Supporting LGBTIQ students and families
Since the de-funding of the Safe Schools Coalition initiative in NSW, there has been little in the way of support for teaching staff, students and their families struggling with ways to incorporate LGBTIQ awareness and inclusivity within their schools, which is why my colleague and I, Darby Carr, have decided to start our own venture, Inclusivity Consultants.
Inclusivity Consultants are now offering services to schools and other educational institutions to be able to continue some of this necessary and important work. Collectively, we have over eight years’ experience working directly with executive staff, teaching and administrative staff, students, families and community support services in the specific area of LGBTIQ inclusivity. We offer individual consultations that acknowledge the uniqueness of each setting, helping staff and families to come up with an action plan that is comprehensive and realistic.
For many years, we have been involved in creating safe and supportive school environments for LGBTIQ young people. We worked with staff, students and families in government, independent and faith-based schools as well as delivering inclusivity training to universities, legal, medical and community organisations.
When people heard about the initiative, many of them said “I wish there was something like that when I was growing up”. They went on to describe the alienation, isolation, abuse and discrimination they were subjected to by fellow classmates and members of their communities. Of being shunned by family and friends. Of having to pretend that they were interested in the opposite sex, some even getting married and having families, resulting in the inevitable pain and heartbreak when ‘pretending’ was no longer an option.
There were also stories about the battles with gender identity, of not understanding why they didn’t ‘fit in’, why having to answer to a particular name, play with a particular toy or wear a particular item of clothing generated such distress.
This is why it has been so fulfilling working with LGBTIQ young people, as they strive to get their schools to make a genuine commitment to diversity and inclusivity. Equally, working alongside principals to develop policies for the creation of environments free from bullying and discrimination. This has involved working on strategies to counter the insidious use of throwaway comments like ‘that’s so gay’, helping staff recognise that excuses such as ‘they don’t really mean that’ is no longer acceptable when young people were being hurt and made to feel bad about who they are.
It has also been immensely satisfying working with families and P&C’s, helping people understand that being transgender is not ‘just a passing whim’ that is picked up on the internet, that our gender diverse young people are able to articulate what they need to be their authentic selves. We have helped schools develop support plans that are realistic and yet incorporate the needs of these students, dispelling myths about toilets and change rooms and sports competitions.
Teachers are grateful that they have been given an understanding of the ever-growing acronym – LGBTIQA+, the historical context of language, the meaning of identity, why the needs of people who are intersex is a human rights issue, why LGBTIQ visibility is a wellbeing issue. They are able to acknowledge that these changes are helping all students, because a safe, supportive environment means everyone is able to thrive.
On a personal level, I am a same-gender attracted woman living within a vibrant queer community. I am also the mum of a wonderful young woman, who has grown up with the support of this same vibrant and supportive community. She understands that being gay is just part of who someone is, along with their jobs, friends and personal interests. Writing in her primary school journal, she would describe her weekend by talking about going to Fair Day. She rode her scooter in the Mardi Gras parade and came along to queer performances and poetry readings.
However, she too, had her challenges. When she was three, she declared that she no longer wanted to wear dresses. For many years, she cut her hair short and dressed in pants and t-shirts. When we were travelling overseas, people would ask about my ‘little boy’. And then one day, at high school, the principal went up to her and said ‘why are you wearing the blue pants, you should be wearing the grey pants?’. She answered, ‘because I’m a girl”. It felt like vindication when that school became one of the first in NSW to adopt a gender-neutral uniform policy.
The legalization of same sex marriage in Australia also felt like vindication. It was an important step for Australia to take. However, this has not automatically ‘fixed’ everything. Young people talk about homophobic bullying and name-calling continuing within their classrooms and in their playgrounds. With every new school year and a new cohort of young students, staff are having to re-visit the strategies they had put into place to challenge this hurtful and unacceptable behaviour.
Families of gender diverse and transgender children continue to seek assistance with negotiations around setting up supportive structures for their children within educational institutions that get overwhelmed by the need for a comprehensive plan around name changes, uniforms, use of toilets and change rooms, sports and extra-curricular activities such as school camps. These adjustments mean that a young person is able to participate in all areas of the curriculum and school life, instead of being disengaged and limiting their future opportunities.
The journey continues – young people have been crying out for change, for recognition beyond the stereotypical ‘gay’ labels and the restrictive gender binary. It’s time for schools to catch up - it isn’t scary, it’s exciting, achievable and broadens our understanding of diversity.
Mary and Darby are skilled educators who offer a range of educational and support services through Inclusivity Consultants.
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