Last week I had the chance to participate in several of the events in the Hamilton Pride Festival for queer and transgendered people in the Waikato. I spent my secondary school years at Hamilton Boys High School, so I really valued the opportunity to launch there a landmark new report by Murray Riches entitled “How Do We Make it Better?: Mapping the steps towards a more supportive coming out environment for queer youth in Aotearoa New Zealand” [PDF].
Being in Hamilton reminds me of how it felt to be a young man realising my difference for the first time. Although Hamilton is now actually a pretty cool place, I remember the fear, isolation and desperation of the mid-1970s. You may well have seen the video clip I shot for the “It Gets Better” project. But why can’t we make it better right now?
That’s the genesis for Murray’s report (or at least for my role in sponsoring it). As an adult gay man, my life is immeasurably better than the one I would have led in 1970s, as a result of the hard-won gains like Homosexual Law reform, legal protection from discrimination and civil unions. But the teenage gay boy growing up today is still surrounded by a family, friends, school, church and pretty well every other element of his environment that assumes he is heterosexual. What he is most aware of is his difference from his peers and from the expectations of others. And most likely his role models are that guy in Glee, Ellen de Generes and an occasional character on Shortland Street. Sure it’s better than it was for some, but it’s still much worse than it should be, leading to many negative health, educational and other social outcomes.
So Murray’s report sets out to write the agenda for making it better for those young people right now, rather than having to hang on in quiet desperation until their fabulous adult lives kick in. The specific issues raised include bullying, isolation, invisibility of queer people, a lack of knowledge amongst professionals who work with youth, inconsistency in how school support queer students, the struggle to embrace the diversity within the queer community, a lack of public awareness of queer issues, poor policies for transgender health provision, and growing complacency towards queer activism and rights. This is the agenda around which we want to unite the adult LGBT communities and the wider community in working to implement. These were the key actions:
- Develop policies that would ensure all schools create safe and empowering environments for queer students.
- Make sexuality and gender diversity education part of the core curriculum.
- Weave diversity awareness into all aspects of the curriculum.
- Make queer issues and diversity training a central part of teacher training and professional development.
- Ensure that teaching staff diversity, in terms of culture, gender and sexual identities, has administrative and institutional support.
- Promote the establishment of both community and school based support groups.
- Develop a national network where support groups can collaborate and support one another.
- Develop a national QSA network to promote the establishment of QSA groups throughout the country.
- Ensure collaboration between QSA and community based groups and networks.
- Hold the media accountable for negative or narrow representations of queer people.
- Develop the capabilities of media spokespeople throughout our community.
- Develop a database of media spokespeople throughout the country.
- Engage with and educate journalist and reporters.
- Encourage celebratory events that raise the visibility of the queer community.
- Seek government support for a national visibility/public education campaign.
- Work alongside sporting and cultural institutions to encourage more out role models in different public domains.
Nurturing Internal Diversity
- Ensure queer events and spaces cater for all queer people, not just the hegemonic groups.
- Cross-Sectoral Professional Development:
- Make diversity training and queer issues a central part of the training and professional development of all professionals who work with youth – i.e.Counsellors, Nurses, Teachers, Social Workers.
- Establish a policy group or network dedicated to promoting policy initiatives that will empower queer youth and seek to have the queer youth perspective heard in any policy development.
- Work with schools and other institutions to see existing policy implemented or enforced.
- Develop policies that make it easier for transgender youth to navigate the health system and access the appropriate services.
- Specific research into the health needs of transgender youth and the implications of existing policies is needed.
Immediately prior to going to Hamilton for the Pride Festival I had a day in which two situations were raised with me, with requests for my help. Coincidentally both were of 17 year old young men who had come out to their parents and been thrown out of their homes. It was a sobering reminder of just how important Murray’s report may prove to be.