Those lockdown feels

Today is one of those days when it feels like every single nerve in my body is completely exposed. Everything that happens feels intense, whether good or bad. It just feels too much. It’s almost as though the absence of hugs has removed a crucial conduit through which we process our emotions. As though touch balances us by calming the extremes, bleeding off the lows and making the highs manageable, but also lasting.

I am dying to wrap myself around my friends. To feel my face against theirs, to match their breathing with my own, to consume the feel of their heartbeats like a drug.

I turned fifty recently. People have been sending me beautiful, thoughtful gifts. Orchid earrings (I LOVE orchids), flowers, wine, chocolate. My bestie is making me the most beautiful quilt in perfectly Linda colours. A friend I haven’t spoken to for ages sent me earrings, a pendant, and a keyring made of wooden discs laser engraved with my organisation’s logo. Lots of people donated to Transcend on my behalf.

I feel loved. But bereft at the same time.

This has been the weirdest week. On Wednesday I woke up and went downstairs to chat with my husband and play with the cat, and I noticed a weird artefact in my vision. There was a patch in my vision surrounded by a brightly lit line that was rippling. I couldn’t read because the patch was in the way, and I’d never experienced anything like this before. Unnerved, I called Nurse on call and spoke to Laura, who asked me lots and lots of questions, and seemed very concerned with whether or not I had a headache. She encouraged me to see a GP the same day, and urged me to call back if my symptoms changed. By the time the call was over the patch had expanded beyond the boundaries of my eye and disappeared, but I remained unsettled.

Within 30 minutes I had developed a bad headache, so I called Nurse on Call back and this time she urged me to go straight to the emergency room. This is the third time in my life I have been told to go straight to the emergency room. Fortunately they’ve all turned out to be false alarms, but it’s an unsettling process, to say the least. It’s definitely better to go to the hospital and find out you’re ok than choose not to go and find out that you really should have gone, but it’s not a fun process. The nurse was talking about neurological issues, and I knew she was concerned I might be having a stroke. The “it can’t happen to me” part of my brain was warring with the “holy crap I’m dying” catastrophising part, and I was distinctly edgy.

Since we’re in a pandemic and Victoria is in the middle of an outbreak, I wasn’t allowed to have my husband with me (we didn’t even try, because we know the drill by now), so I went through the ‘check in’ process and wound up in a cubicle feeling stressed and vulnerable. One of the nurses asked me to put on a hospital gown, which, if you’re not familiar with them, could hardly have been designed better to make patient feel exposed (literally) and alone, gaping and open at the back as they are. They’d only be worse if they opened at the front. As I’m now fifty and much more assertive I declined the hospital gown (why did I say yes in the past??) and remained in my own clothes, which gave me at least the illusion of control.

I sat down on the emergency room hospital bed feeling anxious and alone, and the bed started to shake. Having been told I had possible neurological issues I immediately thought “hell, is this real, or is it in my head?” I watched the bed for a bit and listened to the rumbling, and then the two nurses in the cubicle rushed to the front of the room and said “what was that??? Is it an earthquake??” at which point I figured it was not in my head. An actual earthquake came as a relief. (And, honestly, it was exciting. Never occurred to me that lives could be at stake, or any significant damage – we don’t get that kind of earthquake here, or at least haven’t in the past!) I jumped on twitter to find every Melbournian (and a few Canberrans, Sydneysiders, and people further afield) saying “hey, did anyone else feel that?” and then my phone started to melt down with text messages.

To put this in context, we also had the most bizarre riots on the same day, with tradies mixed with nazis and other alt-right fascists rampaging through the city and staging nonsensical protests on the West Gate Bridge. We were well on track for the apocalypse. I don’t think any of us would have been surprised to find a swarm of locusts in our backyards.

It was quite a day.

It turns out that I get migraines now, and this explains the visual disturbance and the headache, but the ER doctor was very concerned about my blood pressure, which was high. I mean, I was in the ER concerned about possibly having a stroke, worried about catching covid due to being in a hospital during a pandemic, hearing about riots and experiencing an earthquake, and my blood pressure was showing signs of stress. Go figure.

