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 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.