Health

Much has changed to improve the lives of  queer young people, but many still suffer discrimination that can become life-threatening without stronger support from educators and health professionals. By Jacob Thomas.

Helping queer kids reach their potential

Activist for queer, trans and gender-diverse kids Jacob Thomas.
Activist for queer, trans and gender-diverse kids Jacob Thomas.
Credit: Andy Miller / Imaginarium Photography

It’s 2008. I’m 18 years old and packing my car to drive from my home town of Shepparton to Melbourne. I’m elated, and not just because I’ve been accepted to a great university. I’m going to kiss boys and no longer hide who I am.

Growing up, I bore the constant burden of straightening myself, which required shameful and exhausting acts of stealth. The fear of being found out haunted me daily, I was full of denial, of forced heterosexuality, and I laughed off any suggestion to the contrary. I eventually considered taking my own life – not out of fear but in the hope that the pain could be stopped.

Of course, my new life in the city all those years ago wasn’t quite Dorothy over the rainbow. My halls of residence were full of other country town kids, the bro mentality was still pervasive, with plenty of people saying they’d never met a queer person before. Nevertheless, here I was, starting to live my whole self. And things would get better as I found ways to channel my early life into my life’s work.

At 26, I received the Queen’s Young Leaders Award for my work in LGBTQIA+ suicide prevention and I later took up advisory positions throughout the Commonwealth and United Nations. I became an established researcher and activist, teaching LGBTQIA+ perspectives in psychology and international development.

When I work in schools and local councils now, young queer people often tell me they are out of their closets, holding hands with their partners, gleeful and wholehearted. They talk about their future careers and study prospects and the families they plan to create. These young people talk about who they are and who they will be, as if it is a given. As I note these experiences for my research, I am torn between pride and pain. It’s a common duality for queer people: relief that things aren’t as they once were and the wish to have had these experiences ourselves when we were younger.

 

What I experienced as a young person was not unique, nor is it especially uncommon now. Queer life is still a struggle. National debates around marriage equality and legalised discrimination toward LGBTQIA+ people under the guise of religious freedoms have continued to centre on our kids. The same old moral panic that once plagued gay men and lesbian women has expanded to everyone in the queer community, assigning all of us as monsters who wish to harm children and whose very existence will condemn society to a fate worse than hell. Transgender and gender-diverse children have been used as political footballs across every arena. From sporting clubs to schools to healthcare, trans kids in all their varieties have been targeted to within an inch of their humanity – simply for daring to exist.

It is no wonder then that we see truly horrific statistics when we research the lives of our queer kids. Writing Themselves in 4, a national survey of LGBTQA+ youth conducted in 2019 through La Trobe University’s Australian Research Centre in Sex, Health and Society, revealed harrowing statistics about mental health and suicidality. The survey – which is the largest of its kind – showed that 40 per cent of respondents had experienced verbal harassment in the previous year based on their sexual/gender identity. Between 40 and 50 per cent of transgender men, women and nonbinary people reported seeking treatment for depression in the prior year. More than 78 per cent of 15- to 24-year-old LGBTQIA+ people reported they had had thoughts of suicide over their lifetime, and more than a quarter had attempted suicide. The proportion of 16- to 17-year-olds who had done so was almost five times the 5.3 per cent reported among their age group in the general population.

Schools still tend to be unsafe spaces for young queer people. Another national survey, Free2Be... Yet?, which analysed experiences of Australian high school students who identify as gender and sexuality diverse, showed that 93 per cent of respondents had heard their classmates use vulgar terms such as dyke, faggot and poofter to describe lesbians, gay or bisexual people.

Meagan Macdonald, co-founder of Parents of Gender Diverse Children, which has had more than 3000 requests for support since starting in 2016, notes that schools feel under-resourced in this space. “Educators are begging us for resources,” Macdonald says, adding that parents of LGBTQIA+ kids, particularly trans and gender-diverse children, are also pleading with schools for help. With high rates of bullying and exclusion resulting in higher rates of poor mental health, a convenient suggestion given to parents and carers is to seek help from mental health professionals. However, Macdonald also notes it is extremely difficult for parents to access that support. “Since Covid it’s been hard for anyone to find an available psychologist, but there are added layers of difficulty for the families we support. Most psychologists do not have knowledge or experience to work with a young trans or gender-diverse person. Or, if they do, their books are full.”

So, what is the way forward for our communities, and for our young ones? While there is no single resolution, there are some suggestions. First, we can train more health professionals, particularly queer-accessible mental health workers and psychologists. Thankfully we are seeing more curriculums being devised in universities to do this, but the delivery of these workers will take time. Second, we can develop more dedicated spaces to support queer people. While metropolitan areas have some spaces, regional and rural areas are often less equipped, forcing queer folk to travel. Third, we as researchers can work more closely with queer communities, taking time to co-design and co-develop interventions that are fit for purpose.

 

So, it’s 2022 and I’m 32. I’ve just taken a trip back to Shepparton, a train ride that allows me to enjoy the views. The town and I have both changed. For one, I’m in drag. But now the local pub has a drag night, and the library has rainbow story time. The council tends to support queer motions for days of recognition. What is beautiful is the joy I see on people’s faces at my shows when I turn a high kick or tell a salacious joke. And especially when I see younger queer people come along and express their joy.

The schools in Shep are becoming more tolerant, teachers stand up for queer kids more assertively now, and they reach out for guidance where they can.

Above all, we need to protect our kids.

Queer kids are magical. As adults they will be charismatic, vivacious beams of joy in the world. But we need to make sure they get there. Every kid deserves to grow to their full potential. 

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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on September 3, 2022 as "Home coming".

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