It’s just relentless. Life doesn’t stop lifeing at us just because we’re in a pandemic. Kids get sick. We get sick. Parents get sick. Things break. We break. Job dramas. House dramas. Pet dramas. Family dramas. Life goes on, but here we are, feeling quite bereft of the resources to deal with it.

And yet, look at us. Mostly dressed (when we need to be), mostly washed (ditto), getting up and doing things day after day. It may feel like we’re not coping, but as my friend Lisa pointed out quite emphatically today, we need to celebrate the wins. We need to celebrate being alive. Making it from one day to the next. Connecting with our friends (when we can). Getting food on the table. Just surviving is a win. Lisa asked me how far I have come in the last five years, and professionally the answer was obvious – I have started a Data Science Education charity, written a book, educated a lot of teachers, created a lot of resources, built a lot of partnerships.

But personally, perhaps the most important answer is: I have figured out that I get to choose. Who I work with. Who I spent my emotions and energy on. How I live my life. A lot of people are changing jobs, moving to the country or the coast, figuring out what matters to them. That’s a gift. And maybe some of the things that matter to us are out of reach just now. But they will come back into our lives, all the more precious and valued for having been missing. We get to choose. And tonight, I am choosing to celebrate how far we’ve come.

Hang in there. Get vaccinated. Stay connected. And celebrate more.

Are we ok? Can we be?

Yesterday a close friend called from interstate, where he is not in lockdown. He wanted to know how I was.

I’m ok, I said. But I lied.

I don’t know why I lied. I tell him everything. He knows my soul. Maybe it’s because I’m trying so hard to be ok. Perhaps it’s because not being ok is unthinkable. Because if everything that’s going on means I’m not ok, and none of it is going away anytime soon, then when will I ever be ok again? Is being ok something we can even aspire to now?

Here we are again, in lockdown with no clear end in sight. Just when we thought we had figured out how to manage this virus, it changed on us. It will almost certainly change again. That comforting magic carpet of certainty that most of us used to ride, that enabled us to surf confidently over the complexity of our lives, has been comprehensively shredded. There’s no certainty now.

Every day is the same, yet differently traumatic. The strategies that kept us going last year were cheap, poorly made, single use trinkets, barely fit for a week in lockdown. For me, at least, they unravelled, came unglued, and broke completely at the beginning of this latest lockdown. Still, we had hope. We hunkered down and consumed the daily numbers ravenously. Hoping, begging, praying they would come down today.

And then the unthinkable happened. Covid zero eluded us. Suddenly the end was not reliably in sight. No more visions of donut days and celebratory dinners at actual restaurants.

Now the way out is vaccination, but unless we are one hundred percent vaccinated, which we can’t possibly do because young kids still can’t get the vaccine, the “way out” is not actually out. It’s… kind of… through? Less in? Differently in? We talk about getting back to normal, but there is a deep suspicion fermenting in the depths of my broken heart that fears normal is gone forever, just like covid zero.

When our kids were little and we were chronically sleep deprived, my mantra used to be “this, too, will pass.” Even in the depths of despair after another dreadful night, it helped to remember that what we were going through was temporary. Things would change. They wouldn’t necessarily get easier, but we could be sure they’d be different.

It seems to me that my mantra works for the pandemic, as well. This will pass. Things will be different. Maybe easier, maybe not. But the never ending day, reduced, reused, and recycled into the same day tomorrow? It will change. I just wish I had some idea of what it will change into.

Self care

Last night on Conversations with Annie and Kate, Kate Carruthers asked me whether I practised any self care, and if so, what? It was a confronting question, because my self care typically involves spending time with my friends, and copious quantities of hugs. Not a wise strategy during a pandemic, and given how many of my close friends are interstate and overseas, in many cases not even possible.

That’s not my only self care, though. I have taken to re-reading Terry Pratchett books, because they are my safe place. They are funny, and thought provoking, and most of them won’t make me cry. I don’t watch any tv shows or films that are dystopian, or even sad. I don’t have the emotional capacity for unnecessary trauma right now.

I try to go for a walk to our local cafe every day, to collect a take away coffee and maybe a friand. I don’t always make it, but it definitely helps when I do. I take pictures of flowers, and my cat, and always try to get some sunshine when it’s out.

