We can make the world safe for queer kids

In this progressive age of marriage equality and general enlightenment, it would be easy to think that queer kids have it easy. After all, we have openly gay footballers, pride matches, pride marches, and even openly gay conservative parliamentarians. There’s a trans character on neighbours, thanks to Georgie Stone. It’s easier to be queer now than ever before.

And perhaps it is easier. But it’s still so far from actually easy that you can’t see easy with a telescope from where queer kids stand.

Last year our local MP told us that life is good for queer kids in Victorian schools. Every government school is Safe Schools compliant, after all. And they don’t hear about any issues, so there aren’t any. QED.

Sadly, we know from personal experience that Safe Schools compliance does not make a school safe for queer kids, so I ran a survey for queer identifying kids in Victorian Schools. I wanted to tell the stories. To show how far we still have to go to protect and support our LGBTQI+ kids, and empower them to thrive.

It’s a small sample – just 44 queer kids – but their stories will break your heart.

Let’s start with the data. 68% of the kids in this survey have experienced bullying at school relating to their queer identity. That’s 30 kids from 25 different electorates. The bullying was everything from other kids deliberately using the wrong pronouns and dead names*, to ostracism and physical violence. One girl had her arm broken due to bullying around her gender identity.

Here are some examples, directly from the survey.

“My child was bullied by kids, teased, threatened, bashed, made fun of, had memes made of her, told to kill herself, which led to her trying to commit suicide and slit her wrists , develop an eating disorder and major anxiety.”
Stop for a moment and imagine this was your child.

“Parents and grandparents of other kids laughing and pointing, kids following my child around the playground filming them, calling them a ladyboy”

“Some people would call me a ‘demon and unnatural’”

“Kids followed me around asking what was in my pants, and telling me I was possessed by Satan. I didn’t feel safe anywhere.”

“I’ve been called a number of slurs on a semi-regular basis and teasing on the regular. Some kids that I didn’t even know would call me names and roughly push past me in the schoolyard. Even kids in lower year levels. They’d call me a mixture of ‘he-she’ ‘shemale’ ‘dyke’ ‘faggot’ ‘it’ and other names.”

“There were threats to kill me published online with my name, as well as implications of suicide.”

“My child has been bullied at school due to being gender diverse. She has been singled out by older children resulting in her being terrified to go to school.”

These kids have to expend so much emotional energy just trying to be themselves, and stay calm and safe in the face of unimaginable abuse every day. And you might think that this is “just” in the school yard. Just at break times.

Devastatingly, it turns out that 50% of LGBTQI+ kids who responded to the survey have experienced issues with school staff relating to identifying as queer. These include

  • deliberate misgendering and deadnaming
  • exclusion of non-binary and gender diverse kids – which usually means separating the class by gender
  • refusing to use the child’s preferred name until a legal name change took place
  • refusing to allow a child to transition at school,
  • organising activities by gender and insisting that transgender kids go with the group of their legal gender rather than their gender identity
  • refusing to allow kids to use the correct toilets or changerooms, even to the extent of excluding kids from activities like swimming because it’s “too complicated”.

This isn’t ancient news from the 1970s. This stuff is happening to our children today. Every day. And it’s not going to go away just because schools can call themselves “safe schools compliant”. To be truly safe, inclusive places, our schools need to work hard to educate both students and teachers about what it means to be LGBTQI+. To put policies in place that support and empower queer kids, and that make transphobic, homophobic, and intolerant behaviour unacceptable.

Queer kids aren’t going anywhere. Some studies have found that only 48% of teenagers identify as completely straight. A study conducted in the US in 2016 found that around 3% of teenagers identify as trans or gender nonconforming. That might sound like a small number, but in a school of 1000 kids that means there are around 30 kids whose need to have their gender identity respected and included won’t automatically be met.

And we know that queer kids are more likely to self-harm, attempt suicide, and suffer depression. Make no mistake. This isn’t because they are queer. It’s because of the way our society treats queer people. Intolerance kills. Quite literally.

Like racism, homophobia, transphobia, and intolerance won’t just magically disappear. They need to be actively addressed, taken seriously, and called out. And straight, cis people are unlikely to know it’s even there, unless they go looking. Kids don’t report it, because they know it’s unlikely to help. They don’t want to make a fuss or be labelled a dobber (and cop more bullying as a result), and all too often they know the school won’t take effective action.

It’s hopelessly ineffective to address this kind of bullying one on one. The safety of our children demands a school-wide – no, system wide! – culture shift that explicitly, proactively, and positively includes LGBTQI+ identities. Because they are not preferred identities, or chosen identities. This is who our kids are. And it’s time we made them welcome.

We can fix this. But it won’t fix itself.

I’ll leave you with two quotes from students who answered the survey. They speak for themselves!

“It can be terrifying. Especially if there are students that are openly transphobic and homophobic, even if it’s not directed at you it still makes you feel scared and insecure.”

I hope that some time in the future I can walk into school not worrying about crying in class from the LGBTQ+ phobia.”

*kids whose birth gender does not match their gender identity often change their names, and using their former name is known as dead naming, and can be deeply traumatic.

A version of this post first appeared on the Midsumma website. I’d like to thank the kind folks at Midsumma, especially Karen Bryant and Felicity McIntosh, for their support for this work.


I had a full on meltdown yesterday. A proper “all my friends hate me (and they should, because I suck), I’m a terrible parent, we’re all doooooomed” kind of meltdown.

Fortunately I retained the tiniest grain of rationality, and I managed to force myself to call a close friend. Who, when he called back after his meeting, was his usual kind and loving self and (surprise!) didn’t seem to hate me at all. He gently nudged me in the direction of writing my feelings, which is my usual go-to therapy form, handily also preventing my friends from receiving an email 3 miles long every 10 minutes when the feels are just overflowing.

