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“From the ages of about four til nine, I was basically transgendered. I wanted to be a boy. I always used to dress up in boys’ clothes and my mum would call me a girl and I would tell her off. I would insist that we go to the boys’ section all the time. I’d go to synagogue wearing a suit and a kippah and people would just look at me and my dad loved it and my mum hated it!”
Growing up, Nevo wanted desperately to belong.
“I didn’t fit in with the girls or the boys. I wanted to be with the boys. I’d buy cards and play with Pokémon and they always knew I was different, I always knew I was different. Girls never accepted me and were rude to me … There’s not much education about transgender when children are little. I was picked on a lot, and had to learn to stand up for myself.”
Nevo says that he developed “anger problems” and up until he changed schools mid-way through primary school, was starting to develop bullying tendencies of his own. But the move to the new school proved to be timely and transformative.
“I didn’t know what it was like to feel like it was OK to be me. And I didn’t know how to be incorporated into a friendship group because no-one had really accepted me before. So once I changed schools, I still had those bullying tendencies. And one of my friends turned around and said, ‘You’re giving me a bad reputation and if you continue to behave this way I’m not going to be friends with you anymore!’” Nevo smiles at that recollection.
“I realise now how much that changed me because from that day on I thought - I love this person and she’s made me feel really accepted and if I want to have her in my life, and if I want to evolve as a person, I have to stop treating people badly. And after that, everything just went up.”
Nevo recalls being invited to his first birthday party for one of his new friends.
“I dressed up in high heels and make-up and they just said, ‘Why are you dressed like that? No-one else is dressed like that!’ And I realised I didn’t have to pretend with these people … I don’t have to change who I am depending on people’s expectations of me.”
Nevo affectionately describes those early friends as “so weird” but qualifies that, saying, “Being around really individual people who were confident and proud of who they were, made me want to be the same, but in my own way.”
The new-found friendships were liberating and helped Nevo tap into a potential he’d never seen before.
“I think that when you stop obsessing about who you are and what people think of you, you’re free. I missed out on opportunities because of how insecure I was. You get to a point where you’re like – I can do so much good in my life, I can influence so many people in such a positive way, that those other things don’t matter anymore.”
Nevo went on to join a Jewish youth group in Elsternwick, Habonim, and in high school, became a group leader. I ask Nevo whether there are things that he’s conscious of wanting to teach his young charges, advice that perhaps he would have liked to have heard, when he was their age.
“For someone to tell me I was a good person. And I think when I was a kid, I would have liked to have heard: it gets better. And you think things suck now, and at the moment it’s just the worst thing that it could possibly be but it gets better and you move on. And then it’s years down the track and you don’t even remember, but you grow from it. And the person you become is shaped by everything you’ve experienced and every person you’ve ever met, so that’s what I want for these kids. I want to educate them and I want to show them that there’s a larger world out there.”
Looking back, Nevo also wishes that there had been no onus to “come out” in the first place.
“I think ideally - and I know it’ll take probably a long time for this to happen - but I don’t think children should have to come out. I think that coming out is almost a disgusting thing to expect from people. It’s so difficult to face and to have to do, and the idea that everyone is straight until proven otherwise is just ridiculous.
“I’m hoping that in the future when you get to puberty, your parents will just ask, “So who are you attracted to?” … I think it should be: ‘I like a girl.' … ‘Oh OK, great, have fun, don’t stay out too late!’ It should just be a blank slate.
“It’s something I really don’t like, when people say, ‘Oh you’re so brave! I can’t believe you came out!’ And it’s like – I’m not brave, I’m just me. And I just decided to tell people I’m me instead of trying to hide it.”
Listen to more of Nevo and mum Sharon's story in a compelling interview from ABC Radio National program, Life Matters, presented by Natasha Mitchell: ‘Losing a daughter, gaining a son: Nevo and Sharon’s transition story’.
I met Steph Meachen at Albury-Wodonga’s first ever Equal Love rally a few years ago. She was there with her schoolmates and they were impossible to miss – decked out from head-to-toe in all the colours of the rainbow, armed with adorable home-made banners, face paint and a healthy dose of outrage that this was a debate we were even having in 2013.
I was there with a camera and audio gear, producing a radio piece for Triple J’s Hack. As I snapped the crowd, I was struck immediately by the fact that the audience was made up almost entirely of teenagers. Where were their parents, teachers and community leaders? I wondered. With the exception of the gutsy local Anglican Archdeacon Peter Mcleod-Miller (who had controversially thrown his support behind gay marriage a few months earlier), the adult speakers present had mostly travelled from interstate to be there. There was LGBTI activist Carl Katter, Australian Marriage Equality’s Rodney Croome and Transgender Victoria’s Sally Goldner.
As I was recording vox pops with Steph and her friends, it occurred to me that marriage equality rallies in country towns around Australia could be providing an opportunity for same sex attracted and gender diverse youth to come together and mobilise in a way they’d never been able to before. Case in point: that first Albury Equal Love rally was the biggest ever public LGBTI gathering the Border had ever seen. (Hear/read that Triple J piece here).
Steph volunteered to be interviewed for Love in full colour and the following week, over lemon tart and coffee at an Albury cafe, she told me about her experiences at high school up to that point.
When the debutante ball was announced at her school, Steph went to the organising teacher and asked if she could bring a female. They were told they couldn’t go because "that was the tradition, end of conversation!” recalls Steph. Then, when Steph and Amber returned to the teacher to push the point, the teacher responded by banning them from the deb altogether. Up until that point, Steph’s back-up plan had been to bring her brother along, just so she could attend. But now that wasn’t an option either.
Steph had been dreaming about doing her deb for years. “When I was little, my grandma used to always talk about going to the deb and how great it was for young ladies. And because she wasn’t able to do it because of money and family issues, she really wanted her granddaughter to do it … she wanted me to wear her wedding dress or have a dress designed, and just be part of this beautiful ritual.
“It’s traditionally a woman’s coming-of-age and in Albury, it’s a big thing here. Every school has one. I really wanted to be able to do it and see what it was all about and be able to wear the white dress and feel like I’m part of something that women have been doing for hundreds of years.”
What ended up happening was that Steph stayed home while her friends got their hair and make-up done, posed for professional photos, travelled in limos, were presented to their communities and danced the night away.
“Seeing all their photos, they were so happy and having a great time, my friend and I just felt as though we’d missed out and it sort of … it wasn’t a nice feeling at all. We wanted to be able to have that fun night and feel special.”
Steph describes herself at that time as being “shy”. But after she attended the Same Sex Formal in Melbourne, things changed. At the end of that night, I recorded a quick vox pop with a beaming and breathless Steph, who said, “I didn’t realise that I’m a completely different person when I’m in this sort of environment to how I am at school and how I am with my other friends!” I asked her what she meant and she replied, “I was just a lot more open and happy and energetic and silly tonight!”
Being in a room with 600 strangers, she felt comfortable to be herself in a way she’d not even felt with her closest friends back home. It was as if a light had flicked on within her. Seeing the footage, you can see it on Steph’s face – there’s a kind of radiance, energy and confidence that wasn’t discernible when we recorded the interview with her at her home in Albury, 24 hours earlier.
