Schools must support rainbow youth

If all NZ schools took steps to support their rainbow youth to be leaders of social change then school would be a place of empowerment rather than a space of hostility, writes Hayley McGlashan

There are sex, gender and sexually diverse youth in all New Zealand schools and these students are more likely than their opposite sex-attracted peers to be bullied or physically harmed at school.

There is a large amount of research to back up this statement including the latest report from New Zealand Youth2000, an ongoing national survey series into the health and well-being of 13- to 17-year-olds by the University of Auckland’s Adolescent Health Research Group. 

The fact is, most schools still structure sexual and gender identities in ways that privilege and normalise cisgender and heterosexual students. This is evident both in the wider school and in school-based sexuality and health education.

It is also evidenced in the Education Review Office evaluation of sexuality education in 116 schools which was published late last year and stated:

Uniforms and bathrooms were the most commonly cited issues around inclusion of sex-, gender- and sexually diverse students. Support for sex-, gender-, and sexually-diverse students was often implicit and reactive rather than explicit and proactive. Some schools provided gender-neutral bathrooms for students, but in many, leaders and trustees saw this as being prohibitively expensive or not possible with current property arrangements. Some boards reported they did not have any such students, or these students were covered by more general diversity policies. However, research suggests strongly that sex-, gender- and sexually diverse students are present in the vast majority of schools. Where leaders or teachers felt this was not an issue for them, it could be that these students’ voices were not being sought, and their needs were not being recognised. Furthermore, student voice gathered through ERO’s good practice visits highlight that without explicit support, these students perceive the school environment as indifferent or hostile. To be truly inclusive, schools should consider how their policies and practice can support these students before they are prompted by a specific enrolment.

In the New Zealand Ministry of Education’s policy document: Sexuality Education: A guide for principals, boards of trustees and teachers it explicitly advises schools to review the gendered nature of their environments and make changes. Changes not only to curriculum, but also to school toilets, uniforms, and exclusionary cultures: 

Sexuality education in New Zealand schools supports and acknowledges diversity among students. Schools should work to question gender stereotypes, and assumptions about sexuality. School programmes and the wider school environment should take opportunities to acknowledge the sexual diversity of New Zealand communities and recognise the rights of those who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex, and other sexual and gender identities.

It is clear from the ERO report that this guide has not been followed in many schools. Lack of funding from the Ministry for teacher professional development during rollout of the guide resulted in less than ideal uptake and implementation of the suggested guidelines. 

The guide encourages schools to employ critical approaches to teaching, extra-curricular, and wider school environments to help to open up space for gender norms to be exposed, challenged and critiqued by students. 

One suggested approach is formation of Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA) or Queer-Straight Alliance groups in schools to support rainbow youth. QSAs vary considerably in their makeup and intention but are commonly extracurricular, student-centred groups where (LGBTQI+) students, along with heterosexual and questioning allies, gather for conversation, learning activities, mutual support as well as activism in the wider school. 

Thankfully, there are some schools which have extremely well-established QSAs in place. 

In a 10-month study of LGBTQI+ youth in a co-educational, secondary school in central Auckland, I worked alongside the head of counselling to co-facilitate the school’s QSA or rainbow group. This group meets every Thursday lunchtime with on average 25 sex, gender and sexually diverse student attendees. The vision of the group provides insight into how it works and underpins its success:  

Our diversity group is an ongoing journey of co-creating a culture of inclusion, belonging and connectedness for staff and students from all parts of the rainbow and beyond. Our paramount focus is to support our rainbow youth in creating hope for a future in which “it gets better”. We want to lift spirits and enable our diverse youth to create a vision for a positive, authentic life as a rainbow person. We aim to co- create a culture of diversity within a community of diversity.   

Our secondary goal is to work with students to co-create a socially just, rainbow affirming school environment. To witness a school becoming rainbow inclusive and affirming and moving away from the notion of ‘othering’ ultimately enhances whanaungatanga and manaakitanga for all.

Our model embraces these two goals in unison, but rainbow students’ needs and rainbow safety are our priority. Our group is about co-constructing, co-leading and co-facilitating: students and staff working collaboratively.

The rainbow group provides a space for students to explore their own uncertainties, express diverse identities and engage in health promotion, social justice and activism in the wider school. Some examples of the groups initiatives include: introduction of gender neutral uniforms and bathrooms; inclusion of LGBTQI+ books in the school library; use of self-identified gender pronouns for trans and/or gender diverse youth; normalisation of same-sex partners at the school ball; sex, gender and sexually diverse sexuality education in all year 10 health classes; successful implementation of an annual Day of Silence; rainbow baking cake stall as fundraiser for Rainbow Youth and many more. 

These meetings, actions, discussions and initiatives were moments of resistance in the school, times when a greater diversity of gender and sexual identities were visible. For students, this resistance to heteronormative practices meant a more inclusive culture was possible. 

If all schools in Aotearoa took steps in this direction by supporting their rainbow youth to be leaders of social change then school would be a place of empowerment rather than a space of hostility and indifference for our rainbow rangatahi.

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