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Monica Reid
July 24, 2017 | by  | in Opinion |
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It’s time to step up our game: queer youth and education

CW: Discussion of suicide, queerphobia

 

Five years ago I (a very different, emotional misfit, 14-year old version of me) came out as lesbian. Because I didn’t realise that more than two sexualities existed, this was a really tricky time for me. After two more years of moving school, moving back again, barely scraping through exams, and attempting suicide, I came out as bisexual. In hindsight, I can’t help thinking of all the things that could have played out differently had my experience as a queer youth been different.

As it turns out, an overwhelming number of queer youths face depression, and are far more likely than their peers to attempt suicide. Not only is this saddening and unacceptable, but it can be avoided if we collectively try harder. What should be more important to high schools or youth centres than waving rainbow flags is actively trying to be queer-inclusive everyday. High school is a particularly alienating time in our lives — it is a time for self-discovery, a time where we feel pressured to do our best, fit in, and conform to what’s expected of us. As 13–16 is the average age for coming out, we don’t need to dig very hard to realise why queer youths find high school a tricky time, and trying to confront your family/close friends about who you really are is daunting.

Queer adolescents don’t need to be physically bullied to feel alienated in their community. Today, with more anti-bullying rules set in place, it is mostly subtle discrimination that goes on inside high schools. When these things are not called out, they can add up and make queer youths feel unwanted. Some seemingly small things that may impact a young queer person’s self-esteem, but might go unnoticed, are (but not limited to):

  1. Being surrounded by casual queerphobic slang (e.g. “gay” meaning bad).
  2. Students being pressured into gender norms by only having limited uniform options available.
  3. Heteronormative ideals, e.g. only being allowed to have an opposite-sex partner at the ball.
  4. In health class, only briefly touching on, or not talking about at all, the various genders/sexualities. (It takes more than twenty minutes to explain the queer-umbrella!).
  5. Stereotypes placed on queer youths at high school, which make them anxious about being true to themselves. (e.g. If I’m a trans-girl then I must be feminine. But if I am, am I stereotype? And if I’m not, then maybe people won’t identify me as trans?)

As fellow allies or queer people ourselves, we can counter rainbow discrimination by being aware of it, and calling out when something anti-LGBTQIA+ goes on. A good start would be making young people aware of the diversity of gender and sexual identities, using inclusive language (and letting teens know that offensive slang is not okay), and accommodating the needs of the rainbow community by making sure there are safe spaces made available for young people to freely, and without fear of judgement, discuss their identity and experiences. Youth centers (such as gyms, music groups, and other community places aimed at bringing youth together) and high schools can’t underestimate the impact they might have on a young queer person’s life, as many may not have an accepting family and so rely on these places to make them feel welcome. (When I came out to some of my closest family members, I was told that “bisexuality isn’t real” and that “it’s just an option for sluts.” It’s hard hearing these things from strangers, but even harder coming from loved ones).

In today’s New Zealand, it’s fair to say that most millennials and the younger generation have at least a basic knowledge of the multiple genders and sexualities that they or their peers may identify as. We’ve come a long way since being a gay man was officially decriminalised in 1986. Youths are now more exposed to openly queer celebrities and politicians, like NZ’s own Grant Robertson and the world’s first openly transsexual mayor, Georgina Beyer. Many high schools now celebrate Pink Shirt Day on May 26 in an attempt to promote diversity, are starting to have their own LGBTQIA+ safe groups, and briefly touch on gender/sexuality identities in health class. These are all fantastic; the progress we’ve made in the last 50 years is phenomenal. Nonetheless — there’s progress to be made.

When people feel unwanted, this leads to dark thoughts. New Zealand is one of the best places to live as a queer person — glancing at Nigeria, where same sex sexual activity is still illegal; Russia, where the queer community faces so many social challenges; and now America under President Trump. Things could be so much worse, and we should be thankful for what we have. But one in five queer youths in New Zealand attempt suicide, which proves that we have a way to go yet. Lives are on the line! So it’s time to step up our game.

***

 

If any young queers are reading this and need somewhere to turn, here are some centers that can help:

RainbowYOUTH Aotearoa: 09 376 4155, info@ry.org.nz

InsideOUT: 027 331 4507

 

At VUW, check out our own UniQ queer group and safe space.

 

If you’re feeling depressed and need someone to talk to, you can contact:

Depression helpline: 0800 111 757

Samaritans: 0800 726 666

 

Remember that you a beautiful person who deserves love. You should never feel alienated because of who you are.

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