Born This Way

It was just an ordinary day, which meant that one of Australia’s mainstream newspapers was due for some good old-fashioned hysteria, scare-mongering and lies. It’s usually an attempt to demonise a minority or just have some fun at the expense of those that cannot defend themselves. A few days ago, this unashamedly unethical ragtag decided it was time to attack the LGBTI community again. However, this time, they went for the lowest of lows – they went for the youth.

An article at the top of the front page of Wednesday’s edition – an exclusive by the way – was so ineloquently titled “Activists push taxpayer-funded gay manual in schools”. Presumably being in this prominent position meant that it was the most important story of the day, but I’ll leave you to decide whether there were more pressing issues on this Wednesday (I can think of at least one more important issue that involves 267 people about to be sent back to a life of abuse and mental torment, but maybe I just have a different perspective of the world). I’ve actively decided not to link the article here (nor name this shameful excuse of journalism) for two reasons – it’s behind a pay-wall and I really don’t want you to give them any money to read it. It’s also just so farcical from top to bottom, so I don’t want to waste your time. I do however want to draw attention to how damaging this kind of “reporting” is, and will continue to be, if it is left unchecked and unquestioned. Though the “taxpayer-funded” part is quite hilarious – I’m not sure what their point is, but is this a good time to remind them that their beloved church that they so vehemently defend at all times does not pay any tax, while also receiving large sums of funding from the government?

To be clear, there is no “gay manual”. What would a “gay manual” even do, or attempt to do? This strikes at one of the most hurtful aspects of what homophobes believe – that being gay is a choice. Who would choose this? Why would you bring all of this unwanted attention and subsequent disadvantage to yourself if you didn’t have to? I’ll never forget one of the first things my Mum said to me when I finally had the nerve to come out to her (at age 28 by the way) – she was really concerned that I was going to miss out on opportunities, or be treated differently, simply because of my sexuality. And here I was worried about her getting upset at not getting any grandchildren from me. The fact that it took me so long to officially come out to my Mother is a direct statement of the way I felt scared and anxious for the real me to be out there. The prime of my life was spent hiding away for the fear of being found out. I had no boyfriends and I didn’t go out much all those years, simply because I was so scared of being found out. Why did I feel like this? Well, that’s what twelve years of Catholic education will do to you. I’m not upset that my parents felt it necessary for me to go to a religious school, but I do greatly resent the education I received of a narrative of the world in which I was a freak while growing up and discovering myself, while they go through scandal after scandal of sexual abuse of children in their care without any attempts to correct the many wrongs they have committed.

It was during my high school years that I first began to feel attracted to another guy. To say that was a terrifying and utterly confusing experience would be one of the greatest understatements I’ve ever made. I only wish there was something reassuring available to me at the time that explained some of the possibilities of what I was thinking and experiencing. This is no “gay manual”. Labelling it this way implies that you can teach someone to be gay. That would be as effective as gay conversion therapy, which is hopefully and finally about to be made illegal in Victoria. This is a teaching aide that forms part of the Safe Schools Coalition. It is an anti-bullying document designed to help children – all children – understand the differences that make us our own unique individual, and that there’s simply no reason to pick on someone, or exclude someone who might not fit into some main category. I don’t see anything wrong with that, especially as 80 per cent of homophobic bullying involving LGBTI young people occurs at school and has a profound impact on their well-being and education (Australian Research Centre in Sex, Health and Society, La Trobe University, Private Lives 2: The second national survey of the health and wellbeing of GLBT Australians (2012) p 39). I like to be positive though and it gives me hope that LGBTI young people at schools where protective policies are in place are more likely to feel safe compared with those in schools without similar policies (75 per cent compared with 45 per cent). They are almost 50 per cent less likely to be physically abused at school, less likely to suffer other forms of homophobic abuse, less likely to self-harm and less likely to attempt suicide (T Jones and Western Australian Equal Opportunity Commission, A report about discrimination and bullying on the grounds of sexual orientation and gender identity in Western Australian education (2012), p 11). I would think that having this resource available in schools can only have a positive impact, as it appears to be doing, and it certainly isn’t doing what this article is trying to suggest.

