. Yes, there were multiple sources of that homophobia – including the religious boarding school I attended, and the discriminatory attitudes of my conservative parents (although, thankfully, my family ‘got better’).

 

But the homophobic comments in political debate, and the media, were one factor that definitely contributed to my depression. And I weep for the 12 year-old boy today, still discovering who he is, and then discovering that who he is, and who he loves, isn’t accepted by significant sections of the community.

 

Even though there will obviously be many other voices in the plebiscite campaign telling him that who he is is okay, if he is anything like I was back then, he will just hear the criticisms. Only the homophobic barbs will pierce that firmly-shut closet door, exacerbating the fear and isolation he already feels.

 

What he needs to hear is much less homophobia, not more – and particularly not months and months of vitriol from organisations whose primary concern is to ensure he never enjoys the same rights as his cisgender heterosexual peers.

 

You might think a ‘Yes’ vote for marriage equality at a plebiscite will be a unifying national moment, a genuine celebration of inclusiveness – and, should it succeed, there will certainly be elements of that.

 

But I will instead remember the young and vulnerable LGBTI people harmed by the divisive debate that preceded it, including those that tragically never make it to see their country accept them, and others who will be left scarred for years or even decades afterwards by the hateful comments a plebiscite will stir up.

 

**********

 

As you can see from the above discussion, I sincerely believe that a marriage equality plebiscite is not just entirely unnecessary, and fundamentally wasteful, it will also inevitably be divisive.

 

But it is not inevitable per se. As Prime Minister you have the power to stop this harmful exercise, and instead ensure marriage equality is passed in exactly the same way it was banned by John Howard back in August 2004 – via legislation.

 

I acknowledge that changing this policy involves standing up to, and in some cases upsetting, some of your colleagues within the Liberal and National Parties. But showing leadership in this way would also be warmly welcomed by many more people across Australia, none more than members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex communities, and our families and friends.

 

And so, I tell you for the final time:

 

You can take my $10 and shove it… into the hands of someone who needs it. You can give me my rights for free, and in doing so spare Australia a divisive and harmful plebiscite campaign.

 

All it takes is leadership, from you. Are you willing to show any?

 

Sincerely,

Alastair Lawrie

 

**********

 

If this post has raised any issues for you, you can contact:

 

  • QLife, Australia’s national telephone and web counselling and referral service for LGBTI people. Freecall: 1800 184 527, Webchat qlife.org.au (3pm-midnight everyday)

 

Footnotes:

[i] Letter to Malcolm Turnbull about the Marriage Equality Plebiscite 

[ii] The Commonwealth v Australian Capital Territory [2013] HCA 55

[iii] Malcolm Turnbull’s Marriage Equality Plebiscite is Truly Extraordinary 

[iv] Media Release: Attorney-General’s Portfolio Budget Measures 2016-17, 3 May 2016.

[v] Media Release: More than 15.6 million Australians ready to vote, 1 June 2016.

[vi] Starting with 7 Better Ways to Spend $158.4 million 

[vii] Star Observer, “Safe Schools Won’t be Funded Beyond 2017”, 18 March 2016.

[viii] Sydney Morning Herald, “Christian Lobby seeks anti-discrimination override for plebiscite campaign”, 16 February 2016.

[ix] Sydney Morning Herald, “Australian Christian Lobby likens gay marriage and safe schools to unthinkable Nazi atrocities”, 31 May 2016.

[x] Sydney Morning Herald, “Senator Wong condemns Christian Lobby’s stolen generations comment”, 21 May 2013 and

Sydney Morning Herald, “Q&A debate flares over claims same-sex marriage will lead to new stolen generation”, 1 March 2016.

[xi] Daily Telegraph, “Gay man bashed twice in Waterloo: I’ve never been so scared in my life and thought I would die”, 23 February 2016.

Submission to Australian Human Rights Commission’s Inquiry into Self-Harm and Suicidal Behaviour in Children

The National Children’s Commissioner at the Australian Human Rights Commission has initiated an inquiry into intentional self-harm and suicidal behaviour in children and young people.