A few weeks after the Same Sex Formal, Steph travelled back down to Melbourne, this time to attend an Equal Love rally there. She had been invited to represent LGBTI youth from regional areas and address a crowd of over 500 people. Her speech summarised beautifully the extent to which mainstream discourses from within media, education and politics intersect to create some powerful and insidious messages for many young LGBTI people:
“When I watch TV, I hardly ever see any relationships that resemble mine. When I’m bullied at school for being bisexual, the teachers turn a blind eye, and in some cases, like with banning me from going to my school deb, they actively discriminate. When I hear the prime minister and other leaders of our country say I don’t deserve equality, that I’m not allowed to marry the woman I love, it just drives the message home loud and clear: I’m not supposed to be seen, I’mnot supposed to be heard, I don’t deserve to be protected from harassment and bullying and my love, my relationship, doesn’t count for much at all.”
(At this point during the filming, the crowd cheered so loudly the audio peaked to the point of distortion.)
Steph continued: “Up until recently, I’d internalised a lot of those messages. I’d somehow absorbed the idea that I was worth less than other people. Then three things happened to me, in this order. I went to the Albury-Wodonga Equal Love rally; I fell in love with my current girlfriend and I went to the Minus18 Same Sex Formal in Melbourne, along with almost 600 other same sex attracted young people!”
In the wake of the formal and the rally, Steph proceeded to complete Year 12 and ramped up her own volunteering and activism. She teamed up with Erin Valkenburg (also in this film) and after attending a leadership workshop through the Foundation for Young Australians, they got busy starting up an LGBTI-friendly youth group. They handed out stickers to venues around town, stating that they were LGBTI safe spaces and they started marketing Albury’s Retro Youth Café as a safe, inclusive space for all.
And then, a year after she finished school, Steph told me that this happened:
“I just found out that for the first time in the school’s history, a young queer girl brought her girlfriend to the debutante ball.
“I also found out that one of the teachers was collecting newspaper articles I’d been in for my work as an LGBTI activist and he’d started a scrapbook with these things in it.
“Then the deputy principal came out and said that the school was a safe space for LGBTI young people and invited me to go back at some point and speak about my experiences as a young queer person and talk about that and show other students that it’s OK.”
Steph plays down the role her activism played in precipitating those changes, but I am less sceptical. Whether it was Steph’s questioning around attending the deb or her subsequent activism, or whether it was the building Equal Love movement and the media around it – or perhaps all these things agglomerated into a kind of zeitgeist – the point is, inertia is gaining pace and travelling in the right direction.
Steph’s now studying social work at Monash University in Melbourne and earlier this year was chosen to be the Diversity and Inclusion Officer on campus. This afternoon, in a delightful ‘coming full circle’ moment, I found myself back at an Equal Love rally, this time in Melbourne, with Steph there, and Carl Katter too – both of whom were at that first rally back in Albury. Being IDAHOT Day today, Steph had already run a successful rally on campus in Clayton that morning, then jumped on a bus into the city for the Melbourne rally, and was about to head back to college to organise LGBTI film screenings for tonight.
It occurred to me, seeing Steph today – strong and beautiful and confident and smiling - that although it can often seem like political and social change is maddeningly slow, things can change powerfully and quickly in the life of a person and even a school community. And the past few years in Steph’s story are a testament to that.
Content warning: this post refers to death and may be distressing for readers.
Jules was one of the first people to contact me about volunteering to be part of this film. Aged 17 at the time, I was struck by his quick wit, his lovely smile that made his eyes sort of twinkle, his generosity and unflinching honesty about what coming out had been like for him.
We filmed the interview with Jules in a studio warehouse, and a few times throughout the afternoon we were interrupted by the resident cat who had taken a singular shining to him. After jumping into his lap for the third time, mid-sentence, she had been removed to another part of the warehouse ...only to reappear in-shot a few moments later.
Jules, ever the professional, valiantly tried to keep on topic for as long as possible while this distracting little furball head-butted his legs. Only when she started meowing – incredibly loudly for such a tiny creature! - did he struggle to suppress a smile, and we needed to take five again to tend to the kitty.
When we first met back in 2012, Jules told me that he wasn’t yet “out” to his whole family. He said his dad didn’t know, his sisters did know and it “wasn’t an issue” for them, and as for his mum? “I think she does know, she might just not be admitting it or it might just be too awkward for us to talk about because there are very clear signs, you know? I enjoy my shopping, not to help the stereotype!” he said, smiling.
At school, Jules told me that by Year 9, he started to feel like his friends were drifting away from him. They’d go to parties on the weekend, he’d be too shy to go, they’d be talking about “getting chicks’ numbers” and going on dates and he felt a growing divide between them.
“I never felt the same as what I thought they did. I was never always happy and they always seemed to be happy…I did feel there was a bit of a difference between us. That there was nobody I could talk openly to without feeling like I’d be bagged or that word would get around and I’d become The Freak. And it was really that island that I felt between us, I felt that we were a world apart. That they were normal, just cos they liked girls and I didn’t.”
When Jules came out at school, he told me that he lost “about 80%” of his friends. He said he experienced verbal bullying, cyber bullying and “a very small amount of physical bullying” which he said was “not notable enough to have anything done about it.”
Jules didn't feel inclined to go to his teachers for help.
“I couldn’t approach them about stuff that was happening, you know, the way I felt…It sort of felt like they didn’t care and they just wanted to get in, do their job, then leave. Like they wanted to be as detached as possible. It was a Catholic school, so they didn’t want to have to face the Catholic church I guess…that’s almost what it felt like – that they wanted to protect themselves before they protected me or anybody else.”
But Jules was quick to point out that things weren’t all bad, and support came from some unexpected places.
“I turned mainly to my real friends. I really relied on them for support, knowing that they weren’t going to leave me or anything, that they were there and it was still the same. That’s the one thing that I didn’t really want to change…I guess that’s what everyone wants when they come out, you know, they want everyone to know, without having to hide, but they don’t want to be treated like they’re diseased.”
Jules also told a story about the head of the R.E. department who made a lasting impression on him.
“I thought that I would get more of a negative reaction from [her] but I was really surprised one day, a guy in class was picking on gay marriage and being gay. And it was directed at me but he was being really subtle and sneaky about it. And I was really shocked because the teacher just stood up for gay people in general, that there’s nothing wrong with it, it should just be part of life, that she doesn’t understand why the church has an issue with it. And I was really surprised by that because she does seem to be that really, you know, strict teacher. She’ll make you re-write something if your handwriting’s the slightest bit sloppy! So it was really empowering and a really great feeling to know that she was happy to stick up for just anyone like that.
“I really wanted to say something, but I didn’t want to ruin that moment. And I think she did do it for me because it was hard not to tell the gossip that was going on around the school, but she didn’t want to make it seem like - This is Julian, be careful around him, treat him differently, like on a loudspeaker. She just did it really subtly and it actually shut him up forever. I haven’t had any problems with him ever since that one lesson.”
Things shifted dramatically when Jules came across youth organisation Minus18 whilst googling “support forums” and “gay teens”.
“I found Minus, I thought it looked cool, I’ll check it out, so I became a member online. At first I didn’t go to the forums at all, I just thought they’re too confusing…so I just sort of looked at the events. And then I eventually relaxed a little bit and went on the forums, went on the general chat bit, started commenting on some posts, got some comments - Hey welcome, you’re new here! Stuff like that.”
