12 May 2021

Transgender students supported in light of 'heartbreaking' schools debate in NSW

| Dominic Giannini
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Rainbow flag

The ACT Legislative Assembly has condemned a One Nation proposal to ban discussions of gender diversity and fluidity in NSW classrooms. Photo: File.

The last thing transgender children who face daily struggles with identity and bullying at school need is to think “the government picking on them” as well, ACT Youth Coalition CEO Justin Barker said.

Speaking in light of a One Nation proposal to ban discussions of gender diversity and fluidity in NSW classrooms, Mr Barker said it was heartbreaking hearing stories from transgender children who do not feel safe at school.

“People are saying that the safe space areas in their school are not safe because people know it is a safe space and yell at them when they exit or have the rainbow flag torn down,” he said.

“Even in schools with different toilets or changing areas for trans children, you have to ask for the key at the front desk which made it tricky because of having to identify with this person at the front desk that they may or may not trust.”

The substance of the NSW bill, which was introduced by NSW MLC Mark Latham, resulted in emotional speeches from ACT politicians on Wednesday condemning the proposal.

Labor MLA Michael Pettersson said it was important that the NSW bill be condemned in the ACT Legislative Assembly due to the close relationships between Canberra and the surrounding regions.

“When you turn the news on in the ACT, you get the nightly news from Sydney. I turn the news on and see stories like this, and if I see it, it means kids are seeing it as well.”

More than half of young people in the ACT who participated in the ‘Writing Themselves In 4’ report said they felt unsafe and uncomfortable due to their sexuality or gender at school. Less than a quarter of students felt they could safely use bathrooms at their school.

The survey, which included responses from 300 Canberrans who identified as LGBTIQA+ between the ages of 14 and 21, further found 40 per cent of these children had experienced verbal harassment and 10 per cent had experienced homelessness in the previous year.

The findings prompted Mr Pettersson to introduce a motion in the Legislative Assembly on Wednesday (12 May) rebuking the One Nation proposal.

“That is terrifying to me. We have a responsibility to provide every single student with a safe place to learn, and when I see numbers like that, it tells me we have not done enough,” he told Region Media.

“The members of the Canberra community are a tight-knit community. I am bringing this forward to bring attention to this hateful speech and speak up for those members of our community that do actually go to the NSW education system.

“If there are going to be increasingly transphobic attacks, it is the responsibility of every jurisdiction to stand up and say it is wrong, and we are going to do more to counter it.”

Michael Pettersson

Michael Pettersson said more needs to be done to support gender diverse students. Photo: Dominic Giannini.

Mr Pettersson’s motion called on the ACT Education and Youth Affairs Minister Yvette Berry to write to her NSW counterpart to express concern about the effect the bill’s debate has on transgender and diverse children in the ACT, and urge the NSW Government to vote down the bill.

“School-aged children of our friends and neighbours in the Canberra region, as well as wider NSW, are not being afforded the same care and respect,” the motion stated.

“One Nation’s proposed bill prohibits supporting trans and gender diverse students in the NSW education system as it prohibits recognising their existence.

“[It] would put teachers at risk of losing their accreditation for acknowledging that trans and gender diverse people exist [and] further marginalise children who would have no access to information about who they are and what they are experiencing.”

An emotional Ms Berry spoke in support of the motion, saying that schools can be the only place some young gender-diverse people feel safe, which was why it was so important the government got this right.

Greens MLA Johnathan Davis said the motion spoke to the friends he had to pick up in the middle of the night and those who slept on his couch because it was the safest place for them.

“There is so much that makes me proud to be a Canberran. What we have done collectively as a city to reflect the values of diversity and inclusivity are models of global leadership,” he said.

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Mr Barker said it made a huge difference for children to hear community leaders and their political representatives stand up for them in places like the Legislative Assembly.

But while the ACT is seen as a progressive and LGBTIQA+ friendly jurisdiction, including having the first openly gay head of government in Australia, there are simple changes that some schools have not enacted to make it an accepting environment for transgender children, Mr Barker said.

He added that while some students in the ACT and just over the border in the Canberra region have recorded positive experiences at school, failing to enact simple measures, like students being unable to change their name or gender on forms and school email addresses, further ostracises transgender children who are treated in a way that makes everything that little bit harder, he said.

“Come to the party. The person no longer identifies as that,” he said. “It is not hard to change the email, or the name or the gender they identify as. It is not rocket science.”

If this story has raised any issues, you can call Lifeline’s 24-hour crisis support line on 13 11 14.

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