Just recently I re-connected with a fellow student from school. We both grew up in Hamilton and went to St. Mary’s and Monivae College – I have no idea what happened to her after that.
The re-connection came about on Facebook when I found myself in a group for former students from Year 12. I struggle to remember my school days and I struggle to remember most of my fellow students. School for me was not a great experience.
As I sit here on a Saturday morning I’m reading this great article by Lane Sainty. She is reporting on how difficult it is for non-straight kids in regional Australia to find support in their schools with all the bad press around the Safe School’s program. In Queensland and NSW real queer kids are struggling with their sexual or gender identity. The attacks on the program by the likes of the Australian Christian Lobby have made parents weary of the program. So much so that those that most need the support are just not getting it.
One student who left the school was so distressed by the negative media that his mother was also referred to a psychologist as she struggled to support him.
“He believes the things he hears – he says ‘I’m a freak, nobody wants me’,” the student welfare worker said.
“He’s attempted suicide several times in the past few years.”
As I read this I recall my time in a small country town in the 1970’s. I was at school and fighting with my re-connected friend. I don’t recall the details, but the words she used I haven’t forgotten.
She was standing in the class room door – I was in the corridor. The door was wooden with a frosted glass insert at head height. The nun who was the principal used to knock on the glass with her ring. I assume it was the wedding ring that meant she was married to Jesus. He had quite the harem.
As my friend stood in the class room, she was trying to keep the door closed to prevent me from getting into the room. I was crying and quite angry. I was lashing out at her, hitting her arm I think, because she delivered this line, “Don’t let him in he’s a poof and we don’t want him in here”.
Memory is a tricky thing. At this point I was stopped by one of the women teachers, that’d be Mrs Phillips or Mrs Peters and I got into trouble for hitting a girl.
No amount of my protesting would cut it. It didn’t matter that I’d just been called a poof and that was why I was upset. Nobody wanted to address why I found that upsetting, and indeed I had been hitting a girl. That’s what the teacher saw. I was then the bully.
There’s a lived lifetime between then and now. I’m not looking for an apology, that isn’t needed. We were both young and didn’t have a much of a clue about the words. I don’t hold her responsible now, that’d be a crazy thing to do. We’re both 50 something adults, that would be a long time to hold a grudge! While at the time it was quite homophobic and I was quite violent, we’ve both changed.
You know what we both needed in the 1970’s? A program that would help us understand each other. I lashed out and caused physical harm to a girl. She lashed out and caused emotional distress to a boy. Very likely we both felt vindicated for our actions. We needed the Safe Schools program. Even in Grade 5 I knew I liked boys. I knew I was different. I don’t know whether she somehow knew or was simply calling me names.
After all these years, with all that we know as a society, we still have people trying to deny the reality of growing up. Putting obstacles in the way to prevent kids just like me from getting help.
How different my life would have been if I didn’t have to contend with the negative images around my sexuality. So much so that when I finally got to Form 6, Year 12, all I wanted to do was get out of there. I was isolated and in despair because I carried with me the baggage from Grade 5 of lashing out and being identified as a poofter.
Those against the Safe Schools program think that the program will somehow be harmful to the kids. It brings the issue of sexuality up before the child can cope with it. That’s just a load of rubbish. What I needed was a society that didn’t care if I was gay. I had no positive words to describe the way I was. I was surrounded by a world that used derogatory words to describe my sexuality. I didn’t know what sex was, I had no idea about the mechanics of attraction, what I did know was that I wasn’t like the other boys and my fellow students knew this too. I don’t think 40 years makes any difference to those now growing up.
At least now we can and do let our young people know that it’s ok to be yourself and to protect them from the phobias that other people have.
A footnote: I did speak with my friend about this blog. We agree that we need Safe Schools. It strikes me that we just did what Safe School needs to do, a free exchange of thoughts communicated with humility and respect, we both came away with a better understanding of each other.