The Challenges and Opportunities in Creating Queer-Friendly School Cultures

Earlier this year, Angela King and I presented at ILGA Oceania on behalf of the PPTA Rainbow Taskforce. This was to share what we have learned about changing school cultures to enable queer young people to be safe and welcome, something I wrote about for the PPTA News. PPTA, as the union for high school teachers in New Zealand, has been providing materials to schools on affirming diversity of sexualities and gender diversities since 2001. Over the last five years the Taskforce has delivered whole-staff professional development at about sixty schools, ranging from large urban secondary schools to small rural area schools. The workshop will consider how successful this work has been, and what more is required to ensure that all schools in New Zealand are queer-friendly.

PPTA Rainbow Taskforce Feedback

Our presentation (accessible here) gave and overview of the work that the Taskforce does, but opened up the dialogue around what the needs are for our presentation to tackle. This padlet captures the responses that the group made to the question: what’s missing? What does the presentation lack? How can we bring it into current thinking? Their responses represent the enormous amount of work that is yet to happen on a large scale in this area.


Safer Schools Workshop at ILGA Oceania


This article was first published in the PPTA News – Feb/Mar 2016

The inaugural ILGA (International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Intersex Association) Oceania Human Rights and Health Conference was hosted in Wellington earlier in the year. It attracted scholars, community leaders and friends from the Oceania region as well as ILGA representatives from across the globe.

Organising committee member Rawa Karetai opened the conference by saying “this is a great opportunity for our communities to add our voices by identifying the issues affecting us here in Aotearoa, Australia and the Pacific as well as share our stories on the international stage”.

Angela King and I represented the PPTA Rainbow Taskforce at the conference and also ran a workshop to share the success of the ‘Safer Schools for All’ programme.

The ‘Safer Schools for All’ workshop has been delivered in more than 60 Secondary Schools across New Zealand in the last few years. It addresses the issue of bullying of students and other members of the wider school community who are perceived to be different because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.

It was an exciting opportunity to share this work and feedback from the presentation reinforced that this targeted professional development was leading the way for changing heteronormative school cultures.

Another notable presentation at the conference was a report from a nation wide youth survey. The feedback emphasised again how the reality is concerning for students of diverse sexualities and genders.

Most youth reported negative experiences in their schools. However, positive experiences like peer acceptance and support groups were overwhelmingly shared by pakeha gay males. This shows the marginalisation of many other identities by schools and their environments. It is becoming increasingly important to be aware of this diversity beyond just gay and lesbian because our young generation are identifying with more fluid identities.

These findings were raised in a panel discussion with representatives from parliament. They were asked what they were doing to change the situation for LGBTI+ youth and what they experiencing in schools?

Louisa Wall noted that we are dealing with “a reactive system. At the moment, schools are reliant on an active group or students or teachers to initiate change to address the need for more support for these students”. One action point suggested was to increase the visibility of LGBTI+ issues, which means more than just a poster on the wall, but policies and practices in all school spaces that respect diverse youth and treat them with dignity.

The conference was attended by the head of ILGA, Renalto Sabbadini. In his opening address he challenged the sense of binaries that some parts of society are still holding onto and the prejudices that this reveals. He called for the community to continue to challenge and ask questions of society’s assumption “because it is only by questioning ourselves and by having others question themselves that we can grow, as individuals and as a society”.

Seven Sharp – Mr Cargill the Teacher (Who is Gay)

One News

Earlier this week a story aired about me on Seven Sharp, a current affairs news programme in New Zealand. It profiled me as a gay teacher working with colleagues that are also open about their sexualities and how we are supporting students with their own identities. This story is a checkpoint – not a journey or a destination. It captures that a lot of work has gone into where we have arrived, but also it is clear that there is much more work to do.

