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Teachers speak: "Our fears for gay students"

Posted in: Community
By Matt Akersten - 25th July 2008

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"A 14-year-old came to see me the other day, saying 'guys always say that I'm gay. They cover up when we're in the changing room, and they say 'here comes this poofter!' I said: 'Well, it doesn't matter whether you're gay or not, you don't find that acceptable'. He said: 'No I don't, it makes me want to cry.'"

– recounted by an Auckland high school teacher.


In numbers that would have been unimaginable a few years ago, LGBT students at high schools across New Zealand are coming out. Some are well supported by teachers and guidance councilors. Some become mentors and role models for younger students. But we also hear from many others who are right now counting down the days until they can leave behind the torment of their daily high school hell.

"Being out in most schools in New Zealand would still be quite rough," a young openly-gay teacher at a central Auckland school tells us. Although open about his sexuality he is reluctant to have his name used online in this article. We'll call him Michael.

"Most of the ones who are out at my school have a good support group around them. There's a bit of bullying around, but I think we only see the tip of the iceberg," says Michael. "Kids are good at hiding if they're being bullied, or if they are doing the bullying."

A more senior gay teacher in rural Hawkes Bay, we'll call him Craig, says his remote school is quite unique: "We have so many gay students at school. I've never worked anywhere where there are so many. It's amazing, really. They're tied into the family network, and treated as if they're part of the scenery, really."

Craig says many of his school's gay male students are very feminine in their behaviour, a pattern he attributes to th predominance of Maori and Polynesian families in the area. "We are 80% Maori, and we have a lot of Polynesian students also. So the students are out in a Polynesian way, and usually get around with groups of girls. They just blend into the landscape, really," he says. There's even one very 'out' pupil in Year 13 who's now a school prefect. "He's a public speaker, and a very capable individual. He's been involved in speech competitions up and down the country. He's a real leader, and he makes sure everyone knows he's gay."

Carol Bartlett, a Dean at a large suburban west Auckland high school, with decades of experience teaching teenagers, says she chooses to be very out at work, maintaining her visibility as an example to her charges. "So our students who are gay usually come and see me. There's around half a dozen every year. That's one of the reasons I'm out. I'm perceived by the students to be a safe set of ears. They don't come to me and start off saying 'I'm gay!' They come with the strangest things. But that's alright, we get talking."


THAT'S SO GAY…

Mention the use of the word 'gay' by young people to mean 'stupid' or 'naff' and our teachers react instantly. "It's used all the time." "It's used constantly." "You hear it every lesson." "It's everywhere!"

But opinions differ on whether it's a problem. Craig from rural Hawkes Bay isn't too worried. "I was quite surprised at the extent to which the word was used as a put-down, but what I got used to was the fact that it was only intended as a clichéd term, rather than a ‘pointing out of difference'. I think it'll eventually die a natural death once it's done the rounds. There'll be a new expression used to replace it at some point in the future."

Micheal, the inner-city Aucklander, agrees to some extent, but still challenges students when he hears it. "It's quite prevalent, but there's a disconnect between what they intend the meaning to be, and the word gay itself. When you clamp down on it, and I do, in my class, people think 'what's the big deal, it's only a word meaning naff'. They think it's not actually an insult to gay people."

Carol Bartlett doesn't mix words about what she sees as clear denigration. "Our gay students get bullied. They get the idea from the negative use of the word 'gay' that being gay is not OK." Bartlett describes herself as 'extremely proactive' about the use of the word as an insult in her classroom. "I do still take it to mean 'gay', and I've been told by so many people now, including gay people, that it doesn't mean that anymore. But to me it does. It's an insult to gay men, and to the many women who describe themselves as 'gay' as well."

Bartlett believes in always dealing to the problem wherever and whenever it occurs. "You wouldn't dream of saying 'that's so Maori' or 'that's so Samoan' or 'that's so Christian'," she challenges the perpetrators, "so why would you say 'that's so gay'? It's a direct insult. You're insulting me, and you're insulting my friends. And I'm not willing for you to disparage me like that." She says her unwillingness to let the slur pass unchallenged is having results at her school. "It's got to the point that when someone uses it, someone else will quickly say 'you can't say that in here!'"

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21ST CENTURY BULLYING

Interestingly, each of our three teachers told us that they've found it's the girls in their classrooms who do the most bullying. Much of it isn't violent, but it is visible and harmful. Cliques are formed and gossip is spread. Groups of 'Mean Girls' go around picking on socially-isolated young classmates.

And these days, the bullying doesn't stop at hometime. "We've had some really bad cases of students being bullied by text," explains Michael in central Auckland. "Lots of people send one person something nasty each. And people post threatening things about other people on their Bebo page. They might sound like small incidents, but the issue is that those sorts of things can escalate rather quickly."

