We need safe LGBTI spaces in high schools

August 22, 2014
Rally for marriage equality in Sydney on August 16.

I'm 16 years old. I identify as queer and am in year 11 in high school.

While I go to a tolerant and progressive school, there are many students like me who do not enjoy this privilege. For people like me, school can be the most dangerous place to be. For people like me, mental health issues are rife because of experiences at school. For people like me, things need to change in our schools.

The Growing Up Queer report, released this year by Twenty10 in conjunction with the University of Western Sydney, has revealed some staggering facts about life at school for queer kids.

A survey of 1000 lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) people aged 16 to 27 across Australia found that 42% of students had thought about self-harm or suicide, six times higher than heterosexual and cisgender youth.

The report found 33% had self-harmed and 16% had tried suicide.

So, it is pretty straightforward what we should do — put in initiatives to ensure queer kids are safe at schools and provide counsellors who are experienced in queer issues to help queer students' mental health.

Yet what does the government do? It tries to put $245 million into religious “school chaplains” for public schools while refusing to fund non-religious counsellors.

It was a cheap attempt to force conservative beliefs on others. The High Court overturned the federal funding. But it has no jurisdiction over whether it is applied at a state level.

There are many genuinely good school chaplains helping Australian students. My stance on this issue is not anti-Christian. My concern is that when Christianity is incorporated into advice given to students, it is at risk of being queerphobic, Islamophobic, generally offensive to people of other/or no religion. Thus non-denominational and particularly public schools are not the place for religious chaplains.

Over the years, queer students have reported being mistreated and told their sexuality was wrong by these counsellors.

In June, outgoing Labor Senator Louise Pratt called for the abolition of the school chaplaincy program. She described an online survey by gay rights group All Out, in which one respondent said the school chaplain at their school had described queer people as “unnatural, indecent and perverse”.

Another said a gay friend had overdosed on medical pills after their school chaplain said being gay was a “degrading sin” that sends people straight to hell.

Pratt said she had read stories by students of chaplains helping them to “pray the gay away” and advising them to sleep with a member of the opposite sex to “correct” their same-sex attraction.

Peter James, convener of the National School Chaplaincy Association, said the speech was inaccurate. But I wonder: why would a young person make something like this up? How can these claims be rebuffed when organisations such as ACCESS Ministries is providing chaplaincy services to some schools?

ACCESS Ministries caused outrage in February when they distributed so-called “Biblezines” at Torquay College in Victoria, which advised students who felt they might be homosexual to seek counselling, told students that masturbation was sinful, said that girls wearing revealing clothes were inviting sexual assault, and argued that sex before marriage was a sin.

Concern about state-funded chaplains in schools is not just about the potential to spread homophobia. The government contracts school chaplains from external organisations, which means there is no properly effective way to monitor what goes on.

Some organisations may train their chaplains through intensive five-day “Chaplaincy Essentials” courses and nothing else. There is no curriculum governing the nature of the advice being given, opening the door to homophobic vitriol from school chaplains.

Young LGBTI people are at risk of being the unlucky and vulnerable “middle man” between some religious organisations such as ACCESS Ministries who are openly homophobic and a government doing its utmost to keep these organisations giving unsolicited religious advice in the place of proper, secular counselling.

I know for a fact that I would not tell a school chaplain about my sexuality and gender identity for fear of being told that being queer is a sin.

In this respect, regardless of how tolerant individual school chaplains are, having a religious chaplain will drive queer students away from seeking help. This is not surprising given the horror stories that circulate about students being advised to “pray the gay away”. Queer students will most likely keep their problems to themselves and be more likely to experience mental illness and be at even greater risk of suicide than they already are.

This is why we need and demand secular counsellors who provide non-judgemental, non-homophobic advice and have the best interests of all students in mind.

There needs to be a rigorous statewide training program with the inclusion of queer issues to ensure consistency among school counsellors.

Counsellors need to be represented as people that students can talk to about anything, including gender and sexuality. As well as effective counsellors, schools should take action to make it clear that homophobia and transphobia will not be tolerated.

Two examples of ways schools can do this is by joining the Safe Schools Coalition, which has just been launched in NSW, and by celebrating Wear it Purple Day. This year it is on August 29 and is an effective, visible way of showing queer students that school is safe for them and that there is effective support.

Schools need to be a safe place for LGBTI and queer students. Schools always talk about stopping bullying, but what happens when the people who are supposed to help become queer students' biggest bullies?

[This was a speech given to a rally for marriage equality in Sydney on August 16.]

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