My own journey started a long way away from how I was presented in this piece. I may have come out as a 18 year old to positive responses and plenty of support, but at Teacher’s College I was knocked back. One doesn’t come out once. Every time I meet a new person I’m faced with a choice: do I say something that reveals my sexuality? Sometimes I don’t because of safety or because I don’t feel it’s worth it. But most of the time it comes up naturally enough and it’s hardly a problem. When training to be a teacher, I was faced with this decision on an entirely different level in deciding how to come out in a classroom.

As an training teacher I chose to focus on my practice and not get caught up by this. I chose not to lie, but to avoid (something that I now acknowledge is actually another form of lying). In one particular class I was being observed teaching I made a comment, or maybe a gesture, which lead to my associate teacher pulling me aside and angrily denouncing how I had flaunted my sexuality in front of the class. I was told I was being deliberately provocative and my personal life was none of the students’ business.

While this incident could have inspired me to resist such oppression and vow to never let someone stop me from being who I am, it actually did the opposite. I shrunk as a result; I hid. I entered my first teaching job with no intention of coming out – but kept telling myself I wouldn’t be lying because I just wouldn’t be addressing it.

And then I found my inspirational colleagues. They were out and proud and students knew this. Once they knew about me I began building back that confidence and gaining more strength to let me be me. This was complex given the first few years of teaching for anyone are extremely challenging as to be effective a lot of skills need to be mastered in a very short space of time.

I learnt about ‘othering’. When I applied for leave for the North American Out Games in Vancouver, I wrote my leave request letter to the Board of Trustees and intended to talk to the student representative about what they were going to learn about me. My colleague pointed out that outing myself to that student for that purpose was emphasising a difference that denormalised my sexuality; I was ‘othering’ my identity and making it less valid.

When I became a Dean, a student in my cohort came out to me. I don’t know whether he sensed an ally, or whether I was just in the right place at the right time, but this triggered a tidal wave of action that led to the Seven Sharp story. Some students knew, but while I was talking about diversity issues in class, I wasn’t openly discussing how they affected me. Some students clearly knew, but I hadn’t created environments where they felt like they could talk about it with me. I was still vulnerable and this had to change.

With the support of my colleagues we formally established a diversity group that met once a week with students identified through our supportive Guidance Counselor. We were small at first, but the opportunity for the students to discuss the issues they were facing together without stigmas was invaluable. Many of those students faced complex issues including not being safe at home, bullying from peers, navigating their churches as well as the difficult journey of coming to terms with their identity and being a teenager.

The next critical step was to advertise. I stepped on stage for a school assembly with my colleague, Kirsty, and we presented a message that affirmed every student’s identity. We used pictures of celebrities the students knew and told them that LGBTI+ people are all over the world, in their communities, maybe in their families, that they are in this school and “two of them are bringing this message to you today”.

This was a personally a huge step for me as I finally shook the demons that had forced me to put a foot back into the closet. It felt unbelievably liberating, like I had busted through a wall that intolerance had built, but that I had been partly responsible for.

The next phase happened very quickly. The numbers in our support group grew. The conversations in the student body about these issues became more frequent and more normalised. I joined the PPTA Rainbow Taskforce, and have begun delivering whole staff professional development sessions to schools around New Zealand on creating safe environments for all students. I also became an Executive Advisor for InsideOUT, who are a group of inspiring young people responsible for projects big and small that contribute to making Aotearoa a safer place for young people of all sexual orientations and genders. I started Rainbow Teachers NZ to promote discussions and share stories. I also had the opportunity to present all this work at ILGA Oceania Human Rights Conference.

The Seven Sharp story arose when TVNZ reporter Hadyn Jones contacted me after his story on Robbie Manson, a gay rower, got such a positive response. He emailed me with a pertinent question:

Where are all the gay teachers? Basic maths would suggest there must be hundreds if not thousands out there but I have never heard from one.  I’m guessing they must be a real beacon and example to teenagers grappling with their sexuality (as if the teenage years weren’t baffling enough). I could understand hesitancy in some of the conservative schools around New Zealand but it’s 2016 and it’s time.

