I draw to the attention of the House the disturbing issue of homophobic bullying in schools. Most teenagers will not be surprised to hear that best estimates suggest that close to half of gay and lesbian young people experience verbal abuse or bullying because of their sexuality or gender identity. However, I am concerned that many other people in the community do not understand the scale of what is going on in our schools and communities, nor the immense pain that even verbal bullying can cause.
Schools can be very unsafe for people who are, or who are perceived to be, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or intersex. Feeling safe at school is extremely important for the healthy academic, social and physical development of young people. Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or intersex people experience discrimination at many levels throughout their lives. But being confronted with homophobia in school, at probably the most vulnerable period in their lives, can have lasting impacts.
Young people who experience bullying are more likely to miss school, are less likely to stay in full-time education, and are less likely to feel safe, achieve, be healthy and make a positive contribution to their community. Research commissioned by beyondblue suggests that approximately 30 per cent of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or intersex people suffer anxiety or depression—twice the rate for the rest of the community. Even more frightening is that the suicide rate for young lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or intersex people is three or four times higher than for their heterosexual peers.
The discrimination faced by people during their youth plays a significant role in their ongoing mental health later in life. We have a responsibility to ensure that, regardless of a person’s sexuality or gender identity, our young people are provided with a safe and accepting environment in which to learn and grow. Unfortunately, there is a lack of support for teachers, parents, students and lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or intersex young people to deal with homophobia and its effects.
In talking with members of the community I found that their experiences at school appear to be frighteningly similar. This makes me wonder whether the available statistics underestimate the level of verbal and physical abuse that is going on. One young man who contacted me a couple of days ago, after hearing about my interest in this issue, told me of the bullying that he had experienced at school even though he did not disclose his sexuality to anyone. He wrote:
I felt that if I came out at high school then it would have been just as bad as putting a target on my face and telling everyone to have their best shot. I felt that if I came out I would receive more bullying than before, where I would divert the attention from other people being bullied and they’d join in, in order to receive some form of immunity from the main bullies. That form of stress was just not something I needed, especially in year 11 and 12 where my academic life was more important.
He went on:
I also had no one to talk to about it. No friends, no family, no one. I felt so alone and just wanted to scream and cry but couldn’t. I just wanted someone to talk to about it and didn’t know where to go or look for someone, so I didn’t look anywhere and hid in the closet even more.
I believe that homophobia in schools—and the relentless, cruel bullying that can result—can no longer be ignored, as it is all too often. We have a responsibility to closely examine this issue, to hear young people’s stories and experiences, and to design effective, long-lasting responses as a matter of urgency. Addressing prejudice when it rears its ugly head is an enormously complex task. Blame cannot be attributed to one factor, such as the education system or the lack of government programs, nor the students who are doing the bullying. To address this we need to look at many underlying factors, including cultural norms shaped by religion and ideology. I know is very good work is being done already by some community groups on providing support to young people who are experiencing homophobic bullying. Most of them operate off the smell of an oily rag and we need to ensure that their work is supported.
Taking up the sexuality and gender identity portfolio on behalf of the Greens in New South Wales, I am committed to ensuring that this issue receives the attention it deserves by bringing the voices of students, as well as those within the community working on this issue, into the New South Wales Parliament in the months and years to come. Silence condones ongoing violence and continued bad behaviour. Turning a blind eye encourages the homophobia that is causing many young people a great deal of suffering and hardship to continue. Just as this Parliament has shed light on domestic violence, sexual violence and child abuse in the past, it is time this Parliament shed light on the extent of homophobic bullying in our schools. This needs to happen before another generation of some of our finest young people lose their confidence in society to keep them safe and give them promise of a bright future.