Legislative changes like the passing of the same-sex marriage bill have been significant in changing the way society thinks, believes Auckland teacher Paul Stevens, a photography and art teacher and curriculum leader at Rangitoto College.
But equally, he says, young people standing up in schools and challenging their peers if they hear homophobic or transphobic language has caused shifts in attitudes. “The most powerful reason for change that I have seen,” he says, “is young people advocating for acceptance, and diversity being celebrated. That’s the framing that students have taken on and groups like InsideOUT and Rainbow Youth have helped young people develop this language.”
Part of a Christian family, Paul found it difficult when, at 15, he realised he was attracted to the same sex. It wasn’t until he was 18 that he began to realise his sexuality was something he couldn’t change.
“The first person I came out to was my history teacher and she was out in the classroom,” he says.
“She was someone I looked at quite warily when I was still in the closet, but when I started to realise that I couldn’t change, I reached out to her and she was a real lifeline for me.
She got me in touch with another teacher who was also out and they helped me to understand that some of my understanding about sexuality wasn’t right and that helped me manage to come out in a healthy way as I went off to university.
Paul says that as a young Christian person he experienced an internalised homophobia because he really did believe that it was wrong.
“This led to a sense of isolation and situational depression,” he says. “I think that has been part of the imperative for me as a teacher, because that was such a hard period of my life. I recognise that on a certain level, all young people are going through a degree of that, because it’s bloody tough figuring out who you are and how you want to be in the world. And on top of that, increasingly we can make a lot of demands of young people at school.”
When he became a teacher, it was important to Paul to be out in the classroom. “It’s not about a constant advocacy, so much as just being honest and authentic and allowing the students to be able to see a variety of ways of being and have a range of role models.”
Being out is empowering
Secrets give power to bullies and being out empowers queer people.
Schools that have rainbow-inclusive cultures and rainbow groups or queer-straight alliances, are important for rainbow students, says Paul.
Despite being more accepted by society, the rainbow community is still a minority group. “That’s why I think it’s important for people to be out, because it does offer that solidarity. I see the need for that with students and that’s also part of the reason why it’s important to feel comfortable being out as a teacher,” he says.
“The statistics still show there are high levels of bullying and self harm with students who are rainbow, and so there’s still a lot of work to do.”
While Paul has a particular empathy for rainbow students, he says nearly every teenager has issues that can feel insurmountable at times and he feels a sense of responsibility to help.
“I don’t see myself as just the gay teacher there for the gay students. I have had just as many moments with students struggling with other things. I’m there to help them succeed in my subject and that’s really important for me, but you also have those pastoral moments as a teacher where you just are there as a human with another human who you can tell is having a tough go of it, for whatever reasons.”
Teachers can be a lifeline
Some young people grow up with a diversity of people around them, but others come from more closed backgrounds and Paul believes it’s important for teachers to realise they may be one of the few adults who can provide a different perspective.
“It’s important for us to remember there is the chance that we are one of the only people in that young person’s life who will reach out and say, ‘it’s okay to be you’.”
Paul doesn’t feel that he has been treated differently by students or his colleagues, but he has heard of teachers who have been bullied because of their sexuality. He is a member of the PPTA’s Rainbow Taskforce for Safe Schools which aims to help make secondary schools be safe and welcoming places for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex students, family/whānau members and teachers.
Inspiring young people
“What really inspires me now is the number of young people I meet, where their sexuality is not an issue,” says Paul. “It can depend on their family backgrounds, but for a lot of young people, their sexuality and gender is not a thing they really had to worry about in the sense that even if they are rainbow, their family accepts them and their schools are accepting them.
“Increasingly, it’s the young people who are leading the way when it comes to acceptance and ways of celebrating diversity. We’re doing them a disservice if we assume that they must necessarily be struggling. The best we can do is let them blossom,” he says.
“It’s important for us to remember there is the chance that we are one of the only people in that young person’s life who will reach out and say ‘it’s OK to be you’.” – Paul