The wheels began turning and the story became a reality. But it is only a checkpoint. The story acknowledges there is so much more to do because this is not representative of most New Zealand schools. In fact, there is a lot not said in the story that I feel is important:

  1. Lesbian and gay exclusively is not diversity. Bisexual, trans*, intersex and others face similar, and often worse, struggles in our schools.
  2. Supporting LGBTI+ students is not the responsibility exclusively of LGBTI+ teachers. All teachers should be teachers of diversity, and all teachers need to come out in support of every single LGBTI+ student.
  3. Where I am today would not be possible without the strength and mana of Kirsty Farrant, David Pegram and so many other teachers and campaigners before me. I am so privileged to be working in the position I am today because of these people.

And finally, the way the story was handled by the presenters, Mike Hoskings and Toni Street, just emphasised how important this work is. Hoskings comments that inferred gay teachers have an association with deviant and sexually inappropriate behaviour was wildly off the point. It potentially did harm by undermining the messages of the story.

My hope is that this story is seen by students and staff across New Zealand, and that we can start making genuine change. There are so many positive pockets of best practice. But it’s time that this best practice becomes the norm. The policies that sit in behind what schools do need to ensure that LGBTI+ students are supported for the good of all students. Only then can we turn around the embarrassing statistics that simply show what we are doing at the moment is just not good enough.

ILGA Oceania – Femmephobia

‘Femmephobia in Queer Communities with Femme Club Wellington’ was presented by Tabby, Aya, Dany, and Jess via video.

Femme and femininity are different. This is a conscious reclaiming of femininity. It is on an individuals own terms because it hasn’t been imposed. Historocally it comes from the butch or femme categorising of lesbians. Femme exists across the gender spectrum – someone of any gender or sexuality could be femme. Debate around femme being a gender identity? Also the question: is femme a conscious or a natural occurring identity?

I didn’t come out of the closet to be a trans women – I came out to be Jess

Stereotypes and expectations exist of all identities and when you claim them but don’t fit into them it can become really hard. ‘Lipstick lesbian’ is an example. There are also hierarchies within identities and competition within identities. This is something to challenge. An identity is not about aesthetics or how you present. Each person gets to define their own identity.


Femmephobia reflects lots of societal pressure including the pressure to be attractive. Gender discourse often doesn’t get enough respect.

Femme Empowerment. What can we do?

  • Keep spaces open and accepting
  • Undertake personal thought and recognise our own fallibility and our own limitations
  • We are always learning; there is a difference between our actions and ourselves
  • Is you find you are assuming something – think about why

ILGA Oceania – Bisexuality Research

Notes from the workshop hosted by Mary-Anne McAllum. The session was reporting back from her research on bisexual women’s experiences in NZ secondary schools.

tumblr_inline_n7hsjxococ1qei1xrThe definition of bisexuality does not rely solely on sexual attraction or equal attraction between the sexes – for example, it’s OK to identify to identify as bisexual even if you haven’t had a same-sex experience.

Mary-Anne’s research had a bifocal approach, inquiring into how young women interpret the notion of bisexuality, and drawing out their experiences of being bisexual in NZ secondary schools. There were 37 participants. Bisexual theory is evolving and literature has increased a lot in recent times – most of it on adult bisexuality. Bisexual theory – might contain a number of sexualities – occasionally it is found to be unstable. Youth2000 also offers data but it combines data of both-sex attracted and same-sex attracted. This erases the difference issues that are faced by bisexuals. Form of biphobia? Certainly hetereonormative.

Participants were asked: what are some of the positive things about being bisexual at school? This was to ensure the focus was on something that wasn’t doom and gloom – focus on improvements. Historically schools in NZ have been so difficult to access in terms of research for young people on sexuality and sex.

Out of that came two new terms:

  • Misrecognition – sexual identity – misrecognised as lesbian, queer, gay, etc. Societal misrecognition. Depreciation of gender identity by patriarchal culture and declining sense of self.
  • Bimisogyny – Safety at school examples – being outed; male students were vocally nasty; girls excluded; asking why you’ve bi – “you just haven’t had a decent dick”. Hetereonormative and patriarchal practices.

