I’m a queer, transgender woman who attended a Catholic, all-male high school in the mid-2000s. Which means I know first-hand how an unsupportive environment can negatively affect a young person struggling with their sexuality or gender identity.
One of the earliest memories I have is breaking into my mother’s wardrobe as a young child and emerging draped in an ill-fitting dress, and consequently being severely scolded by an embarrassed aunt, who asserted that it “wasn’t right” for me to do so.
I wondered how my playful actions could possibly have alarmed my aunt so deeply, who explained that dresses were “not for boys”. When I refuted that I wasn’t a boy, she swiftly hushed me and asked I not repeat what I’d said. I grew to associate “girl’s clothing” – and therefore, girlhood – with something that was off-limits to me.
When you are a child telling an adult that your gender is different to what they say you are, being told to be quiet in response can have lasting consequences, and I pushed down any feelings around my gender for over a decade.
In high school, I was rarely presented with any resources or hints of support regarding my sexuality or gender. Any time the topic of transgender people was brought up in my strictly masculine school environment, it was part of a punchline – its humour relying on the shared understanding that being trans was perverted, or a symptom of mental illness.
The idea that I could have possibly felt safe exploring my gender identity at the time is inconceivable to me even now. The main feelings I recall surrounding my identity were those of guilt, shame and secrecy. Homophobic bullying throughout high school took its toll on my mental health, eventually leading to a suicide attempt towards the end of my schooling.
It would take until my early 20s before I felt comfortable telling another person I was transgender, or exploring my queerness. Had information and resources been available to me when I was a child, had I even heard the word “transgender” and been given positive affirmation of what that meant, I’m certain I’d have felt safer to express my identity far earlier than I did.
Over the Easter weekend, the NSW government announced that, with federal funding for Safe Schools due to expire in June, it plans to abandon the program. In a statement, NSW Minister for Education Rob Stokes revealed the program is set to be replaced with a broader, generic “anti-bullying” project.
On the day news of the program’s termination broke, columnist Miranda Devine continued to demonstrate a long track record of empathy and tact regarding sensitive issues, commenting that Safe Schools’ legacy was an “epidemic” of transgender children.
Devine referred to Safe Schools in her piece as a “sexual indoctrination program”, claiming “incalculable damage” has been done to young people through exposure to the “radical queer theory” that being a queer or transgender person is normal, and nothing to feel ashamed about.
Her comments echo an oft-repeated criticism of the program over the past few years – that by providing information and support for children who may be queer or gender diverse, the Safe Schools program somehow “influences” young people to “turn” gay or transgender.
Here’s the thing, though – being trans isn’t some contagious disease, and you certainly can’t “catch” it from hearing about it in a classroom. If there has anecdotally been any increase in the number of young people in New South Wales identifying as transgender as a result of Safe Schools, it’s no “epidemic”. If anything, it’s a sign of improved mental wellbeing among an extremely vulnerable group.
Higher numbers of trans-identifying youth simply reflects more young people accessing resources and support to express their gender identity – not that they’ve been coercively manufactured via some extreme left-wing propaganda the way Devine and co argue. Support I didn’t have.
As far as I’m concerned, more young people feeling safe and supported to transition can only be a good thing.
One of the most frequently perpetuated myths about young people and trans identity is that children who express gender dysphoria will simply “grow out of it” through puberty if left long enough, and that socially or medically intervening is therefore unnecessary.
This idea that we should actively ignore children expressing distress about their gender rather than listen, understand and advocate on their behalf is frankly irresponsible at best, and dangerously negligent at worst.
There is overwhelming evidence available that suggests providing support and understanding for transgender children improves their mental health prospects. By believing young people when they express gender dysphoria and providing access to treatment, we significantly ameliorate depression and anxiety in them.
What’s needed, now more than ever, is to listen and actively support the queer and gender-diverse young people in your life.
If formal school policies refuse to provide understanding and assistance, it is up to us – parents, relatives, friends – to be there for queer and transgender youth.
Support is available for anyone who may be distressed by phoning Lifeline 13 11 14; Kids Helpline 1800 551 800.