But I’m in Melbourne, and this is lockdown number 6. I thought about counting the total days of lockdown and then decided against it. Sometimes it’s better not to know. Even when we’re not in lockdown, the threat of it hangs over us like a dark cloud. It could hail on us, or even hit us with the lightning strike of exposure to delta, at any moment. Going out doesn’t feel safe, but never going out isn’t a great option either.

The local cafe noted in lockdown 5 that they weren’t as busy. People weren’t coming as often. And I must admit, I’m not getting there as often as I did last year. I’m struggling to motivate myself to leave the house. I’m struggling to exercise, even though I know I need to. I’m struggling to organise online chats with friends. I have bursts of reaching out to people followed by long periods of lacking the will to organise anything at all.

It’s as though each new day in lockdown saps a bit more energy. Like the constant drop of a water leak in a cave can wear even stone away, this pandemic is eroding my energy, my enthusiasm, my heart.

Perhaps life force is a muscle, and the normal hustle and bustle of daily life strengthen the muscle. Some things weaken it, but friends and work and socialising build it back up and keep it strong. In a pandemic, though, it’s as though we’ve become bedridden. The life force muscle works ok for a while, but each time you lock it down it gets a little weaker, a little harder to build back up again. And the in-between-lockdowns-but-not-quite-a-life times just aren’t enough to restore it to full strength.

Against a backdrop of diminishing life force, I have been dodging news about the IPCC’s latest report because I can’t face the existential terror and despair. I know we have to have hope if we’re going to achieve anything right now, but hope is in such short supply.

I’m sitting with the sun in my eyes as I type this, reluctant to close the curtains and block it out because some light in my day feels so rare and so precious right now.

I guess it’s important to remember that this will pass. Things will change. Tomorrow is another day, and my life force muscle may be down, but it’s not out. Meanwhile, if you’re finding it hard to put one foot in front of the other right now, just know that you’re not alone.

The worst part

The worst part is, or rather one of the worst parts, for there are many, this*: guilt.

Everyone I talk to is feeling so, so guilty right now.

Guilty for not being more productive in lockdown.

Guilty for not providing better support to their friends.

Guilty for not being more patient with their kids.

Guilty for not making better sourdough. Guilty for not making sourdough at all. Guilty for making other people feel bad about their sourdough.

Guilty for putting on weight. Guilty for not exercising more. Guilty for drinking too much.

Guilty for buying too many coffees. Guilty for not buying coffees and supporting local businesses.

Guilty for not getting this health issue checked. Or that health issue. Or one of the long, long list of other ones that have just been too hard to think about.

Guilty for not going to the dentist.

Guilty for going out and risking exposure.

Guilty for not going out because you’re afraid of risking exposure.

Guilty for badgering friends with too many messages. Guilty for not sending enough messages to your friends.

The guilt is everywhere. I have an overactive guilt gland at the best of times, but right now the guilt level is beyond overwhelming.

I bought some flowering tulips, still on the bulb, to cheer myself up. They made me happy for a few days, and then I felt guilty for not taking better care of them and changing the water regularly.

A collection of red and yellow tulips on a messy table

I suspect the immense uncertainty and lack of control we are dealing with in every area of our lives right now – both covid related and not – are piling up in such a way that we simply can’t live the lives we feel like we should. We can’t do a lot of the things we feel we should do. We can’t be the people we want to be. And so we’re building up a kind of guilt-debt. A failure mountain of ways we can’t measure up.

I don’t think we’ve updated our internal image of how we should behave and what our lives should be like to account for the impact of the pandemic. All along, we’ve told ourselves that things will “soon” be back to normal, without ever really defining “soon”. Sadly, “soon” keeps receding into the distance like a mirage. With every lockdown, every vaccine rollout screw up, it gets a little more out of reach. A little more demoralising.

So life yoyos between tantalising glimpses of almost normal and lockdown, and it’s never entirely clear which is more terrifying. Meanwhile we keep failing to live up to our ideals, because those ideals are out of reach until we can claw our way out the other side of this thing. Assuming we can.

In my professional life I am all about data and evidence (check out Raising Heretics: Teaching Kids to Change the World to see more), and I think it might be time to apply the data and the evidence to our own lives. To be kinder to ourselves. To recognise all the extra burdens we are carrying, and to understand that when you’re working under the weight of a pandemic, you’re going to be working slower, and that’s ok.