Submissions are due on Monday 2 June: you can find more details here: <https://www.humanrights.gov.au/intentional-self-harm-and-suicidal-behaviour-children and send your submissions to nccsubmissions@humanrights.gov.au

As you would expect, my submission has focused on the particular issue of youth suicide amongst young lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex people. As with other submissions, I would be interested in feedback about what I have written.

Thanks, Alastair

Ms Megan Mitchell

National Children’s Commissioner

Australian Human Rights Commission

Email: nccsubmissions@humanrights.gov.au

Sunday 1 June 2014

Dear Commissioner

SUBMISSION TO INQUIRY INTO INTENTIONAL SELF-HARM AND SUICIDAL BEHAVIOUR IN CHILDREN

Thank you for the opportunity to provide a submission to your inquiry into intentional self-harm and suicidal behaviour in children.

This is an incredibly important topic, and I congratulate you, as National Children’s Commissioner, for utilising your position to shine a spotlight on this national tragedy.

I write this submission as an individual, and not on behalf of any organisation. I also write this as a gay man, and someone who, as a teenager, experienced significant mental health issues, including depression and suicide ideation, because of the severe homophobia that I experienced, particularly in high school.

Given this perspective, in this submission I will focus on the over-representation of young lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) people in intentional self-harm and suicide.

I will also make five recommendations for how to help reduce this over-representation, although obviously this is not an exhaustive list of all the possible ways in which LGBTI youth suicide may be tackled.

Please find my submission attached. I am of course willing to be contacted to discuss anything contained in this submission, at the details below.

Sincerely

Alastair Lawrie

SUBMISSION TO INQUIRY INTO INTENTIONAL SELF-HARM AND SUICIDAL BEHAVIOUR IN CHILDREN

I welcome the acknowledgement, in the Call for Submissions released on 22 April, that self-harm and suicide is a particular issue for LGBTI children and young people.

In particular, the Call for Submissions cites the 2013 Growing Up Queer report, by the Young and Well Co-operative Research Centre, in finding that, of 1,032 children and young people aged 16 to 23, 41% of participants had thought about self-harm and/or suicide, 33% had harmed themselves and 16% had attempted suicide.

These are truly shocking figures – especially that 1 in 6 young lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex Australians had attempted suicide. However, despite being shocking, they are not particularly surprising, especially as they replicate similar findings in a range of studies over the past 15-20 years.

The over-representation of self-harm and suicidal thoughts amongst same-sex attracted and gender diverse/questioning young people has been confirmed in all three Writing Themselves In reports, produced by the Australian Research Centre in Sex, Health & Society at La Trobe University in 1998, 2004 and 2010, respectively.

The over-representation of mental health issues within the broader LGBTI community, including among its young people, has also been confirmed by both the original Private Lives: A report on the health and wellbeing of GLBTI Australians study in 2005, and Private Lives 2, released in 2012 (also produced by the Australian Research Centre in Sex, Health & Society).

As well as knowing that intentional self-harm and suicidal behaviour disproportionately affects LGBTI children and young people, we also know the cause – the pervasive homophobia, biphobia, transphobia and anti-intersex prejudice which LGBTI youth experience, within their families, amongst their peers, in the media/culture, and especially in their schools.

As reported in Growing Up Queer, “[f]or many, rejection, alienation, bullying, and harassment often led to depression, suicidal ideation, and attempted suicide. Some participants spoke openly about multiple suicide attempts as a result of negotiating their sexual/gender orientation at school, at home, and in their broader communities” (page ix).

The Writing Themselves In 3 study also found a direct link between verbal abuse and physical abuse with thoughts of self-harm. As noted on page 51: “ [a]lmost double the number of young people who had been verbally abused (40%), in comparison to those who had experienced no abuse, had thought of self-harm (22%). Three times those who had been physically abused (62%), in comparison to those who reported no abuse, had thought of self-harm.”

Writing Themselves In 3 also confirmed that “[t]he most common place of abuse remained school with 80% of those who were abused naming school. This continues the trend of increased levels of reported homophobic violence in schools (69% in 1998; 74% in 2004)” (pix, emphasis added).

By knowing the problem – the over-representation of LGBTI children and young people in intentional self-harm and suicidal behaviour – and the cause – the pervasive homophobia, biphobia, transphobia and anti-intersex prejudice which confronts young people, including (but not limited to) at school – we must start to consider the solution.