After communicating with other members online, Jules went to his first Minus18 ‘speed friendship’ event in Melbourne.
“It was really cool, I went with my sister 'cos she was going to it anyway, so I sort of tagged along…I went to Parliament station and I was a little bit scared and nervous, you know, the big city, and this is two or three years ago now, and I went to the event, everyone was upstairs, chatting. I met some friends, started talking.
“It was kind of amazing, because I never sort of knew that there was something like that there. I was really isolated at school, I was that cliché thinking - nobody knows what I’m going through in the world. And then I found all these other people that are like me, and we sort of connected on that level that you never thought you’d connect with someone else like that.”
Not long after discovering Minus online, Jules began volunteering as a Minus18 committee member and became the dance party manager (which, if you have ever been to a Same Sex and Gender Diverse Formal, you will understand the phenomenal level of coordination and work that involves).
“I help plan all the parties we have every school holidays, organise the rosters, who’s going to do what on the night, help with the entertainment…I just make sure it all goes smoothly so I keep on top of people to make sure that if they have any questions I can help them out.”
I asked Jules what he loved about organising those social events for other young people at Minus, and he replied, “All the smiles on people’s faces!”
He believed deeply in the power of community events to bring people together. Midsumma festival, he thought, had the potential to become “just another part of Melbourne culture” where “two communities could become one”.
“Things are definitely getting better, with the increasing size of Minus18 and other queer groups in local councils. It’s really improving and growing, and I think in the next ten years, marriage will just be equal and I can just see that. And I think it’s going to be great!” he said.
Towards the end of our interview, I asked Jules about his personal dreams for the future.
“I want to join the police force and just work in there, not necessarily work my way up, but just keeping working in it for as long as I can…The variety of the job really appeals to me, in that today you may be going to help an elderly person who’s stuck in their home, and tomorrow you might be directing traffic in the centre of Melbourne. And you could meet hundreds of people in the one day, and you might only help that one person, but that’s still one person that you’ve helped. And you’re always going to be helping the community to better and improve and move on I guess.
“And then possibly when I retire, I’ll become a posty or a lollypop person!” he said, grinning.
I’d never met a young man so seriously committed to helping others and prepared to act on his convictions. A few months after our interview back in 2012, it was no surprise when I stumbled across an article in The Age that identified outstanding community volunteers - including Jules, who I learned had also been busy on the City of Kingston's Australia Day committee and helped organise music events for Bayside City Council.
Mid-way through last year I called Jules to touch base and give him an update on the film. He had moved out with his partner and was enjoying cooking, and working for Bunnings. He also spoke about time he’d spent on secondment working in Alice Springs, a place he’d loved. We chatted about our respective experiences in Alice and he said he’d be keen to maybe move back there one day. I asked him whether he’d be up for catching up once I moved back to Melbourne, and whether he’d be open to being filmed at his new place, and he obligingly said yes to both.
That was the last time I spoke with Jules. He took his own life a few months later, aged 19.
His death left his loved ones - family, friends, colleagues and the Minus18 community - utterly heartbroken.
It’s maybe as impossible as it is inevitable, for one to try and understand, to find ‘reason’ in suicide, particularly when the person was such a vibrant, special and deservedly lovedindividual as Jules was. One can’t point to the role played by any single factor that put him at risk, or that led to his mental health challenges in the first place. Whether there was a triggering event, ongoing social pressures, or the accumulated hurts from discrimination and rejection he’d experienced at such a formative and fragile time in his life - none of which he deserved.
But here’s what we do know: Since his interview in 2012, Jules had come out to his family and it had gone much better than he had expected. He is loved and missed by them dearly.
And here’s what else we know: while being same sex attracted or gender diverse does not, in itself, cause poorer mental health outcomes, the evidence is conclusive that exposure to, and ongoing fear of, discrimination and isolation can impact directly on people’s mental health. It can cause stress, psychological distress and at worst, when expert help and support is not secured in time, suicidality (Rosenstreich, 2011, p5).
So many of the young people involved in this film spoke of their experiences of isolation, rejection, bullying and discrimination. And they are not, unfortunately, the exceptions to the rule. Up to 80% of same sex attracted and gender questioning young people in Australia experience public insult; 20% - explicit threats; 18% - physical abuse (ibid).
Research shows that 80% of all homophobic and transphobic abuse happens at school. That’s preventable, and so is a great deal of the suffering that results from that abuse. The success of the Safe Schools Coalition program is proof of how much schools can transform their cultures, when the right education, leadership, support, policies and expectations are put in place and acted upon.
Jules was right though – although so much change still needs to happen, things are definitely getting better, due in no small part to the determination and efforts of brilliant, generous sparks like Jules to make a difference in the lives of other young people in our community.
If you or someone you know needs help, call:
• Emergency on 000 (or 112 from a mobile phone)
• Lifeline on 13 11 14
• Kids Helpline (for people aged 5 and 25) on 1800 551 800
• MensLine Australia on 1300 789 978
• Suicide Call Back Service on 1300 659 467
Young people can also access headspace online or Youthbeyondblue (for depression and anxiety and how to help a friend) or 1300 22 4636.
Up until he was ‘outed’ at school, Gordo had been dux of his year level. But then his once-fierce motivation vanished.
“I genuinely stopped caring. I didn’t study, I didn’t do homework. I stopped attending, I’d leave during class … I went on a spiral, that I didn’t really need to do anything with my life,” he recalls.
He was determined not to draw any more attention to himself, and that included going up on stage in assembly to receive academic awards.
“I’d get headaches with the stress of having to deal with things. I’d wake up in the morning and I’d feel really tired and I didn’t have the energy … it started to affect me physically as well as spiritually and mentally. It was like on all fronts I was being broken down.”
Gordo began to stay in bed longer, miss school. His grades dropped and his health declined.
“Every possible thing that could go wrong with my body would happen, just because I didn’t care anymore. And it translated to my body going – you’re over-stressed, you need to calm down.”
Gordo’s “spiral” was precipitated by coming out to a close friend.
“I told a single friend of mine and then by the end of the week, 2,000 students knew and they were all talking about it.
“In my first few days of being ‘out’ at school it was actually genuinely terrifying to be there … people used to spit on me when I’d walk to class … and I’d have notes passed around about what would happen if I went down a certain hallway… then this group will be waiting for me and they’ll get me.”
Gordo’s survival skills kicked in and he started to get strategic about where he went within the school, and when.
“I’d take back passages and go around the school and through the garden to get to classes so I’d always be late because of it, because I just didn’t want to risk anything. I knew people would do something if I walked down the wrong hallway.”
During lunchtimes, Gordo and his four good friends would retreat “to the edges of the school” because they didn’t really feel safe anywhere else.
What shocked Gordo was that he experienced fall-out not just from students but from teachers too.
“There were a few who treated me a lot worse than they used to … With some of them it was to really high levels. Like they’d go so far as to avoid eye contact with me. Even if they were teaching me, if there was a group of kids being not nice, they’d say nothing.
“Or if I asked for help, they’d be like, ‘ I can’t help you with this’ and then I’d see somebody next to me with the exact same problem getting all the help they needed.”
Gordo went to a public school and was mystified at how many of his teachers behaved.
