Transcript

Same-Sex Attraction with Anne Mitchell

18 September 2008

anne_mAnne Mitchell

You can also listen to the interview [MP3 10.1 Mb].

Matt:
And you’re listening to the La Trobe University podcast, I’d be your host Matt Smith, good morning, good afternoon and good evening, it does all depend on where you’re standing. This would be the time to talk about sex because I’m here with Professor Anne Mitchell. She’s from the Australian Research Centre in Sex, Health and Society. Thankyou for joining me here, Anne.
Anne:
It’s a pleasure, Matt.
Matt:

It’s lovely to have you on board. There’s been quite a shift in social climate today, around young people and sexuality. And it would be safe to say that yourself and your centre here can claim some credit in that, isn’t it?

Anne:

Yeah, I think so. We’ve been doing a lot of work in that territory for I guess 15 years, but one of the things that is different about this centre is that we’ve had from the beginning a designated person for putting research into practice. So not only do we do the research here about sex and sexuality here in young people but we then have a process and people like me who go on with it a bit and try and ensure it gets used and gets into policy and practice in some way. So with research about same-sex attracted young people there’s been about a ten year process about getting that to really make a difference because when we did the research in 1998 we did the first lot of research in 1998, and the second in 2005. The very first survey, absolutely nothing was known about young people. We had them on our radar, in a few surveys about all young people, and we could tell those young people weren’t doing very well but we really didn’t have any funds or any way of accessing them.

We managed to sort of piggy back them on to some HIV funding and to do a survey at that time and we found out a lot of information that nobody else knew about. The high degree of abuse and violence they were experiencing, that most of them hadn’t told anyone about their sexuality, that schools were the least safe places for them, and high rates of drug use and self harm. So this was all new information and we thought wow, this is a huge public health issue, this is really going to make a difference. In fact in 1998 we didn’t get a lot of mileage out of it, you might say. The education department refused to take the research on board, and in fact they tried to discredit the methodology and so on, so really it was a bit thankless at that time.

But we started a process that really helped to build one step at a time towards making a difference, and at that time we figured out what we had to do was market it, and we promoted the research as around a safety issue rather than a moral issue. A lot of people ten years ago and now too I guess have moral attitudes that vary to same-sex attraction, but we decided we’d push this as a safety issue and a human rights issue, and so we put out a press release that said ‘schools unsafe places for young gay students’ and so on. It turned out that a lot of teachers could, when they saw that there was a safety issue involved, leave aside any moral hesitations they might have to act on the matter, and start to take an issue on board.

Matt:

The resistance that you had to get anything done by the education department there, is that something that’s changed over time? They would have warmed up to the concept a little bit more these days.

Anne:

Well look it has changed over time, it has changed fabulously. We really had probably the holy grail from the beginning, the idea from the beginning that we’d like to see something from the Minister of Education sent out to all schools saying they’ve got to deal with this issue, don’t mess around any more, young same-sex attracted kids are entitled to be in schools and to have their needs addressed. So that was kind of an aim ten years ago and we were no where near it then.

When we did the second survey in 2005 things had changed. Our research had been out there long enough for it to get funding for a lot of ‘on the ground’ projects and things happening in individual schools and it made a big difference at that sort of practical level, but in 2005 when we repeated the survey we still found the same kind of levels of violence and that violence in schools had gone up. So we got to the education department and said would they like a briefing about this research before it goes out to the public and they said yes please. So we were in a really different climate and a lot had happened that had made that difference, so as a result of the research coming out a second time we really started to see some action.

We had a conference called the sense and sexuality conference, showcased the research and had a lot of workshops around, what people could do to put the research into practice and that was all paid for and organised by the education department. We got some information that came out of that, some issues that rose out of the research, into the Victorian Essential Learning Standards, so that was the curriculum guidelines, so now it’s mandatory for some of these issues to be taught in the classroom, both in sex-ed and in areas like citizenship and those new subject areas that they have. We had our research quoted all through the bullying policy, and in fact, a specific chapter on homophobia, which was just unheard of in the past. Homophobia was so not on the radar in schools.

One of the very first discoveries was that between about 9-11% of kids in any given school were struggling with their sexuality. Now not all of those will go on to be gay obviously, but quite a component of them will and it’s neither here nor there at that age. They’re all struggling with the idea that they might be gay in a climate where they’re really hearing so many negative messages about it. I think that was really new information for schools and it really helped to galvanise them to think they couldn’t sit with that idea, that there’s none in the school anymore.

Matt:

Is that why you used the term ‘same-sex attracted’, you used that earlier on.

Anne:

We sort of invented that term out of our research because we asked the kids if they are attracted only to the opposite sex, only to the same sex, to both sexes or not sure, and anyone who answers anything other than only to the opposite sex in our surveys we call ‘same-sex attracted’, not because they’re necessarily gay, in fact many of them aren’t, but they’re all dealing with the issue. So same-sex attraction didn’t foreclose what happened to the young people, and it’s somehow a gentler term that teachers and school administrators could sign on to that term.