With the lack of such a resource in those times, I sought the advice of a teacher (who was also presumably gay, but I’ll never know for sure) who I felt comfortable enough with to share the thoughts I was having. He did help me understand that while I was probably having different thoughts to most of the other boys at school, there was nothing wrong with the thoughts I was having. I am very lucky to have had someone give me this reassurance at a time of need so I didn’t go down the path that sadly too many LGBTI youth go down.

The statistics glaringly show the disparity of mental health, self-harm and suicide in the LGBTI community to that of heterosexuals:

  • Lesbian, gay and bisexual Australians are twice as likely to have a high/very high level of psychological distress as their heterosexual peers (18.2% v. 9.2%). This makes them particularly vulnerable to mental health problems
  • The younger the age group, the starker the differences: 55% of LGBT women aged between 16 and 24 compared with 18% in the nation as a whole and 40% of LGBT men aged 16-24 compared with 7%
  • LGBTI people have the highest rates of suicidality of any population in Australia – 20% of trans Australians and 15.7% of lesbian, gay and bisexual Australians report current suicidal ideation (thoughts)
  • A UK study reported 84% of trans participants having thought about ending their lives at some point
  • Up to 50% of trans people have actually attempted suicide at least once in their lives
  • Same-sex attracted Australians have up to 14 times higher rates of suicide attempts than their heterosexual peers
  • Rates are 6 times higher for same-sex attracted young people (20-42% cf. 7-13%)
  • The average age of a first suicide attempt is 16 years – often before ‘coming out’ Source: Rosenstreich, G. (2013) LGBTI People Mental Health and Suicide. Revised 2nd Edition. National LGBTI Health Alliance. Sydney, p 5.

That all makes for very sobering reading. It also highlights just how critical it is for young people to be supported throughout their journey into adulthood, not to have some elitist set blast false headlines and news stories across their front pages suggesting otherwise. It’s because of continued homophobic examples like this that almost half of all gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people hide their sexual orientation or gender identity in public for fear of violence or discrimination (Australian Research Centre in Sex, Health and Society, La Trobe University, note 7, p 46). It’s also why a large number of LGBTI people hide their sexuality or gender identity when accessing services (34 per cent), at social and community events (42 per cent) and at work (39 per cent). Young people aged 16 to 24 years are most likely to hide their sexuality or gender identity (Australian Research Centre in Sex, Health and Society, La Trobe University, Private Lives 2: The second national survey of the health and wellbeing of GLBT Australians (2012) pp 45-46). I wonder why that is.

I am a part of those statistics. Countless times, I have hidden my sexuality from friends, work colleagues, family, Barry next door – you name it. I have encountered discrimination based on my sexuality. A previous boss of mine commented to someone else at this workplace (after I had left that workplace) that he would not have hired me had he known I was gay. I am scared to hold the hand of another man in public for fear of being abused – something I have seen happen in Melbourne before. The number of conversations I have had where I actively used words to avoid questions of why I did not have a girlfriend all those years, or where I faked an interest in “blokey” conversations to keep the charade going. This was all due to the world around me – a world that still tells me I’m not equal. That my love for another man is not the same as the love between a man and a woman. Yes, it’s 2016 and we’re supposedly advancing, but the simple fact is that I am still discriminated against, simply for the love I have for someone of the same sex. So, if there is a teaching aide in our schools reaffirming that we are all the same even though we have our unique identifiers, and that those differences are to be embraced rather than shamed, I am all for that. I am hopeful that the youth of today have more confidence to be themselves and not hide their true identity for as many years as I felt I had to. But as long as mainstream media continues to peddle this hysterical and utterly damaging sensationalism, we still have a long way to go. LGBTI young people report experiencing verbal homophobic abuse (61 per cent), physical homophobic abuse (18 per cent) and other types of homophobia (9 per cent), including cyberbullying, graffiti, social exclusion and humiliation (Australian Research Centre in Sex, Health and Society, La Trobe University, Private Lives 2: The second national survey of the health and wellbeing of GLBT Australians (2012) pp 45-46). These headlines just perpetuate these experiences and the people that write them ought to be held accountable for these actions.

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