School students exiting the closet – we’ve seen a few of them on Glee, but is it happening in real life?
Yes. More and more teens are coming out while they’re still at high school, writes Twenty10’s Senior Counsellor Ross Jacobs. But are their teachers ready?
One of the major ingredients of most queer young people’s lives is their school environment – it’s where they spend much of their time, and where virtually all of their Real Life friendships occur, unless they have developed connections to places like Twenty10 and other after-school social environments.
In the past, for these young ‘uns, it’s been a matter of hiding in plain sight – of keeping sexuality as hidden as possible until school was over. But more and more the sexualized world, the interconnectivity of the internet and the open-mindedness of young people to differing sexualities means queer students’ lives can be much more open.
In fact, I think the greatest leaps I have seen while working with young people has been in the domain of schools – it’s so heartening that we at Twenty10 often receive calls from school counsellors and concerned teachers who are looking for guidance about making the school environment a more welcoming place for queer students.
They often recognise how hard it is to be ‘othered’, particularly during adolescence, forced into an observer point of view; watching straight peers have all of the experiences that being a teenager is all about but being denied those experiences yourself. Good, switched on teachers and counsellors understand that young people who feel this removal are often missing out on the experiences that lead to stability, and that in turn is terrible for both an individual and wider school environment. But they also understand that through support and education there is no reason queer young people need to miss out.
“We often receive calls from school counsellors and concerned teachers who are looking for guidance about making school a more welcoming place for queer students.”
From a developmental point of view, I love that some young GLBTI people are not locked out of the important tasks of adolescence, namely figuring out intimacy and our place in it – from expressing their desires in terms of crushes, holding hands and first kisses – all of that romantic schmaltzy stuff. Too often queer people have been forced to skip this step – the safe exploration of intimacy in the teenage world – and pushed without any experience at all into pretty confronting adult world of sex.
It’s really easy for us adult members of the community to forget how confronting the gay scene feels in your first exposure to it – in the worst cases, young people’s naiveté about sex leads to their being treated as ‘fresh meat’, hardly a guaranteed safe way to slowly explore what it means to be sexually vulnerable with your peers. But now young people are often pretty savvy about sex and their own currency as sexual beings long before they are of an age to enter the scene, often due to having had a few years at school in which they were getting used to the idea.
In my experience, schools sometimes but not often openly acknowledge GLBT students. Increasingly, schools are starting to understand that the fabric of their student makes up inevitably involves queer students, and that their duty of care extends just as completely to them as to their students not grappling with gender or sexual identity.
There is a pilot program in 12 high schools in NSW that Twenty10 is consulting on with the Education Department, called Proud Schools. It’s exciting. But sadly, some schools – I won’t explicitly state here which – regard identity exploration as ‘private matters’ instead of ‘core personality’ and thus irrelevant to a student’s well being. This is, to say the least, frustrating… if not an open breach of responsible governance. (I suspect it’s far more to do with discomfort that young people are sexual and growing up in a sexualised world than with a real belief that it doesn’t impact well-being.)
Happily, many students are taking these matters into their own hands and simply sidestepping existing power structures to start their own after school gatherings or online discussions about who they like and who they LIKE like.
But the flipside of coming out while at school revolves around a question of privacy. Announcing to your whole school community that you’re gay the day after you realise it yourself is not necessarily the best choice for some people – once that information is out there, it’s virtually impossible to bring back under control. As someone who supports young people it’s hard for me to acknowledge that the closet is the safest place for some young people to be – but it is unarguably true. While the modern world has come a long way, safety must still be our paramount concern. Horror stories of information and pictures spreading like wildfire around schools and peer networks are of real concern, and can make a huge impact on how the ‘outed’ young person feels about their own sexuality.
Just like their straight peers, queer young people are desperate to fit in, to enjoy popularity and connection with their friends. More often than not, young people don’t have any kind of problem with being gay, but there is always a risk that is will be turned, violently, into a weapon of bullying. This is never acceptable. Schools are starting to understand that if homophobic bullying is taking place, it has far more to do with the aggressors than the victim.
While dinosaur principals still exist, with antiquated ideas that this kind of treatment is ok, more and more even they understand that violent schools are not good for anybody. If you know of a school where this is taking place – if you’re a student, a teacher or a family member – I’m sure the Education Department would be most pleased to hear from you. It’s not the 1950’s anymore, and diversity is ok.