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Why the message matters

We’re sending our children mixed messages.

On one hand – be confident to be yourself. On the other – don’t be too much like yourself, because difference is something to be feared. Between the failings raised by the current inquiry into institutionalised child abuse, the treatment of asylum-seeker children in offshore detention centres and the attacks on the Safe Schools program,which provides “resources and support to equip staff and students with skills, practical ideas and greater confidence to lead positive change and be safe and inclusive for same sex attracted, intersex and gender diverse students, staff and families”, Australia is not acting like it’s kid-friendly. Make that Australia’s not kid-friendly to those who don’t fit into a constructed view of ‘normality’. Years 9 and 10 were tough for me. I’d moved interstate to a small rural town and struggled to make friends in the 30 kids in my year level, who’d all grown up together. Many actively shunned and verbally and physically bullied outsiders. My eventual friendship group, including my best friend, was made up of other students who also moved to the state school. The drama teacher had a small office adjoining her classroom, and the ‘cool’ kids hung out there at lunchtimes. One day I was asked to drop something into that office. The cool kids had been scribbling on the whiteboard. There was a love heart around two names: mine and my female best friend’s, and a drawing of a lemon. Days later it was still there. I didn’t remove it because that would have been an admission that those kids had got to me. But it hurt. I’d never thought about whether I was gay or straight, but the fact that other students had written that in a teacher’s office as an obvious insult made me feel like even more of an outsider, and utterly worthless. Those feelings linger years later. The teacher’s implicit approval of the bullying by not removing the drawing lessened my trust in adults. It made me feel more isolated. It also made me question my sexuality – were they right? The only experience I’d had with a guy was when I was twelve, and a year 10 student started to feel me up kiss me on the school bus, and it had scared me. Had that meant I wasn’t attracted to men? Did the cool kids know something I didn’t? I felt like I couldn’t talk to anyone – my best friend, my parents or school staff – that no-one would understand. I differed to the other students in three ways: I was new, extremely shy, and didn’t like AC/DC. These facts were enough for me to be branded gay, bullied in class in front of teachers, and bashed up outside the school gates in full view of a staff member, who did nothing. Another student at the same school had a hormonal imbalance and was effeminate in his mannerisms, but wasn’t gay. He was constantly tormented by some students – and the teachers, again, did nothing. In other words, the adults who were meant to lead by example did not. They, by their actions, demonstrated it was acceptable to disrespect anyone who was different. I cannot understate the importance that having access to material such as the Safe Schools program or books with diverse characters would have made to my self-image at that time. Just to know that I was safe, that I was valued and respected. To know that it was okay if I didn’t know who I was, that I had the rest of my life to work that out, and my sexuality was not my defining factor. Earlier today author Will Kostakis posted an email from a school and his response on his website. A Catholic school wants Will to present his second book, The First Third, and not his latest release, The Sidekicks, as “it might not be appropriate, and parents might not be happy”. Will’s response was that both books deal with “queerness” and that “The First Third was acceptable, but now I have a blog post saying I like men, The Sidekicks is not.” Will says he has to “stick up for my 16 year old self, and say this is personal”. And how could it not be? He wrote The First Third “for… students like me, who felt less than adequate because they loved someone ‘they weren’t supposed to’,” and is now being professionally challenged due to who he is. His sexuality doesn’t change the fact he’s a respected writer, posts more shirtless selfies than anyone else on Twitter, or that he seems like a friendly guy. Much of my angst and misplaced guilt about my own opinions and beliefs was related to my Catholic upbringing, and I only wish any one of the schools I attended had offered texts with diverse characters and situations. We need diversity in literature – both in the characters portrayed, and the authors – because reading about people from backgrounds and with experiences different to our own promotes empathy and proves that despite our differences we all share the same emotions. We can all be hurt and inflict pain on others; we can all love and be loved. We are each unique, and our differences should be celebrated as much as our similarities. A teenager close to me was in a same-sex relationship a couple of years ago, and some adults took the ‘just a phase, they’ll grown out of it’ approach. Personally, the only thing I care about is that the person anyone I love chooses to be with treats them with care and respect, and I find it insulting when people are put down, fobbed off, rejected or shunned because of their real or imagined sexuality or cultural background. We openly have these conversations in front of my son, because we don’t want him to grow up in a world where what some people consider to be ‘different’ is discussed in hushed voices as that only perpetuates the myth that ‘difference’ is something to be feared. When my son was five he was into glitter and sparkles. A relative saw this, and said – in front of him – that it was probably just a phase, that he’d grow out of it, and it didn’t mean he was gay. My response was ‘So what if he is?’ I want him to grow up comfortable to be himself, to know that those who love him will continue to do so regardless of his sexuality – because we will. We never want him to feel ashamed or hurt or restricted by who he is. Identity is broken down into two groups: Ascribed, and acquired or assumed. Ascribed identities include race, sexuality, social class and family – basically, what you’re born with or into. Acquired identity usually involves some choice – it’s the football team you support, your career, where you live, what you wear. Identity is formed by how we see ourselves, and how we experience ourselves through the eyes of others – what society tells us we’re like, or should be like. If every book, movie and TV character is white, middle-class and straight, readers who are not white, middle-class or straight start to feel invisible. My son, for example, spent his early years in foster care. Society’s reflection of foster children is mostly negative – that they’re runaways, or future criminals. Our son is already aware that our family is not ‘normal’ because we’re not his biological parents. He rarely sees foster children in literature. Media coverage is limited to official reports and statistics that are overwhelmingly negative. He bristles – as do I – when radio ads for foster carers cheerily spruik that ‘seeing kids grow and change for the better makes it all worthwhile’, because it implies there’s something inherently wrong with these kids in the first place. And, yes, most children who’ve spent time in foster care have challenges, but the majority are in the system due to the actions of their birth families. But the message reflected by society is that the kids are the problem – they’re removed and told they can’t live with their birth families, when in reality their birth families cannot care for them. It’s all about the language. We stopped using the phrase ‘forever family’ in our home because our son’s already had another ‘forever family’, which didn’t last beyond a few weeks. Refusing to make diverse books available to students, or questioning the value of the Safe Schools program sends a message that same sex-attracted, gender diverse or intersex children – or children with same sex-attracted, gender diverse or intersex family members or friends – are not valued, or that they matter less than straight, cisgender children. By extension, it’s telling any child who feels they do not fit society’s constructed view of ‘normal’ – or who does not toe the line of what is ‘normal’ – that they too are not valued. Whether an identity is ascribed or assumed, adults who ignore diversity or people who do not fit the ‘norm’ are implicitly allowing bullying to continue.

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