As a teacher, I have been somewhat shocked by the amount of controversy the Safe Schools program has caused in the community. I want to clear up some of the common misconceptions that seem to cloud peoples view of what is happening in our schools, and why all our secondary schools need to be safer for our teenagers.
When the Safe Schools Coalition began their program, I put up one of their posters in my classroom which opposed transphobia. It sat on the wall along with an anti-bullying poster, a pro-neurodiversity poster and a cyber safety poster. I didn’t receive any formal training in issues for young people with diverse sexuality and gender (DSG), I just thought being a teacher that is supposed to care, I would promote a message of acceptance for young DSG students, even though I knew exactly none of them at that time.
I want you to know I grew up in a fairly middle-class way, and did not know that someone could be anything other than male or female until I was well into my twenties. I was fairly sheltered, and to this day do not claim any expertise about DSG issues. However, since becoming a teacher in my thirties, I have had a number of students seek support from me regarding DSG concerns, so I had to get up to speed very quickly.
A few students have come to me asking for help about questioning their own gender or sexuality. Please bear in mind that they were often fairly young, not sexually active at all, and I had not taught them even one thought about gender (barring the small poster in my classroom). They just wanted help. They wanted someone to talk to, because, like me, they came from backgrounds where it was not considered normal to be anything other than a straight male or female. They were terrified of what their parents, siblings and friends were going to think of them.
I make these points because there seems to be a strong current of conservative thought that a lot of sexuality or gender questioning teenagers are being ‘socially engineered‘ to do so, by their peers or adults in their lives.
While I am sure there are a range of young people with DSG who have encountered other DSG adults or role models in their lives, perhaps surprisingly to some, the students who came to me had no one else around them who were anything but cisgendered and straight. This made these students particularly isolated and afraid.
Being non-neurotypical and a diversity advocate, I know what isolation and fear from being different can lead to. I am sure I needn’t spend much time reflecting on the high rates of mental illness and youth suicide in Australia.
Luckily for me and my students, today’s schools are well equipped with school psychologists, or ways to refer students to someone to talk to outside of school. This has meant that when students have come to me reaching out for help about a gender or sexuality related issue, I could listen, empathise, comfort and refer them to someone specialised in assisting them.
Please be aware that some of the concerns raised by parents or community members about exposing students to gender and sexuality issues at too young an age are perfectly reasonable to me. Sometimes we move too quickly to help those in need of support, without considering potential flow-on effects to others. This does not mean that we should eradicate support for some teenagers, just to placate those who say we should. It is becoming clear that we need balance and compromise, to ensure all students have safe places to go when they are having personal problems of any kind.
Some students do question or have diverse sexualities and genders. I have witnessed young people transition from one gender to another, or observed them finally being able to be open about their sexuality with those around them. I’ve also seen students question their sexuality or gender, receive guidance and support from professionals, and then return to being the same as they were previously. These events could not occur without support structures, and I have a suspicion that self-harm and suicide rates would be even higher without the support networks we have in place in our schools.
So should Australian schools have some sort of safe schools program? This teacher says yes.
The Safe Schools Coalition started a program, and a conversation, that we needed to have. Programs may need altering, educators might need training, and a multitude of considerations will need to be made. But to push students who are already scared and confused further away from help is not the answer for a secular and accepting society.
And I can assure you, young transgendered people do exist and they are valued, loved and wanted, by their families, teachers and friends, just like everybody else.