Schools Never over the rainbows: pride and safety in Victorian schools

As Prime Minister Scott Morrison prepares to prosecute the campaign for religious freedom laws, many LGBTIQA+ Australians are understandably nervous. Within the education sector, oneforeseeable flashpoint is what any new laws will mean for the employment of gender and sexuality-diverse teachers, principals and support staff working within religious schools.

While the Coalition has promised to make students exempt, no such protection has been enacted and many are understandably dubious about this commitment. As Treasurer, Morrison actively pushed for a ‘No’ during the marriage equality postal vote and abstained from the final vote in parliament against the wishes of his electorate.

As Prime Minister, he was publicly challenged late last year by 13-year-old trans schoolgirl Evie Macdonald for tweeting: “We do not need ‘gender whisperers’ in our schools. Let kids be kids”, in response to an incorrect report in The Daily Telegraph.

Macdonald responded on Channel Ten’s The Project: “There are thousands of kids in Australia that are gender diverse. We don’t deserve to be disrespected like that through tweets from our prime minister.”

“Being visible is the most important part.”

Words matter. A new Australian study into the sexual health and wellbeing of same-sex attracted and gender-questioning youth reveals a startling 61% have been verbally abused and 18% physically attacked.

The worrying statistics, taken from Writing Themselves In, the third such national study, don’t stop there. The rate of suicide attempts is six times higher for LGBTIQA+ kids, with 80% of the above abuse reported to have taken place at school.

Despite these distressing numbers, the federal government defunded the Safe Schools program, designed to equip principals and teachers with the tools they need to support their LGBTIQA+ cohort. In Victoria, where Safe Schools was originally developed and launched in 2010, the program continues with state government funding.

Marcus Patching, a visual arts and technology teaching and learning coordinator at Bendigo Senior Secondary College, understands the importance of creating a safe space for students. That’s why he signed up to the school’s Ally Network, which supports LGBTIQA+ staff and students.

“Being visible is the most important part,” Marcus says of the 50-plus group of teachers and ES staff.

Some of the decorations at Vermont.

Trained up by Safe Schools and youth mental health foundation Headspace, volunteers post the Ally Network’s rainbow sticker on their laptops and office doors, adding the logo to their email signatures. The idea is to let LGBTIQA+ students know that a friendly and informed ear is available, which can be crucial if one doesn’t exist at home or in their friendship circle.

“Students feel free to talk to you about anything that’s going on and you can be an active listener,” Marcus says. “If they need further support, you can direct them, but a lot of the time they just want a bit of guidance.”

This is particularly important for Year 11 and 12 students from regional and rural areas, who don’t necessarily have access to visible LGBTIQA+ networks, he says. “They’re coming from all the way down the train line, from Macedon and Castlemaine, Kyneton and Echuca, so we’ve got students who are a little bit anxious about how other people will treat them.” And it’s not just the kids who are benefitting. “I met a guy my age at a party one night and he grew up gay in rural WA,” Marcus says. “He had tears in his eyes when I told him about what we do. He thought it was fantastic.”

The Ally Network has proven so successful it’s been expanded to include students. Around 35 volunteers are receiving leadership training so they can promote inclusion of LGBTIQA+ students, as well as those from Aboriginal and Torres Strait islander, international or refugee backgrounds, and those with physical or intellectual disability.

“For me, it’s about giving the students a place where they can talk to someone and know it’s OK.”

Brooke Allison, a geography teacher and Year 7 coordinator at Vermont Secondary College, was inspired by the Fitzroy High School Feminist Collective (FEMCO) to create her school’s own inclusive group, SAFER (Supporting Awareness of Feminism and Equal Rights), a bi-weekly lunch club discussing social justice issues.

“We recently celebrated IDAHOBIT,” she says. “There were rainbows everywhere and one of our Year 12s, who works with [LGBTIQA+ youth support group] Minus 18, did a presentation on why it’s important to be inclusive, how far we’ve come and where we’ve got to go.”

Brooke reckons this kind of safe space is vital. “Just knowing there are supportive teachers and students really helps. We’re now seeing some of the juniors coming along to meetings and that’s really important, because it’s a tricky time, potentially, working out who you are.”

The club meets in the library. Fellow geography coordinator Deborah Bowen, also a librarian, has made it easy for gender and sexuality diverse students to find books with LGBTIQA+ content, marking them with rainbow stickers. “Students don’t have to talk to anybody, they can just find them really easily any time,” she says. “We want to keep encouraging diversity and acceptance.”

Brooke argues it’s their job. “If you’re teaching geography well, you’re talking about the world and all its people. SAFER is the natural extension.”

With teachers like this, hopefully the kids will be all right.

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