What are the best ways to protect LGBTI children and young people from discrimination, bullying and abuse on the basis of their sexual orientation, gender identity or intersex status? And what are the best ways to actively promote positive views of, and self-esteem and mental health within, LGBTI children and young people (noting that these are not necessarily the same question)?

The following are five reforms which I believe, if adopted, would help to reduce the continued over-representation of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex young people in self-harm and suicide:

Recommendation 1: Remove anti-discrimination exemptions/exceptions which allow religious schools to discriminate against LGBT students

As indicated above, one of the key areas where LGBTI children and young people are discriminated against is in their schools. Unfortunately, in most states and territories in Australia, religious schools enjoy legal protections which allow them to actively discriminate against LGBT students (and, it should be remembered, to discriminate against LGBT teachers and even parents too).

NB I have excluded intersex students for the remainder of this particular discussion given I understand the two jurisdictions which have explicit intersex anti-discrimination protections – Tasmania and the Commonwealth – do not allow religious exceptions to these protections.

These exemptions allow religious schools to expel LGBT students, to tell same-sex attracted and gender-diverse/questioning students that they are somehow ‘wrong’, ‘unnatural’ or even ‘sinful’, to prohibit certain behaviours or actions on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity, and to ignore the educational and emotional needs to young LGBT people in general.

An example of this discrimination was found in the ‘Statement of Faith’ by the Penrith Christian School, which stated that: “[w]e believe that homosexuality and specific acts of homosexuality are an abomination unto God, a perversion of the natural order and not to be entered into by His people” and “[w]e believe the practice of attempting to or changing ones gender through surgical and/or hormonal or artificial means is contrary to the natural order ordained by God.”

These statements came to light, and attracted significant public scrutiny, only after the then Opposition Leader, the Hon Tony Abbott MP, launched the Coalition’s education policy there during last year’s election campaign. But, it must be pointed out that there is absolutely nothing unlawful for this school, or others like it, to adopt these principles, or to enforce policies based upon them to the detriment of the LGBT students in its classrooms.

This is because in NSW, section 56(d) the Anti-Discrimination Act 1977 states that anti-discrimination coverage for lesbian, gay and trans* people does not protect them against “any… act or practice of a body established to propagate religion that conforms to the doctrines of that religion or is necessary to avoid injury to the religious susceptibilities of the adherents of that religion.”

In an absolutely extraordinary extension of these exceptions, the NSW Act also explicitly excludes all “private educational authorities” (including non-religious bodies) from having to comply with any obligation not to discriminate on the basis of homosexuality (section 49ZO(3)) and transgender status (section 39K(3)).

Sadly, despite only being introduced last year, Commonwealth anti-discrimination protections on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity are also fundamentally undermined by the granting of wide-ranging exemptions to religious organisations.

As well as an equivalent clause to NSW’s section 56(d) – section 38(1)(d) of the Sex Discrimination Act 1984 exempts “any… act or practice of a body established for religious purposes, being an act or practice that conforms to the doctrines, tenets or beliefs of that religion or is necessary to avoid injury to the religious susceptibilities of adherents of that religion” (although not in relation to aged care) – the Commonwealth Act also includes the following in section 38(3):

“Nothing… renders it unlawful for a person to discriminate against another person on the ground of the other person’s sexual orientation, gender identity, marital or relationship status or pregnancy in connection with the provision of education or training by an educational institution that is conducted in accordance with the doctrines, tenets, beliefs or teachings of a particular religion or creed, if the first-mentioned person so discriminates in good faith in order to avoid injury to the religious susceptibilities of adherents of that religion or creed.”

In practice, both Commonwealth and NSW law gives effective carte blanche to religious schools to discriminate against, and ignore the genuine needs of, LGBT children and young people. If we are genuinely interested in the mental health and welfare of young lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Australians, then these exceptions must be removed.

Those who would argue against such a proposition cite ‘freedom of religion’ as somehow trumping the right of LGBT people to live their lives free from discrimination. Indeed, the then shadow, and now Commonwealth, Attorney-General, Senator the Hon George Brandis, made exactly that argument on the ABC’s QandA program in June 2013.

