It is common knowledge that queer youth are an at-risk population, often living in desperate conditions with lack of access to systemic support. But what can systemic support look like?
And where can we begin?
Wear It Purple in Australia sets an excellent example every year, with their celebration of ‘Wear It Purple Day’ in schools on the last Friday of August. The not-for-profit was founded in 2010, as a response to the global stories of queer teen suicides, particularly the death of Taylor Clementi which brought national attention in the U.S. to the issues of cyberbullying and the hardships faced by queer teenagers. The founders, Katherine Hudson and Scott Williams started the commemorations with the aim of combating homophobia in schools and bringing people together, using the colour purple to show support for whom they lovingly call the “rainbow” youth.
To see how far the celebration has come, all one needs to do is look up #WIPD2021 on Instagram. From educational institutions to workspaces and pets, Australians across the country turn up in purple to show support for rainbow young people.
Curious to find out more about WIPD, I spoke to Alex Stefan who is a Board Director and School Engagement Officer at WIP and a PDHPE (Personal Development, Health and Physical Education) school teacher.
Note: This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Having Queer Conversations in Schools
Q. This year’s Wear It Purple Day theme is ‘Start The Conversation, Keep It Going’. How can we ensure that awareness efforts in schools are more than a celebration and translate into institutional change?
Alex: The purpose of this year’s theme was to remind schools and workplaces of the importance of not being tokenistic and actually affecting real change. This means not just talking about inclusion and diversity practices on days of significance such as WIPD or IDAHOBIT (International Day Against Homophobia, Biphobia, Intersexism and Transphobia), but every single day. This may look like having conversations on sex, sexuality and gender or the importance of correct pronoun use. We’re looking to move away from the concept of tolerance and towards acceptance. We have found that the overwhelming majority of young people are very open minded and have prioritised social justice issues within their own personal moral code. To be truly effective, schools need to look at making amendments to their own policies including bullying policies, school plans and uniform policies (to include gender neutral options for gender diverse students).
Q. What may be some principles that guide you when developing resources on queer awareness for schools?
Alex: At WIP, we try to be sensitive to current political climates without pandering to the conservatives who often make inclusion practices difficult. We aim to use fact and statistic-based information from peer-reviewed sources when creating these resources, so that we have the science behind us. One resource we have been referencing in particular, is the latest “Writing themselves in 4” report that was released by La Trobe University earlier in 2021. In this report it was made abundantly clear from surveying thousands of LGBTQ+ young people that there are still many areas where improvement is needed to enable these young people to feel supported. When writing resources for schools, we are careful to adhere to the guidelines of their Departments of Education. So we refer to the parts of the curriculum the resource talks about, or the policy or document our resource could support, like The Wellbeing Framework and Safe Schools Policy. This gives relevance to our resources for use in schools.
Sports as a Queer Inclusive Tool
Q. Sports is a space that is often rife with gender stereotypes. As a PDHPE teacher, what may be some ways in which you believe that sports can become a more queer inclusive space and a tool to support students of varied genders and sexual orientations?
Alex: It’s very interesting to watch the differences between male-dominated and female-dominated sports when it comes to inclusion practices. Female sports have a large number of “out” athletes who are well supported. Unfortunately, it does not seem to be the same for male athletes. They are often bullied and ostracised if they come out or are suspected of being queer. This is something we would love to help combat. We encourage sports teams to undergo inclusion and diversity training so that the locker room becomes a safe space for all athletes and moves away from hazing practices and “boys will be boys” banter. Sports that are included in events like Pride Matches and Pride Cups have seen noticeable increases in the number of athletes that feel safe to come out, as well as an increase in the number of queer spectators who feel confident to attend these sporting events.
Within the PDHPE context, inclusion starts in the classroom in Health lessons where the discussions around sex, sexuality and gender become very important. Once a basic understanding of these concepts has been achieved, the importance of inclusion can be transferred to the practical setting. The use of co-ed teams rather than splitting into “boys and girls” assists in eliminating gender-related dysphoria for non-binary and gender diverse students when it comes to “choosing a team”. Being quick to stamp out any non-inclusive or abusive language is also important. Encouraging students to focus on team work rather than competitiveness can also be useful to minimise competitive students using gendered abusive language and phrases like “you kick like a girl” or “man up”.
Having Gay and Sexuality Alliances (GSAs)
Q. How does a GSA act as a unique resource of support for queer students?
Alex: A GSA is a unique resource in schools as it is run as a completely extra-curricular activity that is joined only by students who wish to attend. It is not tied to the curriculum and its content cannot be dictated by external parties with a vested interest. The group exists to support and mentor LGBTQ+ students and their allies, while giving them a safe space to build community and confidence and working on specific projects such as planning the school’s WIPD events. A GSA is inclusive of everyone regardless of how one identifies personally. Most GSA’s will have a large number of straight allies in attendance, who either have queer friends or family members and simply want to show their support and learn how to be the best allies that they can be.