“They kind of acted as though I wasn’t there any more … And I would not attend some days and there would be just no difference whatsoever. I don’t know why they thought it would be OK, because it wasn’t a religious school, there was really no explanation of why they were getting away with it.”
Gordo said that he did have “strong support” from some teachers, and his family were fine with the idea of him being gay. But he didn’t let them in on the extent of what he was going through at school because he didn’t want to put them through “the stress and emotional issues” of what he was contending with.
Like so many of the other young people in this film, Gordo’s life changed dramatically when he found a place to belong. He saw a Minus18 poster at his school, hopped on the website and started chatting to others on the forum and eventually went to his first event.
Meeting others and hearing their experiences helped him get perspective on his own situation.
“There were people who’d been through a lot worse than me, and they were still able to go to school and they still stood strong, they still studied. And I’d hear their dreams for the future and I’d think – well if they can do that, and if they’ve gone through worse, why can’t I do the same? So from talking to them, I thought about my own life and where my life was going, and I thought - yeah, I can actually do something with this.
“I thought – I can go to university, I can study, I can do the best in my exams, I can do it. Then I started going to school again and I stopped caring about what people said. I had my friend group and I was happy with that.”
Gordo went on to study journalism at university and he believes his experiences at high school have helped him to become a better writer.
“I like the idea of writing to change how someone feels or provoke an emotion … I guess with my experiences and my passion for social justice, a lot of it comes from knowing what it feels like to be oppressed, to be a minority. If I hadn’t been through what I’d been through, I’d be a lot more boring. I feel like how I am now, I have a passion for so much, and I care so much about the world and the people in it.
“I just feel like without feeling what [oppressed communities] would have felt, I don’t know how you can report on it, how you can understand and sympathise with them. I can do that now and that’s going to stay with me for the rest of my life, wanting to help people and be there for them, and hoping – even just the smallest bit – hoping to change the world somehow.”
He believes that change is underway, and sees equality for same sex attracted and gender diverse people as inevitable.
“Societies and cultures change so much, and in the short amount of time, even ten years ago, nothing like [Minus18] could have happened ... Now, everyone knows a gay person, everyone has a gay friend or a gay family member.
“I guess now, especially with the politicians, we have the last of the anti-gay generation just fading out, and really, that’s about the main issue gone! Once the older generation either changes how they feel or they just kind of stop living, that’s kind of how the best change can happen!”
“For the majority of my high school I was in fight-or-flight mode. Like, every day there was a level of anxiety and fear of what was going to be done next. It really did feel like all I had to do was survive and just get out of there.”
Nick went to an elite private school that he asked me not to name. It’s not often that I hear stories that make me want to ambush a principal in a school carpark with a burly camera crew in tow. It’s not that kind of film of course, but the extent to which Nick’s school not only failed to protect him from daily bullying, but actively and systematically condoned it, constituted a disgraceful abuse of power and a willful abrogation of their duty-of-care - which I hope, one day, they are called on to account for.
Nick's experiences reminded me of a 2012 Rolling Stone article, ‘One town’s war against against gay teens’. It’s a heartbreaking account of the tragic and catastrophic consequences of a school staff and council turning a blind eye to homophobic bullying within the school.
This is what happened to Nick when the school announced the date for the school formal:
“It was a normal day, I was just sitting in class. And the senior staff member knocked on the door, asked to speak to me, pulled me outside the class. I just remember it because we didn’t go to his office, we didn’t really move. It was just the glass and everyone could see the conversation happening. And he was asking me if I was going to the formal. And I said no, and he said, ‘Well that’s good because if you felt like bringing a male partner, or your boyfriend, they wouldn’t be welcome. You wouldn’t be welcome there with them.
"The reason that he gave was that it didn’t align with the school’s values and that it would make other people uncomfortable.
“The fact that he did it – it felt like he was doing it in front of them. There were the glass windows and all I wanted to do was just break down and cry but I couldn’t because everyone was watching. So I had to go back into class and pretend that nothing was wrong.”
If bullying, by definition, is about repeated behaviour that is harmful and involves the misuse of power by an individual or group towards one or more persons, then Nick was bullied at school – and it wasn’t just by the students.
“The bullying that I went through at high school, it just had so many varied forms. It did get physical in the locker rooms, there were punches thrown and I’d get pushed around, books knocked out of my hand, things thrown at me.
“Every day somebody would say something or do something … A lot of the time, people would make cracks about my sex life, and just being gay, derogatory comments about me … and they’d say it in a roomful of people and the teacher would be there, writing on the board, and they would just ignore it. They’d pretend it wasn’t a problem and then as soon as I said something, like stuck up for myself, I was in trouble. As soon as I acted up, I was sent out of the classroom, I was disciplined.”
There was the English teacher who told Nick: “You need to not write like a girl.” And when Nick asked what he meant, the teacher replied, “I don’t care what you do in your personal life, but if you want to do well in this class, you need to be more masculine.”
There was the time in the quadrangle when a gust of wind collected a pile of exam papers and Nick set about picking them up.
“There was just the verbal abuse because I was bending over to pick the papers up, it meant I was gay … I was wanting [the other students] to sleep with me. I got things thrown at me, I was heckled. I just remember the teachers were laughing at what was being said.
“What they were doing to me stripped me of power and dignity … I don’t think I ever actively reported bullying to the teachers because they saw it. I saw them laugh at it, it felt like they were sort of taking part in it so reporting it didn’t feel like an option.”
Things hit rock bottom when Nick came out to his best friend.
“He’d been my best friend for as long as I could remember. We’d spent so much time together, his house, my house. He was like my brother. Coming out to him, we went from talking every day, seeing each other every day, being part of my friendship group to - like I didn’t exist, like I was a stranger … Literally the next day: zero contact. Texts, phone calls, messages were ignored, he ignored me at school.”
I asked Nick whether he called his friend out on his behaviour. And he replied that he didn’t, because by that stage his self-esteem was so low that his friend’s reaction confirmed what he already thought about himself.
“That was probably my lowest point because I thought - if someone who was meant to be my best friend couldn’t accept me, then how could anyone?”
Nick says that what got him through that time was his “click” of friends who “were like my centre, my rock” and “a select few” teachers “who were in my court”. But he points to three things that would have made a huge difference.
“The first definitely would have been a zero tolerance [of bullying] from the teachers. Just not having them condone that behaviour that I had to experience.
“Being able to go to my high school formal with my date … to be able to take my partner, to dance, to have fun and for it to not be an issue – it would have meant everything.
“And I guess also just the curriculum, to make it more inclusive. Everything from history to sex ed, to not just include heterosexuality in all that, to have more of a holistic view. That would have made an astronomical difference.”
Nick is currently studying psychology and volunteers on a telephone crisis helpline.
“A lot of that is about wanting to help young people that are going through the same thing that I went through, and using my experiences to help them and guide them through it. And to be the support that I felt like I didn’t have.
“I don’t think some people realise how high the stakes are.”