This thing isn’t easy. And it’s not going to be easy anytime soon. We really have to cut ourselves some slack, and try to slay the guilt monster. Everything else can wait.

* apologies to Douglas Adams

This is all still really hard

I had coffee with a friend this morning. Though he’s years younger than me, we’re both feeling old and tired. The bounce has definitely gone out of our respective bungies. (You have to say that in Wallace’s voice – from Wallace and Gromit – to make it work properly.)

I am tired and low. Though there are happy moments, they don’t lift me the way they should. I feel like I’m bumping along the bottom of my life, lacking the strength to climb to the top, where once I would have soared. Not every day. No-one can soar every day. But I used to at least soar sometimes.

Some days I wrestle with that. I feel guilty and bewildered that I don’t feel better. After all, I can see people now. I can have people over to my house. There are hugs, and cafes, and restaurants. I’ve even been lucky enough to travel to see some of my loved ones. Yet this isn’t over. It’s all still really hard. Many people seem to feel life is back to normal, but I still can’t see normal with a telescope.

My friend and I talked this morning about the uncertainty – not knowing if or when another lockdown would hit. And this afternoon, lo and behold, it turns out there’s a new case in Melbourne. We’re not in lockdown yet, but who knows what will happen over the next few days?

It’s also the constant heightened risk. Have we checked in? Are we too close to the people at the next table? Is the ventilation good enough in this building? Should we sit outside even though it’s cold? Have we used enough hand sanitiser? Will the skin on my hands survive this much hand sanitiser? What is the list of exposure sites? Have I been there? Has anyone I love been there? Why is that guy wearing his mask under his nose? (I have never wanted to use the term “dicknose” so often in my life…) Why are all those high school kids not wearing masks on the train? Have I become the mask police? Can I go into the office? Is it safe to be on the train? Is this a cold, or could it be covid? I should get a test. Who might I have infected if it is covid? Will I be the “New case detected in Melbourne” in all of the papers? Should I not have hugged the dear friend I saw yesterday who I hadn’t seen in over a year? If it is covid, have I given it to my family? Have I been careful enough? What if I have spread covid to all of my friends? Will they hate me forever? Oh thank god, it’s not covid! But I still feel awful. What if the test returned a false negative? Is this new sniffle the old cold, or allergies, or do I need a new covid test?

It’s exhausting. In fact, it redefines exhausting entirely. I thought I knew what it was to be exhausted in the beforetimes, but it was nothing on how exhausted I feel now. This is a bone deep, grinding, hopeless psychological exhaustion that has eaten my hope, my joy, and my optimism, and left me gutted on the floor. It’s physical, too. I get puffed just walking up stairs. Is that covid? Or is it the shameful deconditioning of barely leaving my house for a year? Why have I put on all of this weight? Why can’t I take it off? Why can’t I move on? Why can’t I fix it all? Why can’t I feel better?

The last two paragraphs accidentally poured my internal monologue onto the page, I suspect, but perhaps that constant, frightened gibbering that passes for my train of thought these days explains the exhaustion somewhat. This isn’t over. There’s a long way to go. We’re trapped in endless stress cycles, raised cortisol levels, risk calculations, and pining for our way of life, our far flung loved ones, our joy.

We’ll get through this. Things are getting better. But we’re a long way from where we used to be. This is all still really hard. It’s ok to be struggling. Be kind to yourself.

Ripple Effects

A few weeks ago my 14 year old non binary child, Sol, went to a new doctor for the first time. The doctor was an older lady who clearly had not (knowingly) met a non binary person before, so she asked a lot of questions about identity, before getting stuck, as many do, on the pronouns. Sol’s pronouns are they/them, and the doctor was struggling with it.

“We really need a new word, don’t we? Because “they” is plural…”

With a small internal sigh, I launched into my “here’s one we prepared earlier” spiel about singular “they”.

“Actually, we use singular ‘they’ all the time. For example ‘oh, someone left their book on the train. I hope they get it back.'”

The doctor’s eyes widened as she took this in, and she paused for a moment before exclaiming how much sense it all made, and then we went on with the consultation.

