National youth survey: Racism and gender discrimination top concerns for young people

Gerson Lopez is among the over 25,000 young Australians who took part in the national youth survey. Source: Aaliyah Ceballos

Mission Australia’s annual youth survey has found that for the first time ever, equity and discrimination is the chief national issue for young Australians.

Gerson Lopez, 20, is among the over 25,000 young people surveyed in a new report that showed for the first time equity and discrimination were the top national concerns for young people.

"We are not given the voice that we deserve," Gerson told The Feed.

"And having been through all the things that I've been through, I'm just sick of being silenced. I'm tired of not being heard. And I'm frustrated that we don't have [a] platform."

The survey is a part of Mission Australia's 19th annual Youth Survey Report, and was conducted between April and August this year. The report found equity and discrimination is not only the top national issue for young Australians but its importance has increased more than 60 per cent since 2019.

"This year, we're hearing loud and clear that our young people see discrimination as a major issue in Australia, and are very concerned about unfair treatment, with gender inequality being at the forefront of their concerns," Mission Australia's CEO, James Toomey said.

The survey found 27 per cent of young Australians reported being treated unfairly over the last year.

The most common reason for discrimination cited in the research was gender, with 48 per cent of female respondents in the survey highlighting that as a concern, compared to only 22.5 per cent of their male counterparts.

While 30.4 per cent of respondents in the survey cited race and cultural background as to why they felt they were treated unfairly.

'Once people single you out, you kind of feel alienated'

For Gerson, this is a familiar story. He says he's experienced racism, homophobia, and isolation due to his identity throughout his youth.

He points to school as the place where he believes young people have faced "a lot of discrimination and bullying."

He says he's had to grapple with his past traumas, which include experiencing domestic violence and sexual assault before even becoming a teenager.

"I saw a lot of things that I felt like a young person my age, should not [have] seen," he said.

Gerson was born in Melbourne and moved to live with his father in 2006 Sydney before settling in Adelaide with his mother to finish school.

However, as a Salvadorean-Australian, attending school wasn't an easy proposition.

Gerson Lopez
Gerson Lopez says he's had to deal with discrimination for most of his life.
Aaliyah Ceballos

He remembers persistent comments about his mother being a cleaner and was mocked for the food he brought for lunch.

"It feels really degrading, it feels like you no longer belong. Once people single you out, you kind of feel alienated. And you feel like you don't belong with others," he said.

The taunts Gerson says he received during school had an impact not only on his confidence but his relationship with his cultural identity. He's the only one amongst his three siblings that doesn't speak Spanish.

And his experiences are echoed in the results. Mission Australia's CEO James Toomey said young people are regularly experiencing and witnessing racial injustices in their day-to-day lives.

"Their own experience of this discrimination, alongside escalating media coverage, public dialogue and grassroots movements such as Black Lives Matter are likely to be affecting young people's thoughts about the state of Australia and the world around them," he said.

And witnessing discrimination was an experience that came out loud and clear: more than half of the young people interviewed in the survey said they had seen or heard first hand others being unfairly treated in the last year.

Gerson says that kind of treatment has a deep impact. "When people make comments about things that you basically have no control over. It just makes you feel a little bit worthless," Gerson said.

"I didn't feel that I could be around other ethnic people because I was called white-passing and I didn't feel like I could be around other white people because of the comments they would make about my parents," he added."

Gerson describes himself as gender fluid and bisexual and says he'd just "like to be treated just like everyone else".

"Whether it's in the workplace, or if it's in school, or anywhere, I feel that everyone should be able to live equally, especially as a queer person myself," he said.

But that hasn't happened. "I was singled out for my sexuality and for my identity. And it put me through a very depressive state throughout my life. I'm still very much recovering."

But there was a turning point. One night in late 2018, he was looking into a mirror backstage at a small venue in Adelaide -- he was about to perform at a drag show for the first time in his life.

Five young women from his school he'd reconnected with came to support him in the audience. He was on the edge of leaving but having his cohort of friends in the audience, he says, stopped him from running off.

"And then I kind of just strutted on to a stage. And then I remembered that I wasn't myself, I remember that no one besides the people that were there for me, no one else knew who I was," he said.

"That was basically like armour for me, because I got to be myself, but in a different person."

Mental health, stress and body image key concerns for young people

Despite finding a community and a space to express himself, Gerson still didn't feel confident to be himself off the stage.

He went on a trip to Melbourne nine months ago, and then he got stuck there due to the pandemic.

He says ending up in Melbourne forced him into his own strength.

"I should not be weakened based on commentary that ignorant people made about me," he said.

Gerson's struggles with his mental health and body image was reflected in key themes of the report. Body image issues were cited as a concern for 33 per cent of those surveyed, and four in 10 respondents said they've felt stressed during the pandemic - either all or most of the time.

"This has been a year like no other for our young people, punctuated by rapid change, numerous challenges and stressful situations," Mission Australia CEO James Toomey said.

However, the Youth Survey Report found more than half of the respondents were happy with their lives, and 48 percent were confident they would achieve their work and study goals.

"It is heartening to see remarkable examples of resilience and strength shown by young people while facing 2020's trials," Toomey said.

And Gerson feels he's now on a positive path. After settling in Melbourne, he began working out more and has embarked on both an inner-transformation and a physical one. He lost over 40 kilos between April and November this year.

Gerson Lopez
Aaliyah Ceballos

Gerson describes his move to Melbourne as a "homecoming" of sorts -- it's the place he's always been the happiest.

"I just feel that Victoria is such a diverse place. And there's so much representation of different people here," he said.

The cultural diversity of Melbourne is something that struck him, even during Victoria's lockdown.

"Even if it was just a quick trip to the groceries, I would see so many different people that I feel that I would have not seen [in] Adelaide.

"And that just instantly made me feel welcome."

 If this story raised issues for you, help is available. Contact a crisis support service below.