LGBTQI+ allies: the Australian teachers standing up to homophobic slurs and bullying

에스eventeen-year-old Sonnie Hannaford isn’t afraid to admit something: they really like going to school. “If you have a free class, you have a choice to go back home if you’d like, but I stick around. I love to stay and just really help out as much as I can.”

At their old school, Sonnie had been bullied so severely that they had closed in on themselves and didn’t want to go back. “Nothing made sense to me. I thought: What’s the right answer? I’m just not fitting into any boxes, I should be fitting in.”

Sonnie is gender-fluid, genderqueer and pansexual. They’ve been asking friends and family to call them Sonnie for about four years now, but it wasn’t until they started at their new school this year that they felt comfortable enough to ask the teachers to call them that.

Sonnie’s experience of school until this year echoes the picture painted by a recent University of Western Sydney (UWS) 연구, Free2Be… Yet?, that found 이상 90% of LGBTQI+ students hear homophobic language at school, with more than one in three confronted with slurs on a daily basis. 과, crucially, just 6% of gender and sexuality diverse students say that teachers within earshot always intervene, with some reporting that adults are actively participating in the bullying.

For Sonnie, it’s the teachers at their new school that have made all the difference. “The school staff members are all very supportive. You feel like you can always speak about these issues … and if there is an issue, they deal with it in a really assertive manner.”

Five years after the “Yes” vote and manufactured controversy around Safe Schools, Sonnie’s new school’s approach is still pretty rare in many education institutions – and one that would be formally denied to other students if bills like the one put forward by One Nation’s Mark Latham are passed. Latham’s bill – which has some qualified support from church groups – proposes to prohibit all teachers from discussing gender and sexual diversity in the name of asserting parental rights. It would make offering targeted, requested support to gender and sexuality diverse students grounds for revoking teachers’ accreditation and would deny prospective teachers the relevant teachings in university.

The proposal is the mirror opposite of the UWS study recommendations (and for that matter, the national curriculum): 즉, that “school leaders, teachers and all school-based adults receive professional development that addresses expectations for inclusivity of gender and sexuality diversity and provides guidelines for inclusive language and related curriculum resource integration”. The report states that “all members of the school community must be aware not only of the existence of these policies, but how they will be uniformly implemented … to identify and prevent harassment of gender and sexuality diverse students”.

So what does a “whole-of-school approach” look like, and how does it translate into the everyday lives of students and teachers?

Kylie Hand is the assistant principal and head of engagement and wellbeing at Sonnie’s new school, Bendigo Secondary Senior College (BSSC), a year 11 과 12 school located in one of Victoria’s fastest-growing regional areas. 에 2017, at the height of the public commentary around Safe Schools and the postal vote on Australian marriage law, the college introduced a program of its own making called the Ally Network.

“Given the school takes in students from around the region, we were hearing stories from young people, and hearing stories from other schools, that made us realise we needed to focus on inclusion,” Hand says.

The school decided to focus on “creating a culture of inclusion” as part of its four-year strategic plan and, as Hand says, it became a central goal of the school. The college started conducting informal research across universities and worked in conjunction with the Safe Schools unit at the Victorian Department of Education, as well as consulting with the local community. This research spawned the Ally Network model – boasting a network of staff “allies” who receive specialised training and work with the LGBTQI+ student group to drive inclusion throughout the school, including through the provision of support to students.

“We expected to get maybe 10 staff to sign up and we were overwhelmed, we have over 70 staff involved – around 40% of staff have opted in,” Hand says. “We deliberately ensured it was opt-in, because we wanted people to be genuine about it.”

Since then, BSSC has mentored more than 15 schools in Victoria, including high schools that cater for junior years and adapt their approach accordingly. Inspired by the success of the Ally Network, the school then created the Inclusion Ambassador program, to help promote and celebrate diversity in all its forms within BSSC – only this time the ambassadors are students.

Jessica Neale is a mental health social worker who has worked with young people for the majority of her 20-year career, and is a member of the wellbeing team at BSSC, where she provides support to staff and students.