As I have written on numerous occasions, I strongly disagree with that argument – I do not believe that religious exemptions should extend beyond the appointment of religious office-holders or the conduct of religious ceremonies. I certainly do not believe there should exist a broad right for religious organisations to discriminate against LGBT people in public life.

However, even if some form of religious exemption or exception were to continue in the public sphere, it is incredibly difficult for anyone to make the case that the ‘freedom’ of a religious school to discriminate should override the ability of a young lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender student to receive their education free from such discrimination – something which is and should be recognised as a fundamental right.

These are vulnerable young people, who, in the vast majority of cases, are in the process of discovering or accepting their sexual orientation and/or gender identity. In nearly all cases, they do not decide which school they attend, including whether it is religious or not (a decision which is normally made for them by their parents, often without specific knowledge of their child’s sexual orientation or gender identity). In many cases, they are also not open about their sexual orientation or gender identity at school, meaning that they are not even in a position to advocate on their own behalf when they encounter such prejudice.

In short, I think it is simply untenable to argue that the freedom of a religious school to discriminate trumps the right of LGBT students not to be discriminated against, especially when the consequence of this discrimination includes an increased risk of mental health issues, including depression, self-harm and most tragically suicide. This not a contest of equal rights, no balancing act is required – the rights of the students should always win.

In the past week, there has been discussion in the United States about trying to ‘balance’ two other supposedly competing rights – the Second Amendment ‘right to bear arms’, with the right to personal safety of others. As part of that discussion, Samuel Wurzelbacher (aka Joe the Plumber) wrote to the parent of one of the young people murdered in the Santa Barbara mass shooting and said:

“I am sorry you lost your child. I myself have a son and daughter and the one thing I never want to go through, is what you are going through now. But: As harsh as this sounds – your dead kids don’t trump my Constitutional rights.”

 

Mr Wurzelbacher’s comments have, quite understandably, attracted heavy criticism in the US, as well as around the world. From an Australian perspective, where more restrictive gun control laws have existed since the Port Arthur massacre in 1996, it is tempting to adopt a certain smugness, and look down upon the level of public debate in the US that such a comment is even possible.

But, in some respects at least, we are prepared to strike a similar bargain here when it comes to the deaths of LGBTI children and young people. We know that they are significantly over-represented in suicide numbers, and we know that the discrimination that LGBTI students experience in school is a major contributing factor to these suicides.

Yet, as a society, we are willing to turn a blind eye to this, and say that religious freedom, and specifically the ‘freedom’ of religious schools to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity, is more important than the lost lives of these young people. In effect, our current anti-discrimination law says that ‘dead LGBT kids don’t trump the rights of religious schools.’

It is time we recognised, and remedied, this situation. It is time we removed anti-discrimination exemptions and exceptions which allow religious schools to discriminate against LGBT people.

Recommendation 2: Amend the National Health & Physical Education Curriculum to be genuinely LGBTI-inclusive

One of the key issues to emerge from both the Growing Up Queer, and Writing Themselves In 3 reports, is the absence, or comparative lack of, a genuinely LGBTI inclusive curriculum, especially with respect to Health & Physical Education.

For example, Growing Up Queer reported that “[p]articipants indicated that sex education at school was heteronormative and focused on reproductive sex only. It was perceived as irrelevant to their needs.” Further, “[p]articipants noted that whilst they received no education about queer sexualities their identities were often ‘sexualised’, with teachers and peers making assumptions about their sexuality and treating them differently on the basis of these assumptions” (pix).

Writing Themselves In 3 confirms this comparative lack of attention: “[s]exuality education was not provided at all to 10% of participants, and when it was, only 15% found it useful. It was clear that quite conservative messages emphasizing heterosexual sex and danger are the norm in most Australian schools with a far smaller number providing messages inclusive of SSAGQ youth” (pxi).

Of course, LGBTI people and content should be visible across multiple parts of the school curriculum (including, for example, history and politics), rather than arbitrarily confined to Health & Physical Education (HPE). Nevertheless, if LGBTI students and issues are excluded from, and made invisible in, the HPE curriculum, it is difficult to imagine them being included elsewhere.

I also agree with the statement in Growing Up Queer that “[y]oung people’s access to comprehensive sexuality education in primary and secondary schooling is a right, and is central to sexual citizenship and the fostering of health and wellbeing in all young people” (pix).

