There’s been a lot of work done and released this year on the status of secondary school environments for queer and trans students: primarily the Green Party’s Rainbow Report (talked about here), the University of Auckland-led Youth’12 survey – specifically the reports on trans students and same-sex/”both”-sex attracted students, launched last night, and Dr. Simon Denny’s paper on the impact of supportive school environments on sexual minority students (paper to be published this week in the Journal of Clinical child & Adolescent Psychology). All of these reports provide a hard basis for change in our schools, and will be undoubtedly useful in affecting change over the next few years.
But reading through them, there are issues that arise – granted, they are more symptomatic of academia in general rather than the fault of the authors, who I know are nothing if not well-intentioned.
One of the first issues I have is the way they approach their statistics. In both Youth’12 releases, it is obvious that both queer and trans students suffer more than their cis and straight peers, in multiple areas – most worryingly, areas of mental health, self-harm, and suicide. And while the report on attraction does look at the intersections of ethnicity and deprivation, there is never any report on the intersection of queer and trans experiences – the report fails to confirm whether trans students who are also attracted to the same or multiple genders experience a more severe occurrence of these rates. The report is also somewhat foggy on its methodology when it comes to sex and gender – if I understand correctly, the survey asked a question on the students’ sex and one on their gender, but the report does not clarify which is used to sort students into the “male” and “female” categories.
The second big issue I have actually comes from the authors solving a previous issue – the 2007 survey used the terms “heterosexual” and “non-heterosexual” instead of “opposite-sex attracted” and “same/both-sex attracted”. This was changed between surveys to prevent the categorising of queer students into some “Other” section – the “non” to the heterosexual ‘norm’. While this was definitely a concern that needed to be addressed, the way it was done only excludes people further – as we know, a) sex is not a binary and thus this question excludes intersex students and b) attraction is increasingly less thought of in terms of sex and rather in terms of gender. It is worth noting at this point that during the launch presentation, Dr. Lucassen did occasionally use the term ‘same-gender attracted’ rather than sex, so perhaps this is an issue that the authors are already aware of. Regardless, considering people with intersex conditions are more common than redheads, the exclusion of this group is something that needs to be addressed – though this issue can likely be marked down to the extremely slow nature of academia as a whole.
But sadly, these two issues mean that this data isn’t being used to its full value. Our most valuable reports and data are letting down those who need it most, who are at the intersections of multiple issues.
An interesting point that came up in Dr. Denny’s presentation and paper is that same-sex attracted women in schools do not benefit from supportive school environments in the same way as same-sex attracted men, for whom a supportive school environment resulted in lower rates of depressive symptoms and attempted suicides. While it’s important to note that the sample size of same-sex attracted males was too small to be totally confident, it is an interesting result that I have an anecdotal theory on.
A “supportive school environment” in Denny’s paper includes factors such as whether students felt like adults at school cared about them and whether they felt safe at school, but also included questions on their attitudes of their peers – which I believe is the big factor in the disparity between the results for women and men. The way masculinity is valued in society and the way queer behaviour in hegemonically masculine men is stigmatised and associated with femininity or a lack of masculinity means that homophobia has a heightened affect on young queer men and their social groups compared to young women. This is not to say that women do not suffer from homophobia, to claim such would be ridiculous – but I believe there are heightened amounts of peer pressure and casual homophobia within social groups of young men than there are among women – and as a result young same-sex attracted men are going to be seen to benefit more from a supportive school environment that includes supportive peers.
Finally, the 2007 version of this data, used in Denny’s paper, included a survey question directed at teachers, asking whether they thought their school environment was supportive. The data reflected the results from the same question asked of same-sex attracted males – that is that schools that rated more supportive from both sides, student and teacher, resulted in lowered depressive symptoms for same-sex attracted males. This is an interesting point, considering that the Greens’ report earlier this year showed us that principals and other school staff, along with ERO, are not necessarily reliable when it comes to reporting on queer issues within their school – ERO do not even have a measure for the safety and well-being of queer students within schools. When we see multiple principals saying they simply do not have queer students within their schools, or that their bullying policies already cover and protect all their students, that their students don’t have those levels of problems, it can be hard to trust the reports of staff.
That is where these reports become extremely useful – which was brought up by Dr. Lucassen at the launch. When a principal says “we don’t have those students here,” we now have data proving that queer students are prevalent across the nation, in both low- and high-decile schools, in areas of both high and low deprivation, across ethnicities, and in both rural and urban areas. When a principal says their bullying policies already work, we have data proving that over 60% of our queer youth are afraid that someone will hurt or bother them at school, that around 10% have not gone to school because of this, and that 20% are bullied weekly. When a principal says that things aren’t bad for their students, we have data proving that almost half of queer students have seriously thought about suicide compared to 15% of straight students. And that’s just the “same/both-sex attracted” data – things are the same or worse for trans students.
There are problems with these reports, as there are with essentially every piece of queer academia published. But the latest report shows that things can be changed to fix issues, as with the “het/non-het” question (as misguided as that ‘improvement’ was), meaning that we can aim to do better. And in the meantime, this data truly will be invaluable to bring the hard line to schools, principals, and the Ministry of Education. Things may be getting better, but our youth are still dying, and that’s not good enough.