Trigger warning: suicide
Q. What may be some ways in which the conversation on queer rights, particularly with regards to teen suicide prevention, has transformed since the inception of WIPD in 2010?
Alex: The main transformation around this particular conversation is that we now have the latest statistics that clearly identify the saddening numbers of young people who engage in either self-harm or suicidal ideation, which affects their long-term mental health outcomes. We know that our rainbow youth are five times more likely to self-harm than their heterosexual peers for a multitude of reasons ranging from bullying and homophobia to lack of support and mental health issues. Having this information is helpful when working to offer support services and to be aware of our own limitations. What we can offer young people is a safe space to convene and mentor each other through our Youth Action Council. When it comes to mental health challenges, we refer young people to organisations who are trained to assist young people in mental health like HeadSpace and Twenty10.
Q. Recognizing the Indigenous Australian community is an aspect that WIP takes efforts to communicate. How does this reflect in your engagement with schools, so that Indigenous students are included?
Alex: We believe that visibility is one of the most important things. You cannot be what you cannot see. With this in mind, WIP tries to ensure that we have a diverse board, YAC and Ambassador base. This means that we have team members who are proud indigenous queer folk who assist us in creating inclusive resources that will be relevant to our indigenous youth. The use of storytelling is generationally passed down through indigenous cultures to pass on information and stories, so we endeavour to use this format as well. We encourage our many indigenous team members to be guest speakers in schools, to impart their knowledge and experiences on youth of all identities whilst being highly visible to our indigenous rainbow kids. We also partner with indigenous organisations such as Black Rainbow to create inclusive events and resources for our indigenous young people, run by indigenous mentors.
Q. Neurodivergent and disabled students who identify as queer often have a particularly hard time in the classroom. What are some ways in which WIP engages with them so that they are also heard?
Alex: Similarly to our Indigenous team members, we also have neurodivergent and disabled team members. When a school lets us know that they have students from these groups, we send guest speakers who these students can identify with. We also partner with queer disability groups so that we can offer suitable and tailored mentorship to these particular students. We have also partnered with Wise Employment and assisted in the creation of “Rainbow Wise” which aids people living with disabilities to find meaningful employment. In 2021, we partnered with an organisation called Avenue Co-Working to fill and ship our merchandise orders on our behalf. Avenue is a program where disabled people are supported to work, socialise and develop their individual skills regardless of their own support needs.
Standing Up Against Prejudice
Q. What are some main misconceptions that people have about sensitizing children to issues of gender and sexuality that you have observed in your work?
Alex: From a board director perspective, we often see conservative politicians and religious fanatics who attack WIPD and accuse us of pushing a gay agenda. That is not the purpose of WIP, we exist to support kids in schools and to create safe spaces for them using inclusion-based practices. This means that all young people are welcome, regardless of how they identify. The statistics are on our side and clearly show that we are doing good and in fact, reducing harm endured by young people. We know that it is not possible to “turn” someone gay, just as you cannot “turn” someone straight. As a teacher, I have seen first-hand the difference things like WIPD and GSA’s can have in schools and in the lives of rainbow young people. Regardless of sexuality or gender identity, young people have proven to me time and time again that the majority of them support inclusion and diversity. They are kind-hearted and open to these conversations. It seems to be only the adults who have closed minds and closed hearts that are not willing to be educated.
Q. There have been instances where WIP has faced opposition and criticism for “distributing information that sexualized children” and “reverse bullying into participating in WIPD”. What are some measures that have helped you tackle such situations?
Alex: We have been accused of this many times, and of course it is untrue. WIPD exists as an “opt-in” activity at every school and workplace, and nobody is pressured to participate. We respect peoples beliefs, and simply ask that they do the same. It is one thing to not celebrate or support WIPD, but it is quite another to actively come after an organisation or event that seeks only to support kids. To combat this issue, we release a media statement each year around what WIPD actually is and what its purpose is. We try to tackle these accusations head on, rather than waiting for an attack and being on the defensive. We do not have anything to hide, as our agenda is simple – to support rainbow youth and empower them to be proud of who they are.
Special Purple Moments
Q. Would you have any particularly special moments from WIPD 2021 that you are going to cherish? Would you like to share the same with us?
Alex: WIPD 2021 looked a lot different than the previous years’. Due to covid restrictions and lockdowns/online learning for many parts of Australia, most WIPD events this year were virtual. However, we still managed to have one of the most successful years in terms of participation and engagement. It was so heart-warming to see so many schools and workplaces create virtual events via zoom and other online platforms. WIP still sold out of all school and workplace packs and our community reach was bigger than most other years.
For me personally, having the events be mostly virtual meant that I could attend more than usual and be a guest speaker in more school events than I normally can when they are in-person. My heart has always been in queer youth advocacy, so to be able to speak with so many amazing rainbow young people and hear their stories and answers their questions was so very special for me.
To find out more about WIP, you can access their website https://www.wearitpurple.org/