Message to young queers: It gets better

Today is the day for “wearing purple to stand up against anti-gay bullying”, created in response to the recent wave of suicides by young gay people in the United States. Not to be confused with “wearing a pink shirt day, to take a stand against bullying”, which was on 28th April, as I recall. In fact I’m wearing a pink shirt (the very shirt I bought for the previous day) and my only item of purple clothing, a tie, plus a fluffy rainbow badge. The combination is interesting. Not sure if I should keep it on for Back Benches tonight, or go with the Metallica t-shirt.

You probably heard about the death of  Tyler Clementi, the young music student whose flatmates secretly filmed him with another guy (just cuddling, as far as I know) and posted it on the internet, encouraging others to watch. Tyler responded by hurling himself from a bridge. His death was one of at least five in recent weeks in response to anti-gay bullying.

The response in the States has been quite amazing. I know this “wear purple” thing has the potential to seem like one of those Facebook-based campaigns that make participants feel good (actually  worthwhile in its own right) but which don’t achieve any traction on the problem. I certainly encourage people to do more than wear purple. You could befriend someone being bullied, stand up against bullying or anti-gay prejudice or discrimination, and for those of us who are lesbian gay or bisexual, we can make visible our wonderful spectrum of well-adjusted realities (i.e. come out!)

Last year, when a NZ studywas published highlighting the torment that queer young people face, I wrote the following piece, of which I remain quite proud:

“The elimination of prejudice and discrimination is important not only for the creation of a fair society that celebrates difference and diversity, but also because our nation will be stronger if it uses all the talents and strengths available to it. We collectively lose if opportunities are effectively denied to some.

So in addition to the compassion that I am sure we all feel at the news that a third of same/both-sex attracted secondary students have seriously considered suicide and a half have deliberately harmed themselves in the past 12 months, we should also recognise that this represents a grievous waste of potential, which harms us all.

It is well-established that, with few exceptions, the health status of a population group is a function of its marginalisation in a society. That is why laws that discriminate and social environments that allow prejudice to persist are not only justice problems, but of fundamental concern in health.

It is no surprise to read that this group of lesbian, gay and bisexual young people are at increased risk of all sorts of health problems, including the risk of HIV infection.

Put yourself in the position of a young person coming to the understanding that she or he is not heterosexual. Very likely virtually every aspect of your social conditioning (family, friends, media, culture, church, school etc) has created an expectation for you and everyone else of heterosexuality. Occasionally you might be lucky enough to be aware of non-heterosexual adults who seem to have happy and productive lives, but these people are quite likely to seem pretty remote from you and more likely you will know of nobody else. You feel like the only one, you feel as if your very existence lets down everyone around you and you feel alone. To make things worse, you are surrounded by routine homophobia equating being gay with everything that is pathetic or disgusting. You’d feel pretty bad, right? I remember.

As adults we have both the opportunity and absolute responsibility to put that right. This latest research is about schools. Over the years there have been a number of excellent guidelines and resources developed for schools to help them do this better. Some have been excellent. But many schools have done nothing at all. It isn’t good enough, and we need to be working to ensure that there is a requirement, which is monitored and policed, for schools to take actions to actively support gay, lesbian and bisexual young people and to keep them safe.”

In the latest US campaign, Ellen de Generes has led celebrities and other public figures in a video-based promotion of the idea that “it gets better”. For a young person in the pit of despair it can seem that this will be her or his future. Older people with happy, great lives reaching out to them to say “that’s how it used to be for me too, but hang in there. It will get better for you too, and we want you in our community” can be an incredibly powerful message, not least because it counters the all-too-common perception of being alone, with nobody either understanding or caring.

Let’s all make a commitment to help convey that message here in NZ too.

About Kevin Hague 163 Articles

Green Party Member of Parliament

7 Comments Posted

  1. Although this was focused twords GLBT teens, I think it should be for all teens. It’s not easy being a teenager. It’s true though, it does get better.

  2. For a country founded by essentially libertarians you’d expect more sexual freedom in the US…

    They even have politicians trying to stop voluntary gay-straight alliances in schools… Like that’s the job of governments…

  3. Good points Kevin. I am not sure what you do about children’s reaction to anyone different though.
    Quiet kids, geeks, fat kids, gay kids can get a hard time at school.
    The same people that give you a hard time usually regret it later when they are mature enough to realise what they have done.

  4. @MacDoctor

    I’ve tried several drafts of this response now, but haven’t been able to find a less blunt way of expressing this: you are quite wrong. The experience of discrimination (and, ironically, the experience of hiding one’s sexual orientation in order to avoid discrimination) is associated with lowered self-esteem, depression, other mood and anxiety disorders, alcohol and drug problems, and lowered communication skills (amongst others). Each of these is, in turn, associated with reduced uptake and maintenance of safe sexual behaviour. There is an indirect but strong link between discrimination and HIV infection.

    On your second point, perhaps I wasn’t clear in my own comments. Changes like decriminalisation of sexual behaviour between adult males, legal prohibition on discrimination in employment, accommodation, education and provision of goods and services, and civil unions legislation have made a substantial difference to the lives of adults.

    What I have been particularly saying is that for young people very little has changed. Put yourself in the shoes of a 14 year old boy who is starting to realise that he seems to be wired fundamentally differently from all those around him.

    Conforming to group norms is a critical task for survival in adolescence. His family has brought him up almost certainly on the assumption that he is heterosexual (an assumption that he himself has shared until this day). His friends have the same assumption. If he was lucky he may have had a school that has presented some information about homosexual orientation in other than a passing reference, but probably not. He is exposed every day to the word “gay” being used as a synonym for “pathetic”, and lots of other routine language and behaviour that clarify a cultural view that homosexuality is something to be despised.

    On the plus side he is a bit more likely now to know of a relative or some other adult who is gay or lesbian and seems ok, and maybe he may have seen a gay or lesbian character on Shortland Street or similar (of course these are usually short term roles for a temporary story line, rather than core cast – if your son or daughter takes a sudden interest in watching the programme, take an interest).

    The effects are very often fear, isolation, self-loathing and extreme stress – not greatly different from 30 years ago. It does get better, for virtually everyone, but it’s worth pointing out that for a significant group of people these effects have lifetime consequences, and that the good life I experience, pretty free from discrimination, is by no means universal.

    We have to do something about it.

  5. While I have no quibble with you pointing out that marginaiisation of gays may produce poor health outcomes, I must point out that HIV is not one of those outcomes. Marginalization typically produces stress-related disease. HIV, however, is a direct consequence of homosexual activity and has absolutely nothing to do with the status of gays in society.

    I am also quite dubious that the gay community, by and large, experience sufficient discrimination in today’s society to produce stress-related disease, over and above the level in the general population. Barring unfortunate incidents such as the one mentioned, my impression is that gay people enjoy a large degree of acceptance in normal society.

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