For everyone Out and proud: making school a more welcoming place for LGBTI students

Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” So goes the old nursery rhyme. But we’ve come a long way in understanding the harm that can be caused when certain language is used (or abused).

Paula Connolly, an out and proud design technology teacher who worked at Strathmore Secondary College before her recent retirement, understands this more than most. She has helped set up an LGBTQIA+ support group for students in the model of Safe Schools’ ‘Stand Out’ campaign for the use of respectful language.

As Paula sees it, even well-meaning discussion points raised in the classroom can be tricky. “For example, when it’s framed along the lines of ‘What would you do if your best friend came out as gay?’ when you would never ask, ‘What would you do if your best friend was straight?’” she explains. “Some teachers are a bit uncomfortable discussing these subjects and will skip over them or make assumptions. So, we tried to get on top of that.”

Gathering a group of outspoken Year 9 and 10 students, they rallied around the cause, sitting down with Paula and her colleagues from the health and PE departments to take a look through the curriculum, highlighting any issues that cropped up regarding exclusionary and occasionally archaic language. “It was a very proactive group, and the PE and health departments were amazing,” Paula says. “They were really responsive to it.”

Its importance was evident through the attendance of super-keen students who, from the get-go, came up with constructive plans for positive change.

The group was set up around the time that sustained political opposition was brewing against the Safe Schools program, originally launched in 2010 to support LGBTQIA+ students, and to help guard against homophobic and transphobic bullying. The need for such a group intensified during the divisive debate leading up to the 2017 marriage equality postal vote. 

With so many negative voices amplified, Paula felt it was important to create a safe space for students exploring their sexual and gender identities to meet up, make friends and take positive action to help make the school a more welcoming place. “We got the kids to design posters, printed them out and put them up.”

While there is good support in the local community, it took a little while for the school to embrace hosting a dedicated Stand Out group. “The counselling service thought the issues were covered quite well at the school, but they didn’t understand the importance for queer people to have contact with each other.”

Paula praises the many valued colleagues who have contributed to Stand Out, including Luke Steward, Head of Music, who has taken on the role of the group’s coordinator for several years now. “He’s brilliant. He understands how important this is.”

That importance was evident through the attendance of super-keen students who, from the get-go, came up with constructive plans for positive change, such as addressing the use of homophobic and transphobic language in the halls and schoolyard. “They didn’t need me at all, really,” says Paula. 

The students gained permission from the head of English and an assistant principal to design and run a program whereby, every year, a couple of students from the Stand Out group talk to each Year 7 English class. “A senior student from the Stand Out group now goes along with a junior to talk to each Year 7 class about what being queer means, how to talk to a friend that’s coming out, and just being generally aware of saying the right thing.”

While lockdowns interrupted Stand Out’s momentum at the school, Paula hopes it will find its feet again with new students leading the way, because words do matter. “It made a remarkable difference in the school. Anti-queer language started to disappear. I’m so proud of these students. They are so smart and strong.”

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