Over the past two years, a new National HPE curriculum has been developed by the Australian Curriculum, Assessment & Reporting Authority (ACARA). Unfortunately, all three versions of the HPE curriculum – the original consultation draft released in December 2012, the revised consultation draft in mid-2013, and the version that was noted but not yet endorsed by COAG Ministers in December 2013 – have comprehensively failed to deliver a genuinely LGBTI-inclusive document.

For example, in none of the three versions of the HPE curriculum have the words lesbian, gay or bisexual even appeared (although, on a slightly more positive note, the most recent version of the HPE curriculum does at least include the words transgender and intersex, and, unlike an earlier version, actually distinguishes between the two).

Despite lesbian, gay and bisexual being the most common forms of identification for people whose sexual orientation is ‘not heterosexual’, these terms have never appeared in any version of this document. This is an appalling exclusion, making young people with diverse sexual orientations even more invisible in the school environment than they already are.

The aspirational ‘student diversity’ statement at the beginning of the document, which attempts to highlight the needs of ‘same-sex attracted, gender diverse or intersex’ students, is also undermined by the inclusion of a sentence noting that it “is designed to allow schools flexibility to meet the learning needs of all young people, particularly in the health focus area of relationships and sexuality” (emphasis added) and another that “[a]ll schools communities have a responsibility when implementing the HPE curriculum to ensure that teaching is inclusive and relevant to the lived experiences of all students” (emphasis added).

Both of these statements appear to leave the decision whether, and in what way, schools will include LGBTI students and content up to the schools themselves. In the first instance, whether LGBTI students and content are included at all is too important to be left to the ‘flexibility’ of the school itself.

Second, and far more importantly, the reference to ‘lived experiences’ could be argued to leave a loophole for schools to assert that, unless students first identify themselves or disclose their status as LGBTI, they do not exist in the eyes of the school and therefore the school does not have a responsibility to include them or content relevant to their needs.

This approach – apparently leaving it up to students to ‘come out’ before they are entitled to receive vital health information, despite the fact that doing so can, in many Australian jurisdictions, lead to the potential expulsion of that student, let alone other personal consequences for the student with their family or friends – fundamentally undermines the concept of health, and health education, as a universal human right.

There are multiple other problems in the draft National Health Physical Education Curriculum – including a lack of comprehensive sexual health education, and the complete absence of any references to Sexually Transmissible Infections (STIs) and Blood Borne Viruses (BBVs) such as HIV or viral hepatitis.

For more detail on the problems of the national HPE curriculum, and its exclusion of LGBTI students and relevant content, please see my submission to the ‘Students First’ review of the National Curriculum, provided at Attachment A (link here: <https://alastairlawrie.net/2014/03/13/submission-to-national-curriculum-review-re-national-health-physical-education-curriculum/ ).

This review, initiated at the request of the Commonwealth Education Minister, the Hon Christopher Pyne MP, is not due to report to him until 31 July, 2013. It will then be considered by Commonwealth and State and Territory Education Ministers at their next COAG meeting, scheduled for 12 December 2014.

That means there is still time to argue for a genuinely LGBTI-inclusive Health & Physical Education curriculum. There remains an opportunity for individuals and organisations, including the Australian Human Rights Commission, to call for a document that does not simply entrench the existing exclusion and invisibility of LGBTI students in classrooms around the country, but actively tries to provide for the needs of all students, including those with diverse sexual orientations, gender identities and those who are intersex.

I urge you, as National Children’s Commissioner, to intervene in this process, and call on the people undertaking the Students First Review, as well as Commonwealth, State and Territory Education Ministers, to amend the national Health & Physical Education curriculum to serve the needs of all students.

Such amendments are vital to help include lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex students, and content relevant to their needs. Doing this would help reduce the isolation experienced by LGBTI children and young people, and therefore contribute to lower mental health issues overall, including reduced intentional self-harm and suicidal behaviour.