It's now not only students who are being bullied by students, it's also the teachers themselves, through high-profile websites like Bebo and MySpace.

With new technology it's become far more damaging," explains Bartlett. "It's not just words or the occasional blow any more, it's words in a text message or on a website, which is far more damaging. There's not a lot of physical bullying at our school as a result of people being gay, but there's certainly a lot of emotional bullying. There were two cases last year of people getting nasty homophobic text messages. The parents were informed."

The situation for students isn't worse, it's just different, and teachers aren't always aware of what's going on, Michael explains. "We didn't have Bebo and MySpace when I was at school. So most [adults] who are dealing with these issues have never actually experienced them firsthand. And we might need different strategies to deal with it."

Craig, who has noticed in recent years that some students who might once have sniggered about his homosexuality out of earshot are much more brazen and in his face in recent times, saw problems with postings on websites a lot last year, but is thankful that seems to have died back down recently. "When I think back to when I was at school, it was so different," he says. "I went to a very traditional boy's school. A lot of bullying did go on. I certainly experienced it.

"The issue is a lot more spoken about now, but we have much more complex social issues going on. There can be drug abuse, family abuse, and many other things that the kids can carry around with them. Those are really big issues and you can end up with enormous problems unless they're dealt with very promptly."


DEALING TO THE BULLIES

Along with a requirement to have a Sexual Harassment Officer and a Guidance Councillor for students to turn to in tough times, all New Zealand schools have to have some form of anti-bullying policy which is regularly checked by the Education Review Office.

"Our school is very good," says Craig. "People are very aware of bullying when it happens. If something is going on, we'll hear about it in our staff meeting. I think it tends to get dealt with quite quickly. It might involve an interview with the Dean and may involve the parents."

As a Dean at her school, Bartlett has to deal directly with incidents of bullying and its ramifications, and her view is somewhat fatalistic. "Bullying has always happened. I can't see human nature changing enough for it to ever stop happening. Kids will go for the jugular on anything that's different. It's not just being gay. The guy who's a geek and never does phys-ed also gets it in the neck. Students are real conformists in some ways. If you don't meet the pattern, you're likely to be very seriously disparaged."

But she knows there's nothing more soul-destroying for students than being bullied. "We deal with it immediately when we see it, and we deal with it by looking into why the bully is bullying. It's pretty well researched... bullies do it because they've been bullied. They're looking for power. And of course, if they're looking for power, they target the weakest person."


THE POLITICIANS WADE IN

It's not easy to quantify the effects of negative self image and sexuality-based bullying, but a landmark 1999 study prepared for the US Department of Health and Human Services points to young glbt people being two to three times more likely to suicide, a pattern rooted in "negative self-image, physical and verbal abuse, rejection and isolation." The report urged American schools to protect its glbt students from abuse.

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Realising that bullying of LGBT students is rife in UK schools, gay equality group Stonewall launched its Some People Are Gay… Get Over It campaign recently, with posters, cards and stickers sent to all secondary schools in the UK. The programme was so successful that it was scaled up and moved onto billboards around the country.

Earlier this month Education Minister Chris Carter, a gay man and ex-teacher, gave NZ schools a brand new initiative to combat school bullying. The motto Step Up, Be Safe, Be Proud will be printed on cards to be given to students across the country, while the Education Review Office will step up its pressure on schools to act on any claims of violence.

But that's still not enough, says Michael of central Auckland. "The issue of bullying of LGBT students is still not being dealt with explicitly. I'd be looking for an emphatic statement that the Education Review Office was trying to enforce, instead of what basically is a watered down "no discrimination" and "school should be a safe place" sort of statement. There needs to be some explicit stuff written that's around making schools safe for students," he explains.

Bartlett believes this NZ programme has a fundamental flaw... that teachers just won't have enough hours in the day to do it justice. "Like a lot of teachers, I am so frustrated with the Government throwing new initiatives at us without the one resource that we need, and that is time," she says. "We're not stupid people. We can do lots and lots of things. But we're not given the staffing for it, and we're not given the relief time for it, since we need to do our professional development during school time."


IT TAKES A COMMUNITY

Bartlett pauses, then makes her point again, this time laying it on the line that teachers and schools alone can't stamp out bullying. "If the Government wants schools to be safe places where very little bullying happens, they have to get the whole school and the wider community involved. You can't just do it for the five hours a day when we have them. It has to be across the board," Bartlett explains, throwing out a challenge to our elected leaders and people in general. "If the Government is really serious about kids' mental health, which is basically what we're talking about with bullying, they're going to have to resource it at that sort of level. The whole community."


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Matt Akersten - 25th July 2008