Yesterday, we had a followup visit via telehealth, and the first thing she said, after the obligatory apology for being late, was “I have to thank you!”

Which was not where we were expecting this consultation to go, but she quickly explained herself.

“What you said about how we already use ‘they’ as singular made so much sense to me, and it immediately got rid of my whole discomfort with it. It wasn’t a problem anymore. Then I caught up with a teacher friend of mine who was really struggling with it, and I told her what you told me. She thought it was absolutely brilliant and she’s now telling everyone…”

This is a neat story, and I’m happy that it made sense to that doctor, but what it really slammed home for me is the power of the ripple effect. Every time you explain something in a way that makes sense to someone, you’re not just explaining it to them. You are potentially explaining it to everyone that person ever meets. And that everyone they explain it to potentially explains it to everyone they meet… And you don’t need to watch my video explainer on exponential growth to understand that the ripples of that explanation can spread a long way remarkably quickly.

So even though some explanations inevitably fall on deaf ears, who knows how many ripple effects there will be from every other time you take a deep breath and try to explain. And ripples can quietly change the world.

In other news, the Australian Ally Schools Network has been launched as a Facebook group, as a support for schools wanting to become better allies to their LGBTQI+ students. Schools can share best practice & resources, as well as talk about their challenges and find support for making progress. Searching for the name of the group should find it, but feel free to email contact@adsei.org if you need help.

Trans issues are everyone’s issues

A lot of cis het people feel like they can’t comment on issues involving queer people. It’s an anxious space, trying not to say the wrong thing, trying not to misrepresent the experience of a significantly marginalised and often harassed group, trying to be supportive and understanding, while desperately, desperately trying not to offend anyone.

For a public figure, that must be even more terrifying – to put your words, and your ignorance, out on full display, to tread in a sensitive area and not cause pain, with SO many people watching. Not to mention a hostile, conflict-loving media always waiting to pounce.

The trouble is, if queer people are the only people who ever advocate for queer people… well. It’s exhausting. To fight the bathroom fight every single day (what the heck is it with bathrooms, anyway??? geez). To get told to pick a side. To get told you’re unnatural. An abomination. Possessed by Satan. (These are all things my non binary child has had said to them.)

That’s why it was so glorious when we went to see Adam Hills last night. He used his privileged cis het voice to talk about trans issues, and he did it beautifully – because he admitted his ignorance. I’ve known and worked with a lot of people who feel like admitting ignorance is showing weakness, something we must never do. But exposing your own ignorance can be a phenomenally powerful thing.

I won’t appropriate Adam’s jokes (they were hilarious), but his central point deserves being shouted from the rooftops. Adam pointed out that he’s old (though I could take issue with him on that, because he’s only a year older than me!), and that there’s a lot of stuff he doesn’t get.

But here’s the thing, his central point: You don’t have to get it, in order to respect it.

That’s it. That’s the point. If someone tells you what they need, you don’t turn around and say “You don’t need that.” You try to help them get what they need.

And trans people just need respect. We all just need respect. But trans and other queer people have to fight every day just to be treated with basic human respect. It’s exhausting. It’s demoralising. It’s actively dehumanising.

So for Adam to turn up, stand up, stand proud, and say “I don’t get it. But here are a few things I’ve had explained to me, and I reckon we could all be nicer to each other.” was an immensely powerful thing. Especially when he relayed trans comedian Anna Piper Scott’s comment that the one thing she wanted was for people to know that trans people were never going to molest them in the bathroom. That all trans people want is to be able to use the bathroom in peace. I mean. Talk about basic human rights, eh?

Adam has a profile, a platform, and hordes of adoring fans. And he chose to use that platform to take a risk, to expose his ignorance, and in doing so, to advocate for trans people. That means a lot to me, and to my family.

And here’s the thing, which I tend to forget, and I needed a friend to point out to me: This is not a trans issue. Just as domestic violence is not a womens’ problem. Trans people are not the problem. This is society’s problem. It’s not trans people who need to change. It’s us. This about taking “us and them,” and making it all about us. All of us.

Love, vulnerability, and the Aussie man

If there’s one thing that has become clear in these bizarre pandemic times, it’s that love is essential to keep us alive and functional. And also that love is a larger, more complex beast than our language can possible allow for.