Recommendation 3: Ensure all schools & school systems adopt pro-active programs against homophobia, biphobia, transphobia and anti-intersex prejudice

Combatting the homophobia, biphobia, transphobia and anti-intersex prejudice which LGBTI children and young people experience in schools, and which causes mental health issues such as self-harm and suicide, is not just about anti-discrimination laws (which in some cases can be reactive, rather than pro-active), or implementing an inclusive curriculum, but it also includes ensuring the entire school environment is ‘safe’ for these students, because often what happens outside the classroom is more important than what happens inside.

This can be achieved through the implementation of comprehensive programs tackling homophobia, biphobia, transphobia and anti-intersex prejudice in as many schools as possible, in as many states and territories as possible, and in as many different types of schools (government, private and religious) as possible.

An example of such a program is the Safe Schools Coalition of Victoria, an initiative that has already achieved 131 member schools, trained 4,555 staff, and reached 20,557 students (data from www.safeschoolscoalitionvictoria.org.au)

From the Safe Schools Coalition Victoria (SSCV) website:

“Safe Schools Coalition Victoria (SSCV) is a coalition of schools and individuals dedicated to creating safer educational environments where every family can belong, every teacher can teach, and every student can learn.

 

“Working in partnership with the Victorian Department of Education and the Department of Health, Safe Schools Coalition Victoria (SSCV), is a ground breaking program that aims to make all schools safe and supportive places for same sex attracted, intersex and gender diverse (SSAIGD) students, teachers and families.

 

“The first initiative of its kind in Australia, SSCV was founded as part of Gay and Lesbian Health Victoria within the Australian Research Centre in Sex, Health & Society at La Trobe University in 2010. We work together with an active network of member schools across all age groups in the government, independent and faith-based sectors.

 

“This coalition model allows us to reach thousands of teachers and school staff to raise awareness and build the skills and confidence needed to actively support gender and sexual diversity in the classrooms, corridors and schoolyards of Victoria…”

 

The SSCV model supports member schools in a variety of ways including staff and student audits, professional learning, resources and consultations.

Unfortunately, a small-scale pilot project, targeting homophobia in NSW government schools from 2011 to 2013 – called ‘Proud Schools’ – was abandoned, seemingly without explanation, at the beginning of 2014 by the State Education Minister, the Hon Adrian Piccoli MP. At this stage, I am not aware of any specific initiative which has replaced it, leaving a significant gap this year where an anti-homophobia program should be.

However, I am aware that the Foundation for Young Australians will be launching a national version of the Victorian model – the Safe Schools Coalition Australia – at a national symposium in Melbourne on Friday 13 June 2014 (details here: https://www.etouches.com/ehome/87262).

It is unclear which State and Territory Governments are supportive of this new national initiative, which is being funded by the Commonwealth Department of Education (announced by the previous Government ahead of last year’s election). It is my sincere hope that all State and Territory Governments support the rollout of the Safe Schools Coalition Australia, and that as many schools as possible join.

This includes government, private and religious schools, as well as geographically diverse (metro, regional and rural/remote) schools, because it should not matter what school an LGBTI child or young person attends, or where they live, they have a fundamental right to an inclusive and supportive education.

I would also expect the Australian Human Rights Commission, and you as National Children’s Commissioner, to be supportive of different schools and school systems adopting pro-active programs against homophobia, biphobia, transphobia and anti-intersex prejudice, as another way to improve the mental health of young LGBTI people around Australia, and thereby help to reduce the over-representation of LGBTI youth in self-harm and suicide statistics.

Recommendation 4: Ban ex-gay or reparative therapy

The practice of ‘ex-gay’ or ‘reparative’ therapy involves organisations, usually religious, offering so-called ‘counselling’ to help transform people who are lesbian, gay or bisexual into being heterosexual, and in some cases to attempt to transform people who are trans* into being cisgender. NB I am unaware of the use of reparative therapy with respect to intersex people, and so have omitted intersex from this discussion.

Ex-gay or reparative therapy attempts to change a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity because of the belief that being lesbian, gay, bisexual or trans* is somehow ‘wrong’, ‘unnatural’ or ‘sinful’. There are three main problems with ex-gay or reparative therapy.

First, there is absolutely nothing wrong, unnatural or sinful with being lesbian, gay, bisexual or trans*. Differences in sexual orientations and gender identities are entirely natural, and this diversity should be accepted and celebrated. Any attempts to prevent people from being LGBT simply demonstrate the homophobia, biphobia and transphobia of the people running ex-gay organisations.