But right now it’s hard to write. Exercise helps, but it’s weirdly hard to exercise. We’re so lucky we have zoom, meet, jitsi, and all of the other video conferencing things that actually let us see each other.  But they’re just not face to face, and not only because there are no hugs. There’s so much missing information. It’s so much harder to connect.

And we have to work for every tiny scrap of interaction. In the BC times (Before Covid) there were hundreds of incidental contacts every day. Walking past people at the office. Chatting in the tea room. Smiling at someone on the train. Thanking the bus driver. That funny tram driver, or the announcer at the station who should really be doing standup. Enough to make an introvert crawl into a cave, but it kept this extrovert ticking over nicely.

The person who holds the door open behind them, so that you can scurry in out of the rain. The barista at the cafe who remembers your order. Every “how about this weather then?” at the checkout or in a queue. Every time you make eye contact with someone. Teeny tiny connection points that remind us that we’re all human, that the driver who cut in front of us might be having his own bad day, or that not everybody sucks, even on days when it feels like they do.

“Individuals aren’t naturally paid-up members of the human race, except biologically. They need to be bounced around by the Brownian motion of society, which is a mechanism by which human beings constantly remind one another that they are…well… human beings.” Terry Pratchett, Men At Arms

Now we have to schedule a meeting every time we want to talk to someone. In the first few weeks I was scheduling meetings left right and centre, knowing that my crazily extroverted self was going to need plenty of contact just to survive, even if thriving was off the table. And now I need contact more than ever, but it’s weirdly hard to schedule it, the same way it’s strangely difficult to exercise. Finding the energy to do the things I know will help me is getting really hard.

Which means that small acts of kindness and connection suddenly have immense meaning.

I drag my 13 year old up to the cafe up the street every day, just to get them out of the house. (I cannot BEGIN to express my gratitude for the very existence of that cafe, not to mention the gloriously kind friendliness of the staff.)  Paul, the staff member we know best, knows our names, remembers our orders, and went and did an online quiz for us so that we now know he’s a Hufflepuff (these things matter to some, apparently) even though he has never read or seen any of the Harry Potters. This small thing is a huge deal in these bizarrely disconnected times.

Yesterday Paul wasn’t in, but the other staff knew my order just the same.

The pharmacist yesterday could not quite remember our names, but remembered my non binary child’s pronouns without prompting, and made sure she used them correctly. (See? It’s not so hard!) I think we’ve met that particular pharmacist maybe 3 times before. I nearly cried.

It’s not just the isolation, of course. Though every fibre of my being is crying out for contact, both physical and emotional, that might not be the worst part. The uncertainty is brutal. How long will we have to keep doing this? How risky is it to reopen? Can I hug my bestie? What will happen when this is all over? And that’s just for those of us who don’t have to worry about where our next meal is coming from, or how we’re going to keep a roof over our family’s heads, because suddenly there’s no work, and no-one knows if those jobs are coming back.

We’re dealing with the big stuff every day – will we get sick? Will someone I love die, or be permanently incapacitated by this bastard virus? Will I have a job at the end of this, or even next week? Will things ever get back to normal? Will I ever be able to see my friends and family interstate and overseas again?

And at the same time the minutiae of daily life can be far too much. Cooking another meal. Cleaning the house – which is a whole new saga when the house is fully occupied 24/7. Getting some privacy to make a phone call and express your feelings. Time alone – even for an extrovert! There’s no respite from each other, no time apart with friends to vent every unreasonable irritation and come home recharged and reset.

Sometimes it feels as though everything we use to define ourselves is under threat. Our relationships. Our jobs. Our communities. Our very way of life. And, even though we are carrying all of that weight, life goes on. People still get ill from other things. People die. We fight. We make up. We have car troubles. We parent as best we can under unprecedented circumstances.

We worry about our kids’ diet, exercise, mental health, vitamin d, social contact, schooling. We do the washing (SO. MUCH. WASHING.). We do the dishes (how can there be SO MANY dishes every single day!?). We do the shopping as rarely as possible and feel horribly at risk when we do so. We feel guilty for baking and eating so much. We feel guilty for not baking. For not exercising. For not cleaning. For not eating healthier. For eating too much. For putting on weight. We worry about whether getting food delivered is risky. Should I get that mole checked? Is it even safe to go to the doctor?

We worry.

We worry.

We worry.

About everything.

And in the absence of regular contact with real people who remind us of normality and ground us in the familiarity of everyday life, we read the news obsessively and stress over 5G conspiracy theorists and the “OPEN UP EVERYTHING IT’S ALL A HOAX” protests that only have a handful of people, but they are ALL WE CAN SEE RIGHT NOW.

We obsess over Donald Trump and Boris Johnson, and spats between our Prime Minister and yours, or between federal and state governments, or random shock jocks saying outrageous things that normally wouldn’t even register with us. Because clickbait is all we have. Scrolling endlessly, we look for connection and find outrage instead.

Every day feels the same. We try to be productive, while redefining how productive looks. We try to be kind, but sometimes it’s hard not to lash out. We make more coffees, drink more tea, eat more snacks, just to get away from our desks. We check the mail every five minutes. We vibrate with excitement when a van appears in our street. We check every footstep and every car sound in case something might HAPPEN. Suddenly we understand dogs who bark every time there’s a noise outside.

I think we need to redefine productivity. We need to prioritise reaching out. Connecting. Doing what we can to make this trauma bearable. And even if you’re not sick, and no-one you love is either, this is still trauma. This is hard in ways we’ve never seen before. Nothing is more important right now, than staying safe and looking after each other. And maybe that’s a lesson we can take into the future. Because, really, is anything ever more important than that?