Matt:

Well the words ‘gay’ and ‘lesbian’ in a school environment maybe have negative connotations these days. They’re used in verbal abuse as well.

Anne:

Well the word ‘gay’ is, everything being so gay, people think that’s fairly harmless but in fact we argue that for kids that are thinking they might be gay if they’re hearing the word used in a negative way all around them every day they’re getting the message over and over again, so if teachers will challenge it that might be the very first person that somebody who’s never spoken to anyone else about their sexuality standing up for the issue, and they might really respond well to that.


Matt:

So your second round of surveys in 2005 had pretty much the same data responses as far as percentages are concerned.


Anne:

Yeah, but we had double the number of students, and this time because we had the greater numbers we could link self harm directly to the abuse they were experiencing, and so it was a lot stronger the data, it really demonstrated some of the damaging health effects of the levels of abuse kids were experiencing.


Matt:

And what sort of results have you had from that? What sort of action?


Anne:

Well it was since that survey that some of those things I talked about before happened, but a few weeks ago we did in fact get a statement sent to all principals from all government schools from Bronwyn Pike the Education Minister saying exactly what we hoped she would say all those years ago, although it was not Bronwyn Pike then, that principals had to address the issue in an appropriate way with equal opportunity legislation if kids want to bring partners of the same sex to the school formal and so on that has to be okay. That they’re not to be discriminated against in any government schools.


Matt:

Is that actually starting to happen, things like that?


Anne:

Well realistically it’s a long way to go.


Matt:

It’s very forward thinking at this point, probably.


Anne:

It is, and I think for many principals it will be the very first time, despite all the pushing of our research that we’ve done, it might be the first time the issue has come on their radar, they’d be gob-smacked by getting the statement in their regular Tuesday e-mail. But for a lot of schools they’ve been addressing the issue all along so it’s a pat on the back for them, and probably the most important area is people who have been addressing the issue just quietly: a few teachers in the school with very uncertain support from the school administration, so this statement makes it really clear that that is a legitimate professional activity for teachers and it needs to happen in a broader way. So we were pretty happy about it really, but we do know that there’s another whole long time to go before we get every school doing what they need to do on the ground and making the environments really safe for same sex attracted young people, and we will be repeating the survey next year, so we hope then we might see some sort of improvement.


Matt:

See a bit of a change in the numbers. And how much of an effect is your survey having? Is it getting out there nationwide, or is it just in Victoria?


Anne:

We’ve had the most success in Victoria, in fact, we’re the envy of other states in having a statement gone out to the principals, and I think that’s something to do with political structures we’ve got in place like a gay and lesbian Ministerial advisory committee in the health area and so on, but it is used nationally and we’ve spoken in conferences all around Australia. It’s a national survey and we know that most education departments in states and territories are aware of the research and taken some steps to improve the situation based on the research but we’re doing the best in Victoria, because we’re down here and really pushing it.


Matt:

Why is homophobic bullying different to other types of bullying?


Anne:

Well we think it’s very different, all bullying is harmful and we’d like to see it all eliminated, but homophobic bullying is different in a few ways. First of all it is the kind of bullying that often goes unchecked. People hear kind of racist bullying and vilification of other students and teachers are onto it straight away. Homophobic bullying they often feel they’re not sure if they’re allowed to challenge it, or if it’s the right thing to do, maybe if they do challenge it they might be regarded as gay themselves, so we know that it has that sort of overtone.


And we also know that for young people who are struggling with the issue of whether or not they might be gay, they’re very isolated, they’re often alienated from their school, their church, their families, and this kind of bullying which reinforces the messages they’re hearing all around themselves, so they become very homophobic, full of self hatred, and the knife goes all the way in with homophobic bullying, unlike other kinds of bullying this seems to be experienced very profoundly by same-sex attracted young people and it certainly leads to higher rates of self harm.

Matt:

Do you think that further education of school students would maybe be needed so that they understand the issue better? Because a lot of them might be bullying without even realising they might be doing it to another student.


Anne:

We have done quite a lot of work in schools with children around this issue, but one on one I think most students know it’s a bad thing and they shouldn’t do it, and that the key to really turning the situation around is the sort of ‘zero-tolerance’ environment from staff. Not that the staff can be everywhere, but I think if that sort of ethos was established in the school a lot of the homophobic bullying would die out so we focus our attention a lot more on the teachers rather than the students, as students need to have it reinforced every day, you’ve got to have a teacher that’s well trained, confident of the stance they’re taking and keeps it up day after day after day, and then you will get some change in the culture.


Matt:

Professor Anne Mitchell, thankyou for your time.

Anne:

A pleasure, thankyou Matt.

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