I’ve just finished reading Rick Morton’s immensely powerful and eloquent treatise on love, “My Year of Living Vulnerably,” and, gosh! It sparked some intense reflections in this pandemic-addled brain of mine. The impact of isolation, the long, long shadow of childhood trauma and all of the ways we don’t recognise its effect… and the overwhelming need for connection. I probably need to read it again to make proper sense of it because, honestly, I kept having to put it down to go “oh my god, that’s why I …” which was quite distracting at the time, though extraordinarily useful. But it also poked some extremely raw nerves about love.

I love intensely. It’s hard to measure that against how intensely others love, because I can’t see the inside of anyone else’s head (dammit). But I’ve watched my kids, and when they love, they love with their whole beings. Every fibre of themselves. And they don’t back down from that easily. And… let’s just say… they probably get that from me.

But I have issues with telling men (other than my husband) that I love them. I don’t think they’re my issues. I think they belong to an awful lot of Australian men, to be honest. Some of my male friends flinch a little, or look edgy, or just plain uncomfortable when I do tell them I love them. They’ll change the subject, or make a joke, or just pretend it never happened. With some of my closest male friends I often try not to tell them I love them, because I’m quite confident it would make them uncomfortable. But I do, oh! I do. I love them with my whole heart.

My closest female friends are fine with it. We speak our love with gay abandon (so to speak), and say “I love you” all the time. And it’s a glorious thing. But it’s different where men are concerned.

Though I’m frightened by the word,
Think it’s time I made it heard.
No more empty self possession,
Visions swept under the mat.
It’s no New Years resolution,
It’s more than that.

Message to My Girl, Split Enz

So what’s with the men? I think there are two problems here. One is that Australian men are trained in a quite visceral and emphatic way not to have emotions, and certainly not to express them. Since the former is obviously impossible, many men go all in on the latter, in an attempt to pretend that they are successfully being actual robots. If they can’t stop having emotions, then preventing them from showing is surely the next best thing, right?

The second problem is that, for my generation at least, men and women are still not supposed to be friends. I used to go to parties where the men went to one room and the women to another, and it did my head in, because I typically felt much more comfortable hanging out with the men. Now I just don’t go to those kinds of parties. But there’s still this perceived divide. That men get men, and women get women, and friendships that cross the divide are impossible without sex getting in the way (except for the gay male bestie. That’s allowed.)… it still seems like that’s taken as a fundamental truth, despite being terribly, terribly damaging and divisive.

I have a close gay male friend who I share “I love you”s with, but I also have a dear gay male friend who would, I suspect, be hugely uncomfortable with that, so it’s not just the potential-attraction dynamic. Now, maybe this is me presuming things that aren’t true, or maybe I am correctly picking up on a vibe, but there’s no doubt that saying “I love you” can be tricky between the sexes. It seems like younger generations are more sensible about this. I’ll be 50 this year, and it’s still the exception rather than the norm, when I look around, for women my age to have male best friends, but my kids and their friends often seem to cross the divide without even knowing it was ever there.

But this time of isolation, of being cut off from so many loved ones, of having our level of people contact, hugging, and casual affection drastically cut down, has had a far reaching impact. As one friend said to me recently, “they’ll be writing PhDs about this for decades”. And for me, at least, it has made me profoundly, painfully aware of my love, and desperate to express it. And when the internet is all we have, and hugs mostly off the table still, how can we express the intensity of our feelings in this moment without saying I love you?

At all times, but especially in these times, we could all use more love, and more expressions of love. Forget flowers and chocolates. Tell your friends you love them. When someone I love tells me that they love me, it’s like a wave of joy that lifts me over the rough road of every day life. It’s like a heated blanket on a cold day. It’s the closest we can get to a hug without actually hugging. And I love that. Don’t you?

How schools can be better allies

I have this habit of being loud and insistent about everything I am passionate about, which often leads to me being asked to talk to all kinds of people about those things. This week I am in Perth, and wound up talking to a friend’s school about their efforts to support queer kids. They are doing great work, but feeling a little as though they are working blind, because this stuff is so new for many of us. There was certainly nothing in my teaching degree about supporting queer kids (which is outrageous, because queer kids did not magically start appearing recently!). It got me thinking on a number of fronts, so I am being even louder and even more insistent, and presenting to you this list of what schools can do to be better allies.

