Recent attacks on anti-bullying programme Safe Schools have resulted in increased anxiety for most people in the Australian LGBTI community and for our families. As queer high school student Carter Smith so eloquently argued on an episode of Q & A last month, there are a lot of vulnerable young people who’ve been put at risk. This has been evidenced by a spike in calls to crisis services around the country. These expressions of extreme distress have an obvious source: LGBTI people are already experiencing a background level of anxiety that can quickly escalate when triggered by hateful language.
Minority stress is a concept developed by sociologists and psychologists to explain the unique pressures faced by members of minority groups. Stress occurs when a person is cast as different -- when they are Othered by the dominant culture. As Columbia University researcher Ilan Meyer puts it, “stigma, prejudice, and discrimination create a hostile and stressful social environment that causes mental health problems.”
These problems can also result in physical health issues such as heart disease and even cancer. Whilst any stressful life event can lead to a decline in health, researchers have found that stress caused by prejudice can have a more insidious effect on health than other events. To add insult to injury, people in some minority groups sometimes engage in coping mechanisms which actually cause them greater anxiety. Occupying social space as someone who doesn’t match the dominant culture can be so difficult that people add to their own woes by trying to fit in (for example, remaining in the closet).
This is a particular concern for LGBTI youth, who may be kept from finding the help and resources they need by their fear of being ‘outed’. The Safe Schools programme was developed in response to minority stress, and it’s needed in schools for two key reasons. Schools are uniquely placed to make interventions into the mental health and wellbeing of young LGBTI people, who are at higher risk of self harm and suicide. Young people report that about 80 per cent of the homophobia and transphobia they experience occurs at school. This grim statistic is the impetus behind the push to make schools safer. It’s also imperative that young LGBTI people have teachers and welfare staff in schools who are sensitive to their specific needs, because they may not be able to access this support at home.
As Magda Szubanski passionately argues, to be queer is to inhabit a special kind of minority status. Whilst those who experience racism or other discrimination can generally draw support from their parents, LGBTI youth are on the margins in their own families: they feel the extreme stress of being a minority of one. those kids, the school community might be their only support.
Teachers are on the front line when it comes to the wellbeing of kids. Seeing the distress of young people who are being bullied or dealing with unsupportive parents is difficult for all teachers.
Other people in schools need safety, too. Teachers are on the front line when it comes to the wellbeing of kids. Seeing the distress of young people who are being bullied or dealing with unsupportive parents is difficult for all teachers. For those of us who are also part of the group being vilified by vocal politicians, it can be unbearable. Many of us carry our own scars from uncaring or downright hostile school environments. Protecting students from homophobia and transphobia is doubly important for teachers who want their classrooms to be safer than the ones they had to learn in.
I spoke to a teacher whose stress has increased because supporting Safe Schools feels like taking a personal risk.
“I have an important role in supporting diversity in schools and doing my bit to stamp out homophobia in the schoolyard and classroom. I've been wanting to write a letter [in support of Safe Schools] but so far have been unable do so because of the fear of losing potential job opportunities. It's a vicious cycle.”
This vicious cycle plagues the parents of LGBTI students too. Jo Hirst, author of The Gender Fairy and mother of a transgender son who is still at primary school, knows a thing or two about minority stress. She’s helped her son navigate gender dysphoria, the schoolyard, medical appointments and now, hostile language in the media. As part of a network of parents of gender diverse kids, Jo has also heard a lot about how others are struggling to cope with the weight of condemnation coming from the vocal opponents of Safe Schools. She told me that “many trans/ gender diverse children and their families are traumatised by this debate. It's hard enough to raise and protect our children but now politicians are using them like some sort of political football. I think politician have a duty to respect human rights”.
In light of Cory Bernardi’s response to a concerned parent who wrote to him about Safe Schools, it’s hard to see the government fulfilling that duty. So how can LGBTI people and their families maintain wellbeing when the attacks are set to get even worse?
In answer to that question Minus18, one of the organisations most often cited as a source of immoral contagion by the likes of the Australian Christian Lobby’s leader Lyle Shelton, has reached out to young LGBTI people to offer a wellbeing day camp. This initiative brings to mind the best weapon I know to combat minority stress: community.
At last month's snap action protest against Safe Schools cuts, I gathered with my family, some of our friends, and about 2000 others on a distinctly chilly Melbourne evening. We were there to hear speakers and meaningfully show our support for this vital anti-bullying programme, but I suspect many of the attendees were also seeking reassurance from the crowd. Finding safety in numbers is something that members of the majority culture take for granted; for minorities, it can be a rare, but life-affirming, experience.
Minority stress is a persistent feeling of loneliness. It’s the creeping suspicion that if you are honest about yourself, others will reject you. It’s the experience of outright bullying, violence and discrimination. It is the insidious grey background to an otherwise sunny day. But nothing fights a grey day like a rainbow.
It might be the uniqueness of LGBTI people in a majority-heterosexual world which causes stigma, pain and ill-health, but it is this very uniqueness that is also our strength. As trans advocate Sally Goldner reminded us at the rally, “queers and their families have responded with creativity, humour, ingenuity, intelligence and community” and it is because of this that “we are still here.”
And as long as we can find community, we’re not going anywhere.
Elizabeth Sutherland is a writer, teacher and mother based in Melbourne. Her hobbies include feminist snark and waiting impatiently for marriage equality. Follow her on twitter @MsElizabethEDU.