Neale considers the continuing support and training of teachers as crucial. “I think it is really important to resource them to ensure that they have access to any information that they need, which is ever-changing in this space. We need to give them a place that they can go to ask those questions and not feel like they’re going to be judged for not knowing.”

Neale’s background in social work also means she looks at the school environment with fresh eyes. “It’s so incredibly important – there’s lots of students that we see that really do identify school as their safe place, and particular teachers as key support. When students are able to identify that there is a particular teacher that really sees them … and engages with them in a way that feels comfortable, it makes a huge difference.”

Jacqueline Ullman, an associate professor in adolescent development, behaviour and wellbeing at Western Sydney University and author of the Free2Be… Yet? 연구, says: “There’s a very practical reason why most states and territories have embedded wellbeing measures into their reporting: it’s because they are so important to academic results.”

But it’s not enough to bury a commitment to LGBTQI+ students’ wellbeing in a paragraph as part of a PE policy: visibility and expressed support for the wellbeing of LGBTQI+ students is critical, and that’s where it gets murkier. As Ullman’s report states: “While such inclusions are named at the federal institutional level … the extent to which Australian secondary schools have named gender and sexuality diversity is, as yet, highly variable.”

Which is why the visibility of the BSSC’s Ally Network is so instructive. Crucially, Hand says, the school “felt a great deal of confidence in being able to do this work because we knew we had the backing of the education department”.

It’s worth noting that Victoria’s Department of Education is the only education department in the country that still has the Safe Schools program embedded within its support offerings, with all other state departments subsuming measures around the wellbeing of LGBTQI+ students into more general health and wellbeing policies, or outsourcing the work to external agencies.

Ullman’s concern is that a culture of silence will lead to kids going online for information they can’t get at school. The internet can provide positive experiences for children looking for communities, but it’s unregulated and unsupervised – “and what might they accidentally access online?”

Jesse Dickason is a former BSSC student who attended the school in 2012 과 2013. 지금 25, Dickason struggled to come to terms with his sexuality throughout high school and didn’t come out to friends and family until he was 21. He attended BSSC well before the Ally Network was rolled out, and although he remembers the school as broadly inclusive, he never felt safe enough to speak up.

“I remember Headspace setting up a table at the start of school with some leaflets for LGBTQI+ kids, but I didn’t go anywhere near it. I wouldn’t want my mates to see.” But Jesse did gravitate towards one teacher in particular.

Erica Masters, who is still at BSSC and is a member of the Ally Network, remembers Dickason well, especially given they kept in touch after he left school and as he came out. 당시, Dickason gravitated towards Masters because she was approachable, and he suspected she herself was a member of the LGBTQI+ community. “I think she probably suspected something was up with me,” Dickason recalls. “I was tempted to confide in her, but in the end I wasn’t ready to talk about it.”

Masters says something like the Ally Network would have been “a total gamechanger” for her as a student trying to come to terms with her sexuality. “It would have made a massive difference even as an adult and would have impacted some of the decisions I made. It would have been life-changing.”

Both Dickason and Masters remember feeling entirely alone. “I was not aware of anyone else who was struggling with coming out,” Masters says.

석사, who married young and came out just before divorcing her husband at 26 years of age, gradually gained confidence to be less guarded in the workplace as the language and attitudes in schools changed. “I started being far more open about my own journey.”

The Ally Network training made Masters feel even more personally supported, and it equipped her with extra confidence when it came to educating students. “I think I’ve always had a heightened sensitivity around LGBTQI+ issues and have been prone to speaking up, but I didn’t always have the tools to know how to do it effectively. Our ally program gives me confidence that I am going to be supported 100% in that space … In the past I may have heard something in the school ground, like a derogatory comment like ‘that’s gay’, and I might have kept walking. Now I would stop and I would engage in a conversation around it.”

But one of the most striking aspects of BSSC’s approach is just how uncontroversial it has proved to be. “When we were rolling this out I was a bit nervous,” Hand says. “Bendigo is fairly conservative, but to this day we’ve not had a complaint. Instead we’ve had many, many calls of support from parents.”

Sonnie agrees it all seems pretty simple. “When I moved to this school I realised that there is no box to tick and you can be open about anything and it’s … just not that hard. I think what people don’t realise is … it’s not that hard.”

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