I am not an expert. This has grown out of my own experience and that of my family, together with my observations of schools I am connected with. If you have other things schools should do, please add them in the comments. Absolutely every school should start by reading this wonderful resource on supporting trans and gender diverse kiddos from the extraordinary folks at Transcend.

Step 1: Both students and staff need active education every year on what it means to be LGBTQI+, and how to support the queer people around them. This helps create a culture where diversity is respected and slurs and bigotry are unacceptable. It empowers straight, cis kids to call it out when people use f*ggot or gay as a slur, and makes it so that queer kids are not constantly bearing the burden of their own protection. You’re not going to stop the homophobes being homophobic, or the transphobes being transphobic, but you can make it not ok for them to do it aloud. That’s a really important step. Denormalising bigotry goes a long way towards removing it.

Step 2: (and this is super important) Your efforts need constant evaluation and monitoring. How are we doing? What else do we need to do? Are the kids safe? What are they experiencing? You need to be asking kids for feedback and issues regularly (ALL kids, not just queer ones), with an anonymous channel of feedback to make sure they feel safe to raise it. Never assume you’re done and everything is fine. Stuff is going to go wrong even in the most inclusive and supportive of cultures.

Step 3: Make a queer support group to bring queer kids AND ALLIES together in a safe space. Make sure this is school supported and not left to the running power and enthusiasm of a few great kids who will inevitably get busy, tired, or leave the school, potentially killing the group. Support this group, champion it, offer it regular chocolate or whatever you can use to encourage kids to come and hang out. Include allies, in part to make it cool to be an ally, and in part so that kids do not have to out themselves in order to join in.

Step 4: Clearly identify your staff as allies. Rainbow stickers on laptops, rainbow lanyards, rainbow pins, trans flags everywhere. Identify yourself as safe and supportive in every way you can think of. There cannot be too many rainbows. Normalise putting your pronouns in your bios and email signatures.

Step 5: Clearly identify your school as an ally school. Put rainbow stickers on your doors and your website. Put up posters about diversity and inclusion. Actively celebrate Transgender Day of Visibility, IDAHOBIT day, Wear it Purple day, all of the days. Celebrate Pride Month really loudly.

Make sure the stories you tell include queer families in many forms. Make sure the books you read have queer representation in many forms. Use Grace Petrie’s Black Tie as the morning bell song (ok, it does have the F word, but there are many many options). Change your policies and public messaging to make sure they don’t use “Mums and Dads” or “girls and boys” everywhere (or, indeed, anywhere!). Make your uniform gender neutral. This doesn’t mean you have to do away with dresses, but it does mean that kids get to choose the uniform they wear, and it should not be described as “boys’ uniform” and “girls’ uniform” – just summer options, winter options, and sport.

Step 6: Make sure you have gender neutral toilets and change cubicles. Don’t wait until you know you have a non binary student (hot tip: you almost certainly have several already at your school, whether you know it or not), be proactive. This clearly signals that the school is ready for non binary kids, is supportive of them, and has thought about accommodating them.

Step 7: Desegregate your sport – there is no need for boy categories and girl categories. Desegregate all classroom activities. Never separate the class by gender for any reason.

Steps 8-Infinity: Above all, remember that you are never done. As long as our wider culture discriminates against queer people, kids will bring those attitudes to school. And so will teachers, sadly. Which means you need to keep educating, keep advocating, and keep supporting our kids.

You won’t be able to do all of this tomorrow, or even this year. Some steps might be really hard for your particular school context. But every new thing you do to support queer kids is progress, and everything we can do to educate both kids and adults on how to be better allies is making this a better world.

PS. I see a lot of schools feeling lost as to where to start, casting about for help, and reinventing the wheel, so I am working on establishing an Australia-wide Ally Schools Network so that schools can support each other, share what works and what doesn’t work, and figure out where to start and how to keep going. The group is now live on Facebook, if you search for Australian Ally Schools Network you should find it, or email contact@adsei.org for help.

