Protesters attend the Hands Off Safe Schools Rally on Swanston Street on March 10, 2016 in Melbourne, Australia. The Hands Off Safe School has been designed as a resource for teachers and students to assist with issues of homophobia and bullying. (Photo by Chris Hopkins/Getty Images)

Bullying in schools is a crisis for queer students, and ‘be nicer’ is no solution

The bullying and suicide rates among queer youth are dramatically higher than than for non-queer youth. Joel Bateman and Henry Yuen on how NZ schools can provide targeted support for LGBTQ+ students.

The years of growing up and stepping through adolescence are a turbulent time for young people wrestling with issues of identity and self-esteem. This frequently manifests every day, unfortunately, through bullying. Given that last Friday was Pink Shirt Day, it’s worth taking a few minutes to step back and reflect on how frequent and common bullying remains. Most of us can probably remember a distinct time that we were bullied, and sadly also a time we bullied someone else.

Although plenty of anti-bullying programmes exist, many tend to approach bullying with general “be nicer to each other” policies. These initiatives certainly have a role to play, but they don’t do enough on their own. This “broad-brush” approach is akin to bailing out water on a leaky boat: it’s not going to do much if you can’t plug the sources of the leak. If we’re going to eliminate bullying, we need targeted solutions to block its specific sources and prevent it from happening.

One especially prevalent source of bullying we have experience working with relates to LGBTQ+ youth in schools. We established Voicing Pride as an online storytelling platform for unheard members of LGBTQ+ school communities across the country, and we’ve uncovered many personal stories of issues affecting young LGBTQ+ people. University research further confirms what we already knew – the bullying and suicide rates for queer youth are respectively three and four times higher than non-queer youth. The bullying experienced by LGBTQ+ young people is usually directed at them because of their gender identity or sexuality and we need solutions that address this specific issue, not general “be nicer to each other” policies.

Why do LGBTQ+ people experience such high rates of bullying? Too often, we live and go to school in environments that don’t support or accept our identities, and in many cases, are actively unsupportive. Many people still hold deep homophobic and transphobic beliefs about LGBTQ+ people and, even when we’re not outright rejected and discriminated against, often we are ‘othered’ by non-LGBTQ+ people. Homophobic and transphobic slurs and attitudes, both casual and intentional, keep many people in the closet for fear of being rejected.

This ‘othering’ happens both on an interpersonal level and on an institutional level, as most media and norms presented to young people are lacking in LGBTQ+ representation. For example, health education programmes have historically used heterosexual case-study scenarios and excluded lessons such as how to safely practice anal sex, treating LGBTQ-related topics as taboo or unimportant. Many schools have also historically only allowed opposite-gendered partners at balls, and, even as this policy fades, many schools have a long road ahead to acknowledge and address arcane norms that disadvantage LGBTQ+ students. Furthermore, norms such as gendered toilets, gendered uniforms and gendered language, particularly in single gender schools, make navigating gender identity all the more complicated and stressful  for transgender and non-binary students.

We’re really just scratching the surface here – we don’t have space in this article to discuss the myriad of unique, LGBTQ-specific challenges that affect Kiwi students today. Broad inclusiveness and sensitivity trainings don’t begin to address these issues, which we believe drive most of the bullying and discrimination that LGBTQ+ students face. Only once we start to address these systemic issues and start embedding acceptance and inclusion into policy, instead of just onto posters, will we start creating communities that are safer for LGBTQ+ people.

At the school level, leadership teams need to introduce catered support to students in the form of LGBTQ+ peer support and alliance groups, unisex toilets, uniform flexibility, workshops, participation in LGBTQ-specific national events such as the Day of Silence, and visual and vocal displays of support. LGBTQ+ staff need to be empowered so they have the option of being visible and out in their school communities to act as role models. We have seen the tremendous effectiveness of teachers supporting the work and advocacy of LGBTQ+ student groups, especially in ensuring that students feel heard and empowered. Schools should leverage the resources of specialist experience of other outside agencies such as Rainbow Youth and InsideOUT more frequently, taking advantage of numerous professional development opportunities available as well as education workshops, health services and support groups. In single-gender schools in particular, extensive discussion is needed about how to provide a supportive and inclusive environment for transgender and non-binary students.

At a wider policy level across all New Zealand schools, the Ministry of Education also has a role to play in ensuring LGBTQ+ students are safe, supported, and empowered across all schools. A start would be nationally mandating inclusive school ball policies and a more inclusive health education curriculum, as well as ensuring that all schools have clear anti-discrimination policies including language explicitly protecting students based on sexual orientation and gender identity.

These top-down initiatives are essential for driving effective change at an institutional level and for fostering a culture that empowers LGBTQ+ students to speak proudly and openly about their experiences and advocate for change within their schools. Already, we’re starting to see many more students comfortable being out at school and forming LGBTQ+ support groups. As more students continue to take the courageous step of speaking up and calling out homophobia and transphobia wherever they see it (on school grounds and online), then we believe think we’ll start seeing really significant behaviour change at the “grassroots” level.

Ultimately, we’re optimistic that the landscape is changing across New Zealand schools. More and more school boards and leadership teams are taking action, and the national attitude towards LGBTQ+ people has become increasingly inclusive over time. We hope that as progress continues, change-makers recognise the need to provide targeted and specific support to address the significantly higher rates of bullying experienced by LGBTQ+ communities. Though we’re optimistic, we don’t think anyone should be satisfied with the rate of progress yet. Tailored support for our queer youth truly can’t come quickly enough.

Joel Bateman and Henry Yuen are the co-founders of Voicing Pride, an online storytelling platform that gives a voice to unheard members of LGBTQ+ communities across all New Zealand secondary schools. All views expressed in this article are the authors’ own and do not necessarily represent the opinions of any entity with which they are affiliated

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