Auckland high school teacher Dan Eichblatt writes about his experience of starting his high school’s first queer youth group.
Just over a year ago, New Zealand became the first country in Oceania, and the fifteenth in the world, to welcome marriage equality. GLBTI voices had not had such prominence in the mainstream media since the 2005 Civil Union Act – a mixed blessing, of course, as the Bill’s opponents found increasingly hysterical ways to publicly damn the hell-bound, God-mocking, child-confusing and just-plain-wrong supporters.
Attempting to disfigure a discussion about the rights of consenting adults into a child abuse scandal, the Mrs Lovejoys of NZ wailed “Won’t somebody please think of the children?” Challenge accepted. Last year I started an GLBTI group at my high school.
Thomas and Delia are an odd pair, both identifying loudly as gay, while finding their feet in markedly different ways.
Thomas had caused ructions throughout his time at high school – he was, to use the euphemism, ‘difficult’, both in class and out. In year 9 (age 13) he would strut around the school grounds with his older boyfriend, determinedly, self-consciously gripping his hand, daring confrontation from the student body.
Students who had no issue with homosexuality found themselves challenged – Thomas would instigate arguments seemingly designed to catch his peers out as the rampant homophobes he believed (or wanted?) them to be. Other students were less forgiving and Thomas soon became, unfortunately, the school ‘fag’, ostracized by all but the most similarly-marginalized.
Delia, on the other hand, is an exemplary student. Mostly flying beneath the radar, we first met in my Media Studies class, where her vocal adoration of Sigourney Weaver and Julianne Moore marked her out as, well, different.
Studying Ridley Scott’s Alien as part of our genre unit was a religious experience for her, and she would often linger after class to discuss the more obscure entries in Ms Weaver’s filmography.
She is still the only 17 year old I know who can quote Polanski’s Death and the Maiden. As her trust in me increased, she began to confide about her struggles in coming out to her parents, asking for my advice while maintaining her amusingly clumsy teenage insouciance.
I work at a decile-10 co-ed secondary school in Auckland and over my nine years there have often considered the need for an GLBTI group.
Certainly, when I was at school twenty years ago, such propositions were unheard of.
Sex education, of which there was little, rarely stepped beyond the heteronormative; literature and film studies played it safe with the classics and home-grown stories of farming life, rugby and the relationship between England and her colonies; the measure of a ‘real’ boy was still defined by his sporting prowess (or lack thereof).
Due to the intense and absurd social stratification of typical high schools, my interest in music, drama and English ensured taunts of ‘faggot’ would trail me home, or in one mortifying example, onto the stage during a production of Romeo and Juliet.
Our first gathering of theGLBTI club – Thomas, Delia, myself and another 16 year old girl, Jane – was a big step for us all. As an educator of teenagers, I am intensely aware of boundaries and professional distance, yet my role in the group required a degree of personal soul-baring that could easily backfire. Additionally, my main concern is the safety of the students – how to publicise the existence of the group and meet those most in need of support without attracting the attention of those looking to mock or gossip?
Thomas, Delia and Jane are all senior students who already self-identify as gay – what of those younger kids mired in fear, doubt and denial? I can well imagine the paralyzing terror of being ‘outed’ by a well-meaning peer approaching them to be part of the group. What if they got it wrong? Should parents be consulted? The school administrators? Would I be putting myself at professional risk?
Cut to March 2014. A short, simple sentence in our Daily Notices has unearthed eight new members and the group is beginning to take the shape of a gay-straight alliance. Some are there to learn, some to help.
A 16 year old boy from a deeply religious family has quietly slipped in, projecting an air of ambivalence. A 13 year old girl implores me with her eyes not to highlight her presence, while her friend, a sassy, self-confident boy of the same age, offers “I’m here because I’m gay”, punctuated by a wordless “duh”.
I speak for a while about confidentiality, my own experience of coming out at the age of 20, my vision for the group. We discuss the importance of safety, of being true to oneself, of having people who understand.
As I had with Thomas four years ago, I talk about being the very best version of oneself and how individuals who identify as L, G, B, T or Q can become, unwittingly, representatives of a group. While this may seem unfair and burdensome, it actually provides a healthy, positive challenge to conduct oneself with dignity, pride and empathy. A challenge to be stronger, more resilient, less victimized.
I set the group some homework, to scattered groans. I want them to know their history, to recognize the pioneers who made it possible for them to live their lives more openly and confidently, to read books and watch films that will make them feel less alone in their private struggles. I introduce them to Oscar Wilde and Alan Turing, their eyes widening at the cruelty these men experienced and the importance of their contributions. I tell them about Stonewall, the Homosexual Law Reform Bill of 1985 and the devastation of AIDS in the gay community.
I point them in the direction of Beautiful Thing and The Celluloid Closet. They return with research on Harvey Milk, Virginia Woolf and Ellen Degeneres, fizzing with discovery and awe. The seniors are starting to reach out to the younger members; they’ve started a private Facebook page. The group meets even when I am in meetings or absent. We may have started something really good.
Article | Dan Eichblatt