Thursday, 25 June 2009

Guest post: school balls, queer* youth and Stonewall: How far have we come?

THM reader Louise gives us the rundown on an upcoming queer pride event in Dunedin, and the history behind it.

On the 28th June 1969 Stonewall, a prominent gay bar in New York, was raided by the police; the patrons of Stonewall resisted and five days of rioting ensued. At this time, police would regularly raid clubs, arresting people with no identification or those who broke the law regarding gendered clothing. In New York the law stated that one must wear a certain amount of clothing appropriate to one’s sex; women were required to wear at least 3 items of female clothing. The start of the ‘Gay and Lesbian’ civil rights movement is often linked with the Stonewall riots. Stonewall represented an instance of solidarity with global implications and was one of the catalysts for the rise of the Gay and Lesbian liberation movement in New Zealand.

This Sunday, 28th June 2009, Dunedin will hold a queer pride event, Stonewall Dunedin, to celebrate 40 years since Stonewall, to affirm diversity and to support queer* people in our community.

While this event will be a celebration of the queer community, the impetus for this event is not all positive. The majority of teenagers are quite excited around this time of year; it is school ball season. However, in Dunedin a number of schools have refused students the right to bring same-sex partners to their formal. This appears a blatant breach of an individual’s basic human right to not be discriminated against on the basis of sexual orientation.

The Star, a Dunedin community newspaper, devoted 5 pages to this issue. These policies, which deny students the right to bring same-sex partners to the school ball, demonstrate the disregard that our schools have for queer* students. These students face a myriad of discrimination within the school environment: bullying, both physical and verbal; heterosexism within sexual health education – hell – one could argue the entire curriculum is heterosexist! There is a general lack of affirming support for diversity within the school structure.

It is important to note, however, that some schools are making positive steps towards providing a safer environment for queer* students. The Star shows, for example, that some schools in the Dunedin area support diversity and allow young people to bring same-sex partners to school balls. However, such schools are by far the minority.

This is not a regional issue, nor is it a one-off issue. Last year a similar problem was faced by young people in Auckland where students had to sign a pledge stating they were same-sex attracted in order to bring a same-sex partner to their balls.

The question this raised for me was simple: We’re 40 years on from Stonewall and what has changed? Yes, we can argue that we ‘know’ homophobia and transphobia are wrong, and certainly the existence of same-sex attracted and gender/sex diverse people is more widely accepted. However, I ask – has homophobia and transphobia simply become more insidious? Are we actively affirming diversity? Are we supporting our kids, our young adults, and our adults in their sexuality and/or sex/gender? Or have we just become subtler in our discrimination?

In the last 40 years a lot has changed in New Zealand: we decriminalised homosexuality in 1986; same-sex couples were granted the ability have a civil union in 2004; the Human Rights Commission’s Trans Inquiry got reasonably positive press in 2008. It is certainly important to acknowledge these changes, however, the flipside is equally important to acknowledge. We still exist in a society where trans and same-sex attracted people are subject to physical and verbal abuse; ‘gay’ is consistently used as a derogative statement (along with countless other similar words and phrases); schools often do not acknowledge or allow their queer students to express themselves, let alone thrive; and it is acceptable to accuse Helen Clark of being a lesbian, as if it would be a bad thing if she were!

What I’m left with is that well-known phrase: ‘Houston, we have a problem’.

I may have a utopian vision for New Zealand, or quite possibly it is my left wing queer politics stamping its foot, but is it really too much to ask that we support our youth, our wider community, in their sexual orientation and their gender/sex expression?

The “Youth ’07 New Zealand Health and Wellbeing”i survey found that:
54% of queer youth had been hit or harmed compared with 42% of straight youth,
Of those who were bullied
- 5 times as many (33% vs 6%) were bullied because they were queer or because people thought they were queer,
- Queer youth are twice as likely as straight youth to have run away from home,
- Queer youth are 3 times more likely to get depressed than straight youth,
- Queer students were more than 2 times as likely to deliberately self-harm than straight youth (53% vs 19%),
- Queer youth are at greater risk of alcohol and drug misuse than straight youth,
- Queer youth were 3 times more likely to have had a sexually transmitted infection than straight youth.

Surely, these are indicators that something is not right in our schools and communities.

Numerous studies support the implementation of queer-positive (not simply queer-tolerant) policies within our schools. A 2006 study suggested that the process of dealing with queer identities, often without support, meant that young people were delaying other life skills, mainly, career development. The study showed that higher levels of support, including friends, role-models, family and staff, lead to a lessening of anxiety about self identity and therefore help in all round psychological development. Out-there, a joint Queer Youth Development project between the New Zealand AIDS Foundation and Rainbow Youth, is making a difference to queer youth as well as the Safety in Schools for Queers programme.

The impact of heterosexism is widespread; the assumption that everyone is ‘straight’ is just as damaging as blatant homophobia. Not allowing young adults to bring their same-sex partners to the ball, or having alternate policies for queer couples than straight ones, is discrimination. And what message is that teaching us? The message sent out to our young people, our teachers, and our wider community, whether queer or straight, is that we should not value diversity. I believe the way schools, universities, workplaces, etc. deal with sexuality and gender/sex affects everyone. We need environments where diversity is celebrated and respected.

So 40 years on from Stonewall, let’s celebrate what we have achieved, let us show young people that being queer* is ok, that sexuality and gender/sex diversity is something to celebrate. Let us all think about things we can do that will make a difference for our youth, for the queer community, and for encouraging acceptance of diversity in our wider community. If you are in Dunedin on Sunday between 12-3pm, come along to the Octagon (it is a straight-friendly event), and show your support for diversity.

Click through for the Facebook page for the event!

*Queer is a reclaimed word used to represent sexual/gender/sex diversity and includes anyone who identifies as lesbian, gay, bisexual, asexual, trans, intersex, takatāpui, fa’afafine, queer and questioning. It is acknowledged that Queer is not the preferred term for everybody.


Anonymous said...

For us heathens, can you please define what intersex and takatāpui mean?

Louise said...

Anon, thanks for question.
Intersex is a general term used for a variety of conditions in which a person is born with a reproductive or sexual anatomy that doesn’t seem to fit the typical definitions of female or male.
Takatāpui is a term used for Maori and Queer.
Hardly a heathen for not knowing :)