Sexuality education needs to be delivered positively and inclusively. ERO in 2007 reported on sexuality education and found 20% of schools were attempting to address diversity whereas 80% schools not addressing it. Combining PE and Health considered something really problematic in terms of addressing this. Even when female to female sex was discussed, sexual desire was found to be brushed under the mat. Affirming diversity resource from the PPTA a useful resource.

There was a suggestion that students correcting teachers is an example of the culture around health education being problematic. I’d reject this, as there will always be students that know more than teachers. The response from the teacher is vital in accepting further knowledge about topics discussed in class. The perception that the teacher holds the knowledge and passes this to the student is more true in the health classroom, but the Internet offers so much readily accessible information (and lots of myth perpetuation) that this measurement isn’t really valid.

Further reading:

ILGA Oceania – Out@Work

Workshop titled ‘The Opportunities and Limitations of Diversity and Inclusion Training in the Workplace’ presented by Jo Wrigley and Rauhina Scott-Fyfe.

Out@Work is the Council of Trade Union’s network for lesbian, gay, takataapui, bisexual, intersex, transgender and fa’afafine union members. It provides a voice for workers who are ‘out’ or closeted in their workplaces.

Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR): “the continuing commitment by business to contribute to economic development while improving the quality of life of the workforce and their families as well as of the community and society at large.” Studies have shown New Zealand to be lagging in this area.

Cause Related Marketing (CRM): a mutually beneficial collaboration between a corporation and a nonprofit in which their respective assets are combined to: create shareholder and social value. The cause is something with a real need, the marketing must feature real people, and needs to make a real difference. Pinkwashing is something that can occur as a result. ANZ gAyTMs are a local debated initiative.

Hillman (2013) quotes Art Ryan, former CEO of Prudential Financial, as telling him “If you can’t bring your whole self to work every day, we don’t get the best of you”. This is the challenge of authenticity in leadership. Reinforced by psychologists and leadership academics who write about the importance of authenticity and its contribution to individual happiness, inclusiveness and acceptance. Authenticity in the workplace can only be effected with the support and acceptance of colleagues and managers.

What can help?

ILGA Oceania – Bisexuality from a Legal Perspective

Notes from the workshop hosted by Nathan Ross. The session was about bisexuality research from firstly a legal perspective. The big issue discussed was bisexuality erasure. If an identity is invisible – that is a passive process and often due to laziness. However, erasure is actively saying something doesn’t exist. Erasure creates a challenge, rather than something that sits there waiting to be challenged.

Th issue becomes when lawyers set up a case by referring to gay and lesbian, or a lesbian couple for example. The framing of the case makes up the language that is used for that case. Often sexuality and gender cases are framed incorrectly. In NZ’s legal system, courts makes law and interpret legislation – therefore it is important we get this right. An example of this going wrong is the judgement for same sex marriage in the US didn’t say bisexual once. The expression of “same-sex” is still exclusive.

Why don’t they use the word ‘bisexual’? Responses to this include because it makes it more palatable to judges. It also simplifies the message for the legal system to be able to deal with it. Both of these reasons are rubbish and do not justify this exclusion. Bisexuality needs to be part of the conversation: inclusive language in law is important.

In a informal NZ case study, bisexuality came up in 50 cases. 25 times it was irrelevant, 25 cases are criminal cases – in all of these the offender was male. Consent was involved in one case, where the mention was in the defense that the defendant did not “have bisexual or homosexual tendencies”. Cases mention if someone is homosexual but never if they are hetereosexual. It would be worth researching if these mentions are gratuitous.

Erasure can have real outcomes and implications. An example of this is Orashia Edwards. His story of being held in detention because of of perceived need to prove his sexuality. This emphasises the real need for work to be done in this area.