As for the Rolling Stone article I mentioned at the start of this post, after that story went to print, the Southern Poverty Law Center and the National Center for Lesbian Rights launched a lawsuit against the school district on the grounds that it failed to stop what it called 'repeated anti-gay bullying endured by six students at school'. The suit focused blame on a district policy governing staff members' stance on LGBT issues. That policy has since been rescinded. A 2013 Twin Cities news article summed up the changes already seen: ‘Though frustrations remain and viewpoints on the issue are nuanced, most people plugged in to the push for change in the district agree that while there is still a ways to go, life for LGBT students is getting better.’
It raises the question of what kind of legal precedents might be around the corner in Australia, when it comes to those schools, like Nick's, that systematically fail in their duty-of-care to provide a safe and inclusive environment for SSAGD students.
This story might just turn upside down any assumptions you had about religious schools and their treatment of same sex attracted and gender diverse students.
Margot went to a progressive Jewish high school in Melbourne and in Year 12, specialised in art and media subjects. For one of her major assessment pieces, she photographed herself “dressed in drag” and printed it as a larger-than-life sized canvas. Margot’s art teacher was so proud of the piece that she organised for it to be hung prominently in the front entrance of the school, for all the students, staff and visitors to behold.
Margot told me that in passing once, and a few months ago I found myself recounting it to somebody I had just met at the screening of the first pass of Love in full colour at the Melbourne Queer Film Festival.
“Oh!” she said, with a half-smile on her face. “That teacher was me!”
I really wanted to hug this special lady.
Margot’s story got under my skin a little bit, in a good way, I think because it’s one of those examples of how a very simple act by a person in authority can create powerful, immeasurable ripples; whether that act is a giant self-portrait like Margot’s, or a ground-breaking TV series like The L Word, or a Pride Cup football match like the one we saw last weekend in the Yarra Valley.
We are hard-wired to perceive and interpret the meanings embedded in symbols and symbolic acts like that. Growing up, Margot remembers being very conscious of them.
“Seeing celebrities who’ve come out or who are advocates for equal marriage rights, it’s definitely going to help any young person. Seeing people who are successful and adored by the media and society makes you feel a part of the community, rather than a kind of oddball.”
On the flipside of that, the political becomes personal when young people questioning their sexuality and gender hear people in power pushing hateful messages.
“When I started to see these people – politicians, people in the media - who were so outwardly outraged and in absolute abhorrence of same sex attracted people, it was really scary to think – here are these people, they’ve never met me, they don’t know who I am, they don’t know what I’m like, and yet they despise me. They despise the idea that I could have the same rights as them, they despise the very fact that I was born like this, that I have developed like this, and that I like and love people of the same sex.
“And it kind of sends this message to young people: you are different, you are weird, you should be afraid. And I think that’s really terrible, it’s destructive, and it’s not at all something that anyone should have to see or feel or hear.”
Margot is quick to refute the idea that religion in itself is the problem.
“I think people fear things they don’t understand and while they’ll often use religious, moral or ethical beliefs to defend those arguments, they really come from a very different place. They come from a place of fear and ignorance.”
And Margot is quick to call out the absurdity of using religious texts to justify bigotry.
“There’s certainly parts of religion that we abandon. I mean, we don’t keep slaves anymore! So it really is a bit of a pick-and-choose type thing … I think as someone who’s grown up within a religious community, with a few other friends who’ve come out, I think we’ve been a great part of that community in that we’ve added that diversity.”
Margot says that while her school was always “quite good” when it came to providing an inclusive environment, she has noticed real improvements since it signed up to the Safe Schools Coalition (SSC), an organisation dedicated to reducing homophobia and transphobia in schools, and making them safer, happier and more inclusive places. Among other things, SSC runs staff and student professional learning programs and provides schools with resources like posters aimed at promoting messages of diversity in a highly visible way.
Since joining SSC, Margot’s school helped students to establish a Gay-Straight Alliance group and teachers became more explicit in their support of same sex attracted and gender diverse students – including letting them know outright that they were welcome to bring a partner to school social events.
"Ever since then, whatever traces of homophobia were there have just kind of vanished,” smiles Margot. “Now, if anyone says anything [homophobic or transphobic], both gay and straight students are very vocal. They say, ‘No, that’s wrong, you can’t say that! That’s horrible!’ and it’s really great to have that now.”
But Margot knows that the majority of schools still have a long way to go.
“There’s been such progress in schools in the last few decades around racial and ethnic diversity … We’re sort of on the precipice, we haven’t quite reached the point where you’ll see a teacher outwardly saying, ‘No, you can’t call that kid gay, you can’t say faggot.’
“It’s a bit haphazard when and where a student can feel safe being same sex attracted and gender diverse, whereas virtually any school in Melbourne nowadays, it’s very difficult to be That Racist Kid because you will get suspended if not expelled very quickly.
“Staff need to be aware that it’s of the same importance to celebrate sexual diversity and gender diversity in the way that cultural diversity is now so celebrated and embraced.”
In Victoria at least, we might be a step closer to seeing Margot’s dream realised. Earlier this year, the State Labor Government announced that it would fund the Safe Schools Coalition program to run in every single public secondary school in the state. (Read more here.) That means that every secondary student, and many of their teachers,in the public sector will be provided with the type of training, advice and resourcing that made such a difference in Margot’s school.
You can read more about Margot’s story in a beautiful, uplifting feature in today’s Age by Clare Kermond: ‘I was always a girl: the journey of a transgender child’.
“I was completely blind. I didn’t see it coming and I guess it was like BAM! It just kind of hit me. You get swept off your feet. I felt like I could do anything, like I could be anyone. Like I could just race for miles, fly in the skies.
“It was crazy and bizarre. It was beautiful.”
That’s Erin on the first time she fell in love.
She took her girlfriend to their Year 9 social, but in stealth.
“My girlfriend at the time was in the closet and … and it was kind of like - we’ll just go into the darkness and hold hands for a couple of seconds! That was my formal I guess, and we had to hide.”
Erin grew up in Wodonga on the Victorian/New South Wales border.
“I think living in a small town definitely affects youth a lot more. Not only being queer but going to school, maybe not fitting in, you know, socially … I had the challenges of living with two disabled parents and I guess I found out young that I was definitely different and different wasn’t accepted.”
When Erin, aged 13, came out to her mum, she got a dinner plate thrown at her head. But – as in any story – context is everything.
“I think what sparked that [reaction] was the fear of my life being difficult. She grew up in a wheelchair, she wanted it to be easy for me. She didn’t want me to have to go through the struggles that she did and you know, now that I’m different it’s kind of like – it’s not going to be easy for her. She might get bullied.
"And she’s a lot older than most mums. She grew up in that era where being gay wasn’t spoken of, it was completely taboo and she didn’t know how to accept it or how to really look at it.”
Love and empathy, on both sides, helped them to get through that. “It’s good now," smiles Erin. "Things have worked out.”
But school was a different story. Erin and her ‘different’ friends were taunted “day in, day out” by a group of 15 to 20 students.
“They would just continuously go on and on about how we should just go kill ourselves, go die,” she says.
One time, Erin had had enough. She made a formal complaint against some of the older students – which her teacher refused to act on.
“I said, ‘Why?’ and she said, ‘Because it would ruin their reputation. It wouldn’t look good on their records.’ They were Year 12s, they were finishing school. I assume she wanted them to go on and have some sort of a life and career and to have a formal complaint through either the police or from a student wouldn’t exactly look the best.”
Erin felt she had no avenue to take it further, so she left it there. Things escalated.
