Back to School, Back to Homophobia?

On February the 1st approximately 250,000 young West Australians between the ages of 5 and 17 will return to the 800 primary and secondary schools throughout the state to begin term one of 2007. As many of these students, both gay and straight, will in some way or another experience or witness homophobia this year, our schools are a very dangerous place for young same-sex attracted people.

Research undertaken in Australia (Writing Themselves in Again: 6 years On, 2005) proves that homophobic abuse has a profound impact on young peopleâ??s health and well-being. According to the report hose who had suffered such abuse were more likely to self-harm, to report an STI, and to use a range of legal and illegal drugs.

Rodney Croome, prominent national gay rights activist and the public face of the Tasmanian Gay and Lesbian Rights Group, billed homophobia as one of this nationâ??s most shameful crimes against young people. â??No matter how long I work in this area and how many stories of abuse I hear, I still feel rage when I encounter class room homophobia and its many dire consequences,â? he told OUTinPerth.

Echoing these sentiments was local human rights activist and 2005 Pride patron, Suzanne Covich. â??As an English teacher in a range of schools over the past 13 years I have witnessed the impact on teenagers whose sexuality and/or general appearance does not fit dominant heterosexist stereotypes. I have seen too many young people either move to other schools or leave school all together, often justifying the need to leave because of their lack of academic ability,â? she said.

That is not to say safe schools are not within reach. Ms Covich believes that although itâ??s costly, and teachers are generally under lots of pressure to make the change, this requires leadership. â??It has to come from the top. Not just the paperwork. The thinking too. Our kids and teachers have a right to learn in a safe environment,â? she said.

Documenting homophobic incidents can be one way in which young people can start to empower themselves against homophobia. Ms Covich told OUTinPerth, â??Terror or intimidation of any kind can make us block out in order to simply function and it is the writing of these experiences as soon as they happen that provides victims of harassment/violence with the tools that are necessary when it comes to taking action to address the situation. With time, we tend to forget details but if we record the incident as soon as we can, then it is clearer. If we are consistent in doing this and letting our persecutors know it then we are in a much better position to be taken seriously. â??

Ms Covich went on to elaborate that teachers and school administrators are more likely to respond to the concerns of students that they know are documenting specific incidents.

Documentation of homophobia can also provide assistance to other victims. â??One of the biggest obstacles to effective sexual and gender diversity programs is wilful ignorance. â??Surely that doesnâ??t happen anymore?â?? is the kind of denial that confronts anti-homophobia workers every day. Documenting individual cases helps break down resistance to change,â? Mr Croome said.

When young people are open about their sexuality, and are more conscious of their rights, it has a noticeable impact on their schools, families and communities at large.

In Ms Covichâ??s opinion, â?Being out is never easy, especially without informed and supportive friends but ultimately it is better to be out. The fears are different, lessened. It reduces the whispering and works to undo the human rights violations that can occur when someone is in the closet.â? she said.

Mr Croome added â??Many young LGBT people are blamed for bringing abuse on themselves by being out. This is a tactic for burying the issue. The empirical evidence makes it clear that when LGBT young people are out and conscious of their entitlements, they can be, and are, great agents for change. The evidence also suggests that the most significant change occurs when young people work together across sexual and gender categories to tackle sexual prejudice,â? he said.

Organisations such as the Gay and Lesbian Community Service , the Freedom Centre and P-flag are able to provide support to young people who are experiencing homophobia, questioning their sexuality, or considering whether coming out is the most appropriate decision for themselves.