Finding hope

This has been a week, in Australia at least, where hope has been in short supply. Realistically, we have long known that members of our government can be corrupt, unfeeling, and sometimes outright evil without apparent consequence. Indeed, we knew all of that before the last election and nonetheless these people were returned to power, despite having attacked the vulnerable illegally and without cause in a hundred different ways – most notably but in no way confined to the indefinite and ever-escalating cruelty of mandatory detention of refugees, and the brazen outrageousness of robodebt.

Occasionally if they felt under too much pressure they would toss someone overboard – usually a woman (witness Bridget McKenzie taking the fall for sports rorts despite clear evidence of culpability from the office of the PM) – but they clearly felt that they could happily line their pockets and those of their mates, and treat everyone else with vicious cruelty without any consequences at all. And they appeared to be right.

In recent days several things have come to light. One is that the extraordinarily courageous and remarkable Brittany Higgins has gone public with a horrific account of rape followed by the utter failure of her workplace and colleagues to support her or deal with the very clear implications that their system does not merely victimise women, but actively consumes them and then brutally punishes them when they complain.

Another, of course, is the historical accusation of rape against our Attorney General – nominally the senior officer of the law in Australia, a position which surely demands a person of unimpeachable integrity, honesty, and yes, compassion. The accusation was never even put to the AG. Our Prime Minister did not even feel it necessary to read it, but he was nonetheless confident to throw his entire support behind an alleged rapist.

Not to mention that a man felt quite entitled to repeatedly throw horrific slurs at a woman in her place of work, our national parliament, and a room largely full of men completely failed to call him out for it.

In the context of a world where a man who boasted of grabbing women by the pussy was elected President of the United States. Where women bear the brunt of the economic impact of covid. Where a horrific number of women are assaulted, harassed, overworked, and underpaid as a matter of course, and where it is surprisingly difficult to persuade the men in charge that a problem even exists, let alone that it is their responsibility to fix it… Where International Women’s Day is simply another event that women do unpaid work for, give unpaid speeches for, and that enables rich white men to then take the credit for “putting on an IWD event and supporting women”… Perhaps, in this context, the Australian situation is not surprising.

It would be nice to think that the time of reckoning has come, but there is a significant chance that this government will nonetheless win the next election, for reasons I can’t even begin to fathom.

Where do you find hope against such a backdrop? When powerful men can literally rape and pillage with impunity. When ethics is not a requirement for election, for promotion, or for anything at all. How do we move on from that? Where do we even start? What is even the point?

And praise will come to those whose kindness leaves you without debt

and bends the shape of things to come that haven’t happened yet

Neil Finn, Faster Than Light

It’s clear that now, more than ever, we need to protect ourselves. And to me, that looks like surrounding ourselves with people who not only love and support us, but who make us more than we would otherwise be, Who challenge us to think better, to do better, and to be better. And who see us for exactly who we are.

I’ve been incredibly lucky to spend the last few days, both in person and online, with people who do just that. Who radiate love and support in all directions. Who are always looking for opportunities to lift other people up. Who leave every part of the world that they touch better, cleaner, and more loving. These people don’t make the headlines. They’re not interviewed on the news nor lauded in print. But they are the people who give me hope. Who reinforce the idea that how you treat people matters, and that you can become successful, and even powerful, by working hard to make the world a better place. By taking care of people. By building supportive relationships and emphasising compassion over greed.

This is the time to look away from the news, breathe deeply, and look into the eyes of the people who we can trust to make things better. Instead of asking “why are all the powerful men so evil?” perhaps it’s time we turned our faces to the people we trust.

The people I trust are male, female, non-binary, and gender diverse. They are queer, trans, straight, cis, neuro-diverse and neuro-typical. It’s important to remember that there is no single category of human being that is safe, and no-one is perfect. But I surround myself with people who are trying to make a difference, and it’s their efforts that need amplifying. If we can rally around the people who are making this world a better place, perhaps we can drown out the noise from the people who do not.

Look around you. Who is worth amplifying? Who can you support? Which charities need cash? Which people need a hug? Which voices need to be raised up? It is so very demoralising to focus on the people who are taking us down. Let’s look to the future, raise a glass to hope, and give thanks, hugs, and funding to the people who are making a difference.