“The bullying was those constant noises in the back of your head that were like, no, you don’t deserve to be here. And I’d go home at night and think about well, do I deserve to be here?”
The way she describes it, going to school was like navigating a minefield.
“In terms of trying to get myself up for school, it was hard. You just didn’t want to wake up, you just thought – I’m not going to do this today, why should I? And then you walk to school and you think it’s OK, you think – I haven’t got that class today, I don’t have to deal with them. I can just detour and walk down the hallway instead of walking outside where they are, walking past the cafeteria. You’re constantly watching your back.”
I ask Erin what made a difference in her life during that time. She immediately replied, “Good friends, my partner and ‘gay camp!’”
It so happened that Erin found herself one day at Gateway Community Health in Wodonga, searching for something. She didn’t want counselling, she knew there were no queer youth groups anywhere in the region - she just wanted to find some kind of connection. One of the Gateway workers told her about “gay camp” which was happening in a week’s time and put her in touch with the Way Out Rural Youth Council for Sexual Diversity.
A week later, Erin remembers having “the best time of my life” alongside 30 other young people from around the state. The Way Out project was set up to improve mental health outcomes amongst same sex attracted and gender diverse youth in regional Victoria, and Erin felt like she’d come home.
“They’re like a little family in their own way, they’re incredible. The people, their minds, their knowledge, their support and guidance. They’re just fantastic.”
During the camp, Erin and the other participants were encouraged to think about ways they could make a difference in their communities.
“I definitely know that if it wasn’t for the online meetings and going to gay camps and having those face-to-face meetings, I don’t think I would have pulled through that grey area in my life,” says Erin. “To have all these great minds come towards me … it helped to put me back on track and to think positive.”
Erin returned home from that first camp with a fire in her belly. And she got busy. Really busy. She successfully gained a place on the Wodonga Council’s Youth Leadership Program, she set up a youth group called JITA, was selected for a ‘Change it Up’ training run through the Foundation for Young Australians, got active in the Equal Love on the Border campaign, and later teamed up with Steph Meachen and Gateway Health to start up ‘Alphabet crew’, the first ever LGBTI youth group on the Border.
She’s currently studying a Diploma of Community Services at TAFE, with a view to becoming a youth worker.
Erin credits her mum for teaching her to follow her passion, have respect and be true to herself.
“Seeing my mother … it’s taught me to really just be kind and passionate and thankful for what you’ve got. We’re individual for a reason because it makes us who we are. We’re all beautiful in our own ways.”
Invisibility was a key theme that ran throughout Michael’s interview for Love in full colour. An overwhelming feeling of being invisible at school, in public life and in the media.
“Teachers would just kind of pretend that there weren’t any gay kids at the school. Even when you look at the sex ed program, there are no same sex issues covered in sex ed whatsoever, and it just got to the point where I was feeling like the school was deliberately erasing me instead of just trying to ignore me.”
That process of being ignored and erased manifested in different ways.
There were the times when Michael was getting harassed via threatening notes left on his school locker and abusive text messages sent at night, and the year level coordinator’s response was: "I don’t think we can do anything about it."
“It’s probably more that the school felt that the most politically correct way to deal with things was to turn a blind eye to it … but it ended up having the effect where it was actually really negative.
"Towards straight kids, it sends a message that being gay or trans is something bad and it’s OK to pick on those people because no one’s going to try and stop you.”
Equally flawed rationale found expression in the classroom as well. Michael remembers a Legal Studies class where a formal debate about marriage equality ended up provided a sanctioned platform for the opposition to rant about how “abnormal”, “unnatural” and “weird” homosexuality was.
When Michael tried to call his classmates out on their opinions, the teacher defended them on the dubious grounds that every viewpoint is valid.
“These comments don’t seem like a big deal but they’re kind of where all the homophobia is rooted from, so it does feel like a big deal when you’re the one that they’re talking about,” says Michael, who came out initially as bisexual, and later, as trans.
“I just changed my name and gender on Facebook and people kind of got the idea!” he says.
Although Michael says that it’s been “mostly a positive experience”, the intrusive questioning can wear thin.
“There have been so many times where, coming out to people, the first response I get is asking about surgery and hormones. It makes me fairly uncomfortable because you don’t want to tell people - who you’re not even that close to - what you may or may not be doing to your genitalia in the future!
“People seem to have this assumption that coming out as trans means that I’m open to all questions about trans identity. And I know you get that a bit with sexuality as well, but there seems to be so many more questions with trans issues because there’s a whole process to it, it’s not just about who you’re dating.”
For Michael, a more diverse and inclusive media could make “a huge difference” on this front.
“Trans people are treated like this kind of abnormality. Most people have never met anyone else who’s openly trans so they feel obliged to try to understand my identity by prying into it, and they don’t understand that that’s actually insensitive in itself.”
Diversifying media representations could not only help to raise awareness and educate the general public, it could also play a powerful role in affirming and validating trans people’s identities.
“Every couple, every movie, it’s always a straight couple and it gets to a point where you look at that stuff and you think – where’s my representation? Am I not part of what’s going on around me at all? And you can internalise those kinds of messages really strongly and it can just turn into a self-loathing that you don’t even completely understand where it came from any more.”
Michael explains that it takes a conscious effort to protect himself from the potential impact of those perfidious messages.
“I’m very invested in media and I think I’ve managed to step away from it to some extent because I analyse it so much and because I’m so heavily aware of what those messages are. But I can see how they could grow into something so much more negative, and it could hurt me so much more than it does now.”
He cites the trans character of ‘Adam’ in the TV show Degrassi as an example of how media can get it right.
“I’m constantly trying to find characters that I identify with and it was an amazing feeling to be able to watch a show and just not have to search for it, because it was just given to me, the whole character as someone I can connect with … They look at what transphobia is doing to him but they also show how he can overcome that and not many shows do that.”
While Michael credits the media to be gradually improving, there are still high-profile examples of how, even ostensibly inclusive films, can end up sending ambiguous and outright negative messages.
“There’s a film called Tomboy which I absolutely loved, but the basic conclusion of the film was that he goes back to living as a girl because everyone around him makes him do that. It kind of suggests that conforming is the safest option rather than suggesting that living as yourself is what’s best for you.
“People don’t realise how hurtful that kind of thing can be, because you’re finally finding a representation of yourself in the media and then it’s just cut down.”
It’s perhaps not surprising that Michael is channeling his outrage at mainstream media’s shortcomings into a determination to make a mark on that landscape himself – and giving a voice, hope and information to other young trans people in the process.
At the time of filming, Michael ran a blog on Tumblr on “social justice, political activism and mostly trans issues” and currently writes for the Minus18 website on a range of relevant and timely subjects, including the Oxford dictionary’s addition of gender neutral titles, tips for young trans people on ‘Seven ways to bind your chest’ and a terrific piece on African-American trans woman Laverne Cox, from Orange is the New Black.
“High school? For a while I just tried to pretend that it was a six year bad dream. I was always just the different one.”
When I first interviewed Maddy in 2012, she was in her final year of a primary teaching degree and had been volunteering for Minus18 for four years. She takes us back so poignantly to that often lonely limbo between childhood and adulthood, when you’re unconsciously seeking out role models, and even just the right words, to understand who you are and what you feel.
