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Diversity in Education: Supporting our LGBTQIA+ Students

Mali Jorm and Lisette Robey

Hosting World Pride 2023 in Australia has been an opportunity to celebrate, reflect and strategize on how we can all stand in solidarity to make gains for the human rights of LGBTQIA+ people around the world. 

The AEU has always been a strong supporter of queer rights and inclusion, and we are privileged to be part of an Australia-wide network of teachers and support staff who champion for support and inclusion for marginalised groups. Our ACT AEU president Angela Burroughs has been a consistent advocate for LGBTQIA+ rights, and was instrumental in the development of our ACT Education Pride Network. Our rainbow lanyards and AEU t-shirts provide a visual representation to our gender and sexuality diverse students and colleagues that we support and value them.

The NSW Teachers’ Federation, (the NSW branch of the AEU) hosted the Diversity in Education Conference to coincide with World Pride. Passionate educators from around Australia (and some inspiring delegates from around the world) gathered to share inspiration, research, and best practice around queer inclusion in schools. A thread amongst many conference delegates was that they often operate in isolation, especially those from rural areas, smaller schools and primary schools. LGBTQIA+ support in schools is ad-hoc, depending on if there is a dedicated group or single staff member who is willing to take on an extra role in addition to their already significant workload. Some staff are fortunate to work in schools with a community of queer advocates, while others work cautiously in isolation, hyper-vigilant as to how their advocacy might be received by the school community and executive. As a non-recognised role, LGBTQIA+ support staff are at increased risk of burnout, and often operate in the intersection of advocating for their own rights as a queer worker as well as for their queer students. 

The Writing Themselves in 4 report (2019) is a national survey of 6,418 LGBTQIA+ people aged 14 to 21 about their experiences in the last 12 months. The report confirms that queer young people are a vulnerable group in our schools, with 60% feeling unsafe or uncomfortable at school, 64% frequently hearing negative remarks regarding sexuality and 38% missing days of school due to feeling unsafe. They also frequently experience harassment and assault, with 41% experiencing verbal harassment, 23% experiencing sexual harassment and 10% experiencing physical harassment. 

LGBTQIA+ young people are at increased risk of suicidality, and distressingly 26% have attempted suicide at some point in their lives. This is a rousing call to action for governments and schools to provide better services for queer youth and the staff who support them.

Research on the numbers of LGBTQIA+ people in Australia is sorely lacking, and contributes to the inability to advocate for sufficient program and policy support (Carman et al. 2020). The latest Gallup poll in the US found that 21% of Gen Z people identify as LGBT, and that each subsequent generation identifies as more queer than the one before them (Jones 2022). Queer people are frequently under-represented in self-identified polls due to the stigma of identifying as part of a marginalized group. Given this, it’s safe to assume that a significant proportion of our students, very likely over 20%, will identify as LGBTQIA+ at some point in their lives. Many of these students will also experience the intersectional disadvantage that comes with being both queer and disabled, first nations, displaced persons, experiencing mental health concerns, or being CALD. Part of our role as effective educators is the proactive support of this vulnerable section of our school population. 

One of the questions posited by many speakers at the Sydney World Pride 2023 Human Rights Conference is “what are employers doing to support their LGBTQIA+ staff?” Our queer staff can’t effectively support their students if they themselves don’t feel supported and safe in their workplace. We invite you to think about your school and how visibly welcoming it is to queer staff, students and families. Are there consistent displays around the school celebrating LGBTQIA+ inclusion (and not just for Wear it Purple Day and IDAHOBIT Day)? Are queer perspectives incorporated into the curriculum? Is LGBTQIA+ inclusive sex education supported by all staff? Is your library properly funded and staffed to provide a diverse collection of LGBTQIA+ books? When a new family or employee comes to your front office, it is clear that it is a queer-friendly space? 

Many participants at the Sydney World Pride Human Rights Conference spoke about having their “day job” and their “gay job”, a tacit recognition of the undervalued and unpaid work that LGBTQIA+ advocates do to support their communities. In our ACT Government schools there is no identified role that is actively supported to provide insider voices for queer inclusion. Much of the work done in our schools to support LGBTQIA+ students is done on a voluntary basis – often by queer people who can have the intersection of being a vulnerable minority themselves as well as shouldering the added responsibility of trying to support young queer people. Providing effective support for both our LGBTQIA+ staff and our students needs to be a dedicated priority for ACT schools, with explicit recognition in policy and funding.

Discussions with colleagues demonstrate that many school staff avoid active LGBTQIA+ inclusion at school out of fear of parental and political pushback. Research by Ullman et al. (2022) showed that 63% of teachers felt that they had to be careful about how they addressed LGBTQIA+ sexuality education due to possible adverse community reactions. However, the same study showed that 82% of Australian parents support the teaching of gender and sexuality diversity in schools. Unsurprisingly, ACT parents “were more supportive than the national sample of a diversity-inclusive version of Relationships and Sexuality Education.” The team at the centre for Gender and Sexuality Diversity in Schools, based at the University of Western Sydney have produce a range of professional learning materials developed as a consequence of their research into “What Parents Want”. This is a positive invitation for us all to feel empowered to actively incorporate gender and sexually diverse perspectives into our lessons and teaching spaces.

Another conference theme was the importance of visible, active allyship. Marginalised communities need more than passive allyship, where allies support inclusion internally, but do not use their positions of power or privilege to amplify the voices of the queer community. Our queer staff can’t support students if they themselves don’t feel supported and safe, and they also can’t bear the responsibility of being the only active advocates for our queer students. 

We have made many gains in Australia in recent years to support the LGBTQIA+ community, including achieving marriage equality and several states banning conversion practices. However, there is still much work to do. A number of conference presenters noted that queer rights often take two steps forward and one step back, and we are certainly seeing some regressive policy making, particularly in the United States. The National Education Association in the US tracks the introduction of anti LGBTQIA+ legislation across the country. At February 28 this year, already 327 bills had been introduced in the US to restrict LGBTQIA+ rights (Benzon, 2023). It is up to all of us to continue the fight towards equality both locally and around the world. We all have an important role to stand in solidarity with building a collective community that values and centres LGBTQIA+ voices, perspectives and spaces. Our ongoing job as a union that values our diverse LGBTQIA+ community is to continue to proactively advocate for increased support to uphold the dignity of queer staff, students and families in our schools. 

Mali and Lisette were sponsored by the AEU to participate in the Diversity in Education Conference. Mali was also sponsored to attend the Sydney World Pride Human Rights Conference.

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