Recently I was lucky enough to speak to a young man about his experience growing up gay. He told me of the complete and utter isolation at his school, the feeling of loneliness at recess when he was left alone, the feeling of emptiness inside when no one understood him.
He told me of being beaten up and bullied, an easy target for not ‘fitting in’.
He told me of the intense desire to focus on learning, sapped by the ostracism which surrounded him. The bullies had beaten the focus out of him and his education was suffering.
And he told me of reading newspapers, watching TV, and absorbing the world around him which was reinforcing his sense of otherness.
After yesterday’s newspaper headlines and discussion around the screening of the Gayby Baby documentary, I couldn’t help but be drawn back to his wrenching story.
An Australian child can expect to spend about 10,710 hours at primary and secondary school, approximately 1,785 days. It’s undeniable that schooling plays such an integral role in the social and personal development of our children. While teachers may follow a curriculum in the classroom, there is no curriculum for the playground. However it’s here some of the most important lessons are learnt. For many children, school will be the first time they come across societal issues of differences and diversity.
For same-sex and gender diverse young people, a safe and supportive school environment can make all the difference to their mental health and academic achievement.
That’s why the previous Labor Government, with Bill Shorten as Education Minister, funded the Safe Schools Coalition, to ensure that our schools could access resources and support to foster an inclusive, understanding environment. And it’s why we will vehemently support the Safe Schools Coalition and the initiatives it promotes.
The importance of recognising and eliminating homophobia and transphobia in our schools should not be underestimated, with 75 per cent of same-sex attracted young people having experienced homophobic bullying or abuse, and 80 per cent of that bullying and abuse occurring at school.
A study completed by Beyond Blue last year found that 81 per cent of same-sex attracted and gender diverse young people who had experienced abuse or discrimination had thought about suicide, with 37 per cent making suicide attempts. 80 per cent had thought about self-harm and 70 per cent had harmed themselves. In the case of same-sex attracted and gender diverse young people who had experienced physical abuse, 92 per cent had thought about suicide.
For children raised by same-sex parents – as is the topic in Gayby Baby – previous research has found feelings of exclusion or isolation were common, because their family makeup was not openly discussed in a classroom setting.
These statistics are confronting, and paint a compelling picture of why we must do all we can to make our schools more inclusive and accepting environments for same-sex attracted and gender diverse young people.
Tomorrow officially marks Wear it Purple Day, and I am incredibly proud that the Safe Schools Coalition now has 389 member schools, has trained more than 7,500 school staff and has assisted over 20,000 students to make their school a better place. But there is so much more work to be done. I am hopeful that one positive to come out of the past 24 hours will be a renewed commitment to make our schools inclusive, supportive, bullying-free zones.
The man I spoke about earlier had a clear message to me, as a politician. He told me just what a huge and personal impact the things our leaders say can have on the wellbeing of young people coming to terms with their sexuality, particularly in times of public debate.
Last year, both Christopher Pyne and Adrian Piccoli supported Wear It Purple Day. And both have supported the roll-out of the Safe Schools Coalition in the past. This year, I hope they will again show the leadership needed to send same-sex attracted and gender diverse students the message of unwavering support they really need, especially at the moment.
Things did work out well for the young man I spoke to. It turns out he had support and many friends, he just didn’t know it. He didn’t need to feel alone, when there were so many people who cared and supported him and would have done anything to help him get through the darker times. I don’t want any young person to have the same story . That’s why we need to do all we can to promote the inclusion of same-sex attracted and gender diverse students in our schools. Wear It Purple Day is one small step of support, but it could be the one big difference in a young person’s life.
This piece first appeared on Daily Life on Thursday, 27 August 2015.