“I went from your average suburban primary school, co-ed, to an all-girls high school. And whereas I’d had an almost exclusively male friendship group in primary school, suddenly I was around all these teenage girls and I didn’t know what to do!
“I felt like everyone had been taken away for a lesson on how to be a teenage girl and how to talk to people, what the priorities were, what you were meant to feel and think and do, and I’d missed it entirely. I didn’t get anyone. I’d made a few friends but I was always a bit of an outcast, even in my group of friends.”
Coming out to her friends triggered a gradual and almost imperceptible arctic drift.
“My friends stopped inviting me to after-school things, like hanging out on weekends. They stopped being really physically affectionate with me. We were never that huggy a group of friends, but now they weren’t hugging me at all.
“There wasn’t that much outright bullying, but I knew that I was not accepted at all by a lot of people and there was a lot of bitching behind my back.”
Maddy pulled away. “I didn’t want to rock the boat I suppose. A part of me really wanted to call people out on it, on being nasty to me, but I figured it was safest to just kind of stay on my own, stay in my own little corner.”
Then came a book, an online forum and three teachers. These elements unexpectedly came to form a kind of lynchpin for Maddy.
“I didn’t know what my sexuality was exactly, but I knew that I liked girls. And I’ve always been a reader. I knew intellectually that I wasn’t the only queer teenager around, but I wanted to find something, a book, that would help me.
“The first one I found, I was about 15. I had to order it in Dymocks. I was so shy, I was at the shop counter reading the name off a little piece of paper saying, ‘Oh yeah, it’s for a friend, it’s a birthday present.’ That was the first time I’d done anything that would make someone else think I was gay, so that was a big step, just buying it. And then I got home and I read it three times in one day because I thought – this is me! The main character in the book was a bit of an outcast and I’d gone through the exact same thing. Instead of boy meets girl, this was a girl trying to figure herself out.”
From reading, Maddy then started writing. She discovered an online forum where others shared their stories and connected, and it was a revelation.
Many of the young people I interviewed for Love in full colour recalled how they’d ‘talk’ with other same sex attracted and gender diverse people through the Minus18 forum first, and how making those friends online helped give them the courage to attend their first MInus18 event in person.
Maddy also credits her sister and parents as being “fantastic” about her coming out, and remembers three teachers at school who made a huge impact on her.
“My Maths teacher in Year 7 would sit down with me at lunchtime when I was having real troubles with friends. She’d talk to me and help me out when I was having a really bad day.
“Then there was my English teacher. I still have somewhere something I’d written in class when we had to write something on this general topic of education. But I began writing this piece about how alone I felt at school and how pointless I found things and she wrote a full page of comments on my piece, saying ‘It gets better, it will get better for you. You are much better than you think and you can come and talk to me at any time.’
“In Year 11, my English teacher was gay and I came out to him. He helped me with some relationship issues I was having and gave me the courage to come out to my parents. Having teachers like that was so much of a help. I miss the teachers so much more than I miss the students at high school! I want to be one of those teachers that kids can talk to and trust.”
Maddy believes that education lies at the heart of social change.
“When I was at primary school, it was a very heteronormative environment. If you were doing dancing lessons, girls would line up here, boys would line up here, and you’d be paired up. I want to change that a bit, I don’t want gender to be separating kids.”
Maddy’s teaching rounds have already given her hope that attitudes are shifting.
“In a Grade 5/6 class, the topic of sexuality came up and every single one of the students said that they wouldn’t care if someone they knew was gay. My favourite quote was when one girl said, ‘If my brother was gay, I wouldn’t hate him, I’d give him a coming out party!’
“I want to see more of that. I want kids to know that it’s OK to be who you are. If you’re a tomboy or a boy who’s a bit more feminine, or if you don’t feel like you’re a boy or a girl, that’s fine. I don’t want kids to grow up thinking: there’s husbands and wives, there’s boys and girls, and that’s it.”
Maddy is a regular presenter on JOY FM and has since qualified as a teacher. She is now studying for a Masters of Adolescent Health and Wellbeing with a view to becoming a school welfare officer. Listen to Maddy's recent JOY FM interview about Love in full colour.
A teacher of Harry’s once covered the school in posters depicting two men holding hands and a big cross through it. Harry describes his high school as “quite religious” and admits that was “probably a bad starting point for the whole gay thing”.
But there’s a twist in this story.
On the same day the teacher had been getting busy with his blu tack and bigotry, the principal happened to be hosting a tour of parents around the school and unbeknownst to the principal, the posters were everywhere. Ouch.
Ten students wrote letters of complaint and the principal ordered the teacher in question to provide each of those students with a written apology, and meet with them one lunchtime to apologise in person. Only instead of meeting with those ten, “about half the school turned up to make a stand against what he had done!” smiles Harry.
“It was completely overwhelming, just to know how many people were so supportive and didn’t accept the perspective that this teacher was forcing on people. For him to be making other people feel inadequate and not normal was just terrible and the backlash that it received was very warming for me.”
Harry feels like he has come a long way in the past few years.
“Back in Year 9, I really didn’t feel comfortable in being who I was. And I really didn’t understand who I was. So my solution to that was just not bothering with socialising, not bothering with meeting new people and stepping over the line, pushing boundaries.
“I holed myself up in my room. I was grateful for living in Torquay at that time because there’s less people there. I didn’t really see anyone, I never really left the house. I never had friends over, I just stayed in my room playing World of Warcraft, having no life whatsoever.”
The school’s stance on same sex attraction and gender diversity wasn’t, for the most part, as overt as the posters. It featured the kind of moralising that can amalgamate into the fabric of classes and curriculum like quicksilver; hard to point to, rapidly absorbed and insidious.
“Just being told that I can’t be who I am, that you can’t do this, you can’t do that - but a lot of those things were what I was. It was a large factor in pushing me further into the closet.
“When people would ask if I was gay, I’d deny it. I’d say, ‘Absolutely not! How could you think that? Has somebody been spreading rumours?’ Then I’d go home and cry, I’d take weeks to get over it. And this kind of led to the whole social anxiety type thing, not wanting to expose myself to people because I was afraid that they were going to ask me if I was gay or judge me.”
What changed for Harry was coming out to a friend, who then coaxed him along to a Minus18 event for same sex attracted and gender diverse youth in Melbourne.
For the young high school student from the small town on the surf coast, that night was a circuit breaker.
“Well it was so bewildering, just looking around and seeing all these people and thinking: these look like normal people but they’re just like me! And up until then, I didn’t consider myself normal at all. I thought I was completely different from everyone else on the planet.
“Just looking around and seeing people enjoying life, I thought - I can do this too, I don’t have to be some reclusive person, not seeing anyone, not talking, having no life.
“Without Minus, I really wouldn’t be where I am today. I used to be so down in the dumps, depressed, not wanting to be alive, that kind of thing. And having all these new friends and not feeling so isolated and alone in my own little world, I’m just so thankful for everything that’s happened.”
Harry’s ‘own little world’ has already expanded to include possibilities that back in Year 9, sitting alone in his bedroom, he couldn’t have even imagined.
“At school I do Japanese and business management, so I’m hoping to incorporate that into my future degree if I get into uni. So yeah, here’s hoping.”
Domi’s coming out story is pretty cool.