Second, there is absolutely no scientific evidence to support these practices. Sexual orientation and gender identity cannot be ‘changed’ through these interventions. Indeed, the Australian Psychological Society, Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists and Pan American Health Organisation all note that reparative therapy does not work, and recommend against its practice.

Third, and most importantly, not only is ex-gay therapy based on homophobia, biphobia and transphobia, as well as discredited ‘pseudo-science’, but it is also fundamentally dangerous. Reparative therapy takes people who are already vulnerable, tells them that they are inherently wrong, and asks them to change something about themselves that cannot be changed. Inevitably, it leads to significant mental health problems, including self-hatred, depression and tragically, in some cases, suicide.

The people that run ex-gay organisations are guilty of inflicting psychological and sometimes physical damage on others. When it involves children and young people, it is nothing short of child abuse.

Fortunately, the practice of ex-gay or reparative therapy is far less common in Australia than it is in the United States. In recent years, the number of organisations which provide this ‘counselling’ here has also declined. Nevertheless, ex-gay or reparative therapy still exists in Australia, it still damages and breaks people, and it still requires an appropriate policy response.

Given the level of harm that is perpetrated by these people, I believe Australian jurisdictions should introduce legislative bans on ex-gay or reparative therapy. This should include the creation of a criminal offence for running ex-gay therapy, with an aggravated offence for running ex-gay therapy for people under the age of 18. This is necessary to send a signal that these homophobic, biphobic and transphobic practices are no longer tolerated in contemporary society, and especially in the case of minors.

Finally, while at this stage I am not aware of evidence linking registered medical practitioners with these discredited practices, there is evidence overseas that some counsellors, psychologists, psychiatrists or other registered medical practitioners either practice ex-gay therapy themselves, or will refer patients to ex-gay organisations. Any medical practitioners found to be engaging in these practices in Australia should also receive additional sanctions, including potential deregistration and civil penalties.

 

 

Recommendation 5: Fund a national media and social media campaign against homophobia, biphobia, transphobia and anti-intersex prejudice

 

The first three of the recommendations above specifically target schools, not only because research has shown that schools are a major source of the discrimination and prejudice which LGBTI children and young people experience, but also because schools provide an opportunity to exert significant influence in terms of improving social attitudes and directly reducing homophobia, biphobia, transphobia and anti-intersex prejudice.

However, it should be remembered that a) not all discrimination and prejudice originates in schools and b) it is also unfair to expect that schools themselves, acting alone and somehow magically separated from the rest of society, can overcome these serious ills on their own.

It is also important to note that, while 80% of young people in Writing Themselves In 3 identified school as a site for physical or verbal abuse, significant numbers of young LGBTI people also nominated other places in their lives where they are subjected to discrimination and prejudice.

For example, more than 40% cited a social occasion as a place of abuse in 2010 (and like schools, this was an increase from the 1998 and 2004 surveys), and almost 40% indicated they had been abused on the street (although this was down on previous surveys). Meanwhile, approximately a quarter indicated they had been verbally or physically abused at home on the basis of their sexual orientation or gender identity.

It is also not hard to find numerous examples, in the media and culture more generally, of the everyday homophobia, biphobia, transphobia and anti-intersex prejudice, which all LGBTI people are subjected to, but which have a particular impact on LGBTI children and young people.

For example, just in the last month, we have witnessed an NRL player describe another player as a “f—ing gay c—t”, which was subsequently defended by a prominent national columnist, in an article titled “NRL bosses are totally gay”, as somehow not being homophobic. We have had a TV host rant about NFL footballer Michael Sam simply kissing his male partner live on air (describing it as “annoyingly gratuitous”), a Senator-elect tweet that being gay as a ‘lifestyle’ and link it with promiscuity, as well as a State MP indicate his belief that same-sex parenting would hurt that couple’s children.

That is just a small sample of the ‘slings and arrows’ of homophobia, biphobia, transphobia and anti-intersex prejudice which LGBTI Australians are exposed to all too frequently. For many of us, while such comments are offensive, and sometimes hurt, they do not necessarily lead us to self-harm, or cause significant emotional and mental anguish.

