Video: Teacher Ruby Grant explains why she is at the PPTA conference supporting gender-neutral school uniform options and toilets.
First-year teacher Ruby Grant has had homophobic graffiti written on her classroom wall. Students have told her she will go to hell.
Now she is fighting back. She spoke out today at the Post Primary Teachers Association conference in support of a call for the Ministry of Education to issue new guidelines to make schools safe for “students, whānau and staff of minority genders and sexualities”.
The association wants the guidelines to include gender-neutral toilets and gender-neutral uniform options in all schools.
Grant, 29, trained as a statistician and gave up her job as a data analyst in Wellington to train as a maths teacher on the job at Onehunga High School this year under the Teach First scheme.
She had never worn a school uniform, attended the uniform-free Wellington High School, which she described as “the most liberal school in the country”, and said she had never experienced serious homophobia before.
“My whole life was this beautiful liberal bubble,” she said.
“Then I moved to South Auckland. I have really been struggling.
“My classroom has been graffitied with homophobia twice. I’ve had a few students come up to me and tell me I’m a sinner and I’ll go to hell.
“But I’m a visitor to South Auckland. People say, ‘Just be yourself and eventually they will respect you,’ or, ‘Try to be less gay.’”
Grant and other lesbian and gay teachers said gender-neutral toilets and uniform options were important symbols that schools respected students and teachers who were not traditionally heterosexual.
“I see enforced gender roles as quite harmful,” she said.
“Because gender is a spectrum. Sometimes kids can feel uncomfortable in the girls’ toilets and uncomfortable in the boys’ toilets.
“The other thing that’s important to remember is that from the Youth 2012 survey, a quarter of all transgender people [in NZ secondary schools] have attempted suicide. Kids are at school for 15 years of their lives and they never feel safe there.”
She went to Wellington High School partly because it didn’t have a uniform.
“I don’t really feel comfortable in really super-feminine clothing and I wasn’t being forced into a set of feminine clothing for five years. I refused to compromise my identity,” she said.
Although Onehunga High School still requires girls to wear skirts, she said many girls actually wore shorts under their skirts for modesty.
“I’ve heard a few students talk about it but I’m so new I don’t really know [what they think about it],” she said.
She said all the other teachers and school leaders were “really supportive” when her classroom was defaced. The first time a student wrote “gay” on a heater and she simply cleaned it off. Then last week she discovered “homophobic abuse” on her classroom wall and the school covered it with a piece of plywood.
“The senior leadership team immediately brought me in and talked to me, affirmed me, let me know they were taking it completely seriously,” she said. “One of the deputy principals gave me a hug.”
But she is unsure how to handle it because many of the students attend conservative Pacific churches.
“School is about the students, I’m here for them,” she said.
“School has to be a safe environment for me, but I’m really wary of coming in and imposing my Palagi Western middle-class world view…. I really want to enact change in a culturally responsive way.”
Other teachers said Pacific cultures were not homophobic and had a long tradition of transgender or fa’afine culture.
Michael Cabral-Tarry, 35, a gay teacher at majority-Pacific Auckland Girls’ Grammar School, said some of his students were evangelical Christians, but they were also very polite.
“They wouldn’t ever tell me that I was going to go to hell even though I suspect a few of them do think that,” he said.
He has helped a group of students to form a lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgender group at the school which meets in his classroom.
But in a previous job at Whangarei Boys’ High School someone plastered his car with Playboy centrefolds, and at his own high school in Turangi he felt unable to “come out” as gay because the environment was not supportive.
As well as urging the ministry to introduce new guidelines for safe schools, the conference voted to ask the Education Review Office to include safety and inclusiveness in its regular school reviews.
Source: NZ Herald