“I figured: if I’m going to come out, I want to do it as few times as possible because I just can’t be bothered!” she laughs.
The disclosure came during a personal development session that was being run for all the Year 9s at her school. It was aimed at promoting friendship and well-being. And the students were opening up to each other about all sorts of things.
“Girls admitted to stealing other people’s boyfriends! And others talked about having bulimia, things like that,” Domi recalls. “And by the end of it, I was really comfortable with everyone in the room so I was just like - well, this is a good time! So I stood up, and I just said, ‘By the way everybody, I’m gay!’”
She laughs at the memory, but she hasn’t forgotten that in that moment, she felt something more akin to terror.
“I was shaking, I almost passed out, but I was like - no no, I’m staying here. And then I felt really quite relieved because I’d been holding that in for a couple of months, so to just let it out felt really good. I felt free.”
Domi knew that by telling all 60 of her classmates at the one time, word would get around to the rest of the staff and students pretty quickly. It did.
“There were people who I wasn't really fantastic friends with were emailing me going, ‘Are you sure you’re ok? That was a really brave thing of you to do. If you need to talk to someone, I’m here for you.’ Everyone would just come up and give me hugs!”
And Domi’s big news seemed to spark epiphanies in others too. “A few people have come up to me and said, ‘Yeah, I think I’m bisexual. I hadn’t thought about it but now that you’ve said you’re gay, I’ve started to think about it and maybe I am too!’”
Domi’s teachers didn’t just ‘tolerate’ sexual and gender diversity in the school. When the principal heard on the grapevine that Domi had come out, she saw it as an opportunity to update the school’s policy and curriculum.
“My school has put me in this great position where I’m currently working with them to write a program on homophobia to teach to Year 9 and 10 students, to talk about what language is OK to use and about safe relationships. All the things that aren’t brought up in ‘normal’ safe sex classes, as well as just telling people that being gay is OK, and there are so many different orientations, straight’s not the only one.”
When word reached Domi’s family, she found their reactions both amusing and startling.
“My mum goes, ‘I KNEW IT!’ and I’m like, ‘What mum?’ And she was like, ‘I said to your dad when you were in about Year 5, I wouldn’t be surprised if Domi likes girls!’ And it turned out, she was right but she didn’t think to tell me or anything!
“And then my gran found out and she goes, ‘You know Domi, if I hadn’t met your granddad, I’d probably be with a woman right now!’ and I was like, ‘Oh gran, really?! I didn’t want to know that!' She’s like, ‘Be thankful to your granddad that you even exist!’”
It’s not being melodramatic to say that many young lives are held in the balance by this delicate combination of variables – whether your friends, your school, your family will support you, regardless of who you love and how you identify. Domi doesn’t take her experience for granted.
“I’m really glad to have had the people I’ve had at school with me, because my experience could be so much worse,” she says. “I know a lot of people who don’t have the support, and if everybody else is saying that what you are is wrong, then it starts to get into your mind as well and that’s not a good place to be.
“If other people just take it in and go, ‘Oh, OK, no problem’, then it doesn’t matter to me either. It becomes a bit of a non-issue if nobody else is bringing it up and you can put it to the back of your mind, and it’s not weird if you’re saying you like a girl, instead of a boy.”
Back in early 2012, just after I’d read a small news article about the upcoming Same Sex Formal, I put a call-out through the Minus18 online forum, asking for volunteers to be interviewed for a doco film. I had no idea whether anybody would respond. To my astonishment, within the first day or two of the invitation being up, 11 people had already emailed to say yes.
And Edward McAndrew was the first! In the first of this series of blog posts on each of the phenomenal young people in this film, I thought it would be fitting that Edward should be the first cab off the ranks.
One of my favourite moments during filming was on the dance floor of the Same Sex Formal in 2012. Our production manager Amy had pulled off the impossible and managed to round up almost all our interviewees from the crowd of around 500 patrons, and gather them together at the edge of the dance floor for us to film them busting their moves. (We didn’t have consent to film anybody else at the formal, so we had to get creative about how we navigated that!)
There we were, with our two cameras and our hand-held light shining on just our little group and everyone was being a terribly good sport and they were dancing and dancing. And as you'd expect, over time there was a kind of natural attrition as they gradually peeled off in twos and threes to hydrate, rest their feet and say hello to the lolly buffet. But not Edward McAndrew. He and his friend were the Duracell bunnies of the dance floor.
This was a high-cardio twerking/crumping/swing mash-up that would leave even aerobics icon Richard Simmons breathless (to really feel that analogy, watch this). Just when it looked like they might be slowing down, SIA or Beyonce would blast through the speakers and they’d be off again.
At that formal, Edward was actually working. He was on the Minus18 committee and had been at the venue since early that morning, setting up. The year before, he’d attended as a patron and described the night as such a “game-changer” that he determined to volunteer on the next one.
“I took so much from my first Minus18 formal, I have pictures from that night plastering my room and I want to be able to create that for someone else,” he recalls. “I want someone to be able to come in and feel relaxed and have a formal experience that they can be happy with and relaxed about, where sexuality and identity isn’t a problem.”
Edward’s own school Year 12 formal was not like that. He took his male partner and although his teachers were supportive, his fellow students were less so. “Say every table could fit 15, and most were full, our big round table was sort of empty,” he says. “There was me, my partner and my best friend sort of sitting at the table by ourselves.”
For most of high school, Edward was not open about his sexuality. It was only when he walked into the Same Sex Formal for the first time in 2011 that he understood how much of a toll that secret had been taking. “It took about an hour for it to fully sink in that this was an entire room of people like me, and that was really different because my entire life, being ostracised was sort of what I was used to,” he smiles. “At that time I wasn’t out, so this was an inner secret that nobody really knew about, and suddenly I was in a room filled with people who were exactly the same, and it was really wonderful!
“I just wanted to go up and hug everyone. It was really liberating. I didn’t realise that not being able to talk to people about this was such a big problem. I always just thought, oh [my sexuality] is just another thing and when for the first time it wasn’t a problem, not a weight on your shoulders, I realised how much it had been pressing down.”
The transformation for Edward was immediate. “Being at that first event really inspired me to make the changes in my life that needed to be made,” he says. That included coming out to his friends and family, and beginning to connect with the LGBTI community through volunteering at Minus18.
“Before that, I had no help, no guide. I didn’t know if anyone was going through what I was going through, and so discovering a community where people would look after each other – and these communities exist all over the world, they’re everywhere, but it just so happened that I managed to find this specific one for me - it was a really positive change, considering the dark time it had been.”
For Edward, coming out was in many ways liberating - but he is quick to point out that reductive labels can be inadvertently oppressive. "I remember when coming out, I was really scared I was going to be That Gay Person because quite often when someone identifies in that way, they’ll be introduced as that. I was at a party the other day and my sexuality was introduced before I was! Like: ‘Here is my gay friend!’ And that’s not what I want. ‘Here’s Edward, he’s really weird and obsessive. He dresses like an idiot!’ Now that’s the sort of description I want! I didn’t really want to be described as though my main feature was something outside of my control. And unfortunately, it’s still something that you get.
“When sexuality becomes more like a footnote description to who you are, rather than the overall description, that’s when I think we’ll see a lot more positive change.”