Nevertheless, for those who are already vulnerable, including some adults, but especially for young people who may still be coming to terms with being LGBTI, hearing such messages can directly cause harm, and contribute to or worsen existing mental health concerns. This harm is exacerbated if these negative statements are all that the young person hears with respect to being lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or intersex, and are not balanced or countered with equivalent positive messages.

Which is why I believe there would be utility in the Commonwealth Government directly funding a large national media, including social media, campaign against homophobia, biphobia, transphobia and anti-intersex prejudice. But rather than simply tackling the ‘negative’, I think such a campaign should also express a positive message about diversity of sexual orientations, gender identities and intersex status – sending the message that being LGBTI is natural, and that heterosexual, cisgender and LGBTI young people all deserve equality, and equal dignity in all aspects of life.

While there have been some great initiatives at state government level in this regard, as well as some excellent work by relevant not-for-profits/NGOs and even individuals (with campaigns like Victoria’s No to Homophobia, and the Beyond ‘That’s So Gay’ work of Daniel Witthaus), the involvement of the Commonwealth could bring benefit, both in terms of scale of resources, and by reaching LGBTI children and young people across Australia.

Of course, any such campaign would need to be co-ordinated with LGBTI organisations, as well as organisations that work in the mental health sector. But most important would be the involvement of young LGBTI people themselves.

The media and social media campaign would need to be designed so as to be relevant to young people, not just those that are LGBTI, but also to their non-LGBTI peers, in order to increase their own understanding and lessen any bullying or harassment of their friends and classmates. Young LGBTI people (and certainly people much younger than myself) would be best placed to advise on how to make such a campaign work.

I would also point out that I have made this particular recommendation in response to term of reference number eight in the Call for Submissions (namely “[t]he feasibility and effectiveness of conducting public education campaigns aimed at reducing the number of children who engage in intentional self-harm and suicidal behaviour”).

I acknowledge there are particular sensitivities in designing campaigns which specifically target those already at risk of self-harm and suicide, with the possibility that the campaign itself triggers particular negative responses. I am not an expert in this area and so am not in position to suggest whether, and if so how, an appropriate campaign could be designed that focused directly on LGBTI children and young people and that explicitly discussed self-harm or suicide – I am sure other individuals and organisations who are experts in this area will be doing so much more effectively in their own submissions.

But I do believe that an overarching campaign, which addresses the root cause of much of those problems – the homophobia, biphobia, transphobia and anti-intersex prejudice which young LGBTI people experience everyday – would provide its own additional benefits in terms of long-term mental health improvement.

Those are the five key recommendations that I would like the Australian Human Rights Commission, and you as the National Children’s Commissioner, to focus on in terms of examining how to reduce the disproportionate effects of self-harm and suicide on LGBTI children and young people.

Obviously, that is not an exhaustive list. There are other areas which are worthy of examination, including considering whether LGBTI people should be protected against vilification in the same way that Commonwealth law currently protects against racial vilification (through section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act 1975).

I believe there would also be benefit in considering how best to fund, on a secure and ongoing basis, LGBTI community organisations to deliver services to young LGBTI people at risk, as well as how to ensure that mainstream mental health and general health services are inclusive of, and respond to the needs of, LGBTI children and young people. But once again, I would expect that other individuals and organisations will be much better placed to make submissions with respect to those topics.

In conclusion, I would like to express my thanks to the Australian Human Rights Commission, and to you as National Children’s Commissioner, for choosing to initiate an inquiry into intentional self-harm and suicidal behaviour in children and young people.

The rate of youth self-harm and suicide amongst all of Australia’s youth, including but not limited to young lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex youth, is truly a national tragedy.

I appreciate the opportunity to make a submission to this inquiry, and look forward to seeing the Final Report in the Commissioner’s 2014 Statutory Report to Commonwealth Parliament.

Alastair Lawrie

Sunday 1 June 2014

NB Given the issues raised in this submission, I include below the same contact details for help included on the Commission’s call for submissions:

National Help and Counselling Services
Lifeline – 24 hour crisis support and suicide prevention

Kids Helpline – counselling service for children and young people aged 5 to 25 years

Headspace – counselling and referral service for young people aged 12 to 25 years

ReachOut.com – online youth mental health service