Australian readers are probably already familiar with this story about teenager Hannah Williams, who was prevented from taking her girlfriend to the formal held by her private girls’ school.
A teacher had told the year 11 student she wasn’t allowed to attend the Preston dinner dance with her 15-year-old girlfriend, Savannah Supski. She was asked to bring a male instead.
”It made me very upset. I thought it was unfair so I didn’t go,” she said.
The story of Hannah and Savannah and the missed school formal has been all over the media – hearteningly, most people seem to be in agreement that their school made a wrong decision. We know that the cost of bullying — something experienced disproportionately by certain groups, including GLBTIQ teens — is unspeakably high. And there is clearly a link between institutionalised oppression and the role-modelling of discriminatory behaviours and attitudes by adults, and the bullying that young people inflict on others. It seems that Hannah Williams and Savannah Supski have the support of many of their peers; that could very easily not be the case. Schools need to lead by example and demonstrate that discrimination on the basis of sexuality is never acceptable, or else they really must wear the blame when their students suffer reprisals at the hands of bullies.
The truth is, of course, that Ivanhoe Girls’ Grammar is not the only school to either overtly or subtly discriminate against students or teachers on the grounds of their sexuality or gender. The difference in this case? The girls have parents who are supportive and prepared to be outspoken about this issue, and who took the step of alerting the Equal Opportunity Commission about the case. In other words, the difference is that the protagonists in this story were listened to and were not silenced or repressed by all of the adults around them.
One of the key mechanisms that facilitates the oppression of GLBTIQ students in schools is the failure to recognise the personhood of young people. Or, to paraphrase The Fireman, ‘this only happened because people think they can tell a 17 year old what to do and who to be attracted to.’ And indeed, people do think this. Yesterday more than one person said to me but Savannah is only fifteen, how can she even know that she’s a lesbian? It seemed to slip these peoples’ minds that we never seem to question the sexuality of teenagers who present as straight. I’ve never heard anyone say to a fifteen year old, when professing her adoration for a young man, how do you know that you’re actually heterosexual, dear? Have you? Of course, this sort of ridiculousness is a function of the heteronormativity of our culture but it is also a way of disregarding that at fifteen a person can decide for herself what her feelings, thoughts, and desires are and what her identity is. In our culture, it somehow seems perfectly legitimate to say to a fifteen year old girl that purely by the function of having reached the age of eighteen or above, an adult is better at telling what is in her heart than she herself is. Nice.
We really need to challenge that ridiculous and damaging assumption: and not only for the sake of ‘out’ teenagers who want to go to the ball.
Yesterday ABC News tweeted this little piece about Australian hospitals agreeing to recognise the charter of children’s rights in healthcare. It was a small story, no fan-fare. But I found the comments by Human Rights Commissioner particularly telling
“It’s actually quite challenging for many of us, the need to consult the child, to hear and respect the views of the child,” she said.
“It’s so easy to overlook the right of the child to be heard and go directly to the parent.”
That children should be heard and consulted is, in our culture, a very challenging notion to assert. There are arguments to be made, certainly in a healthcare context, about the cognitive abilities of children at different ages and how these could impact on decision making. There are also arguments to make about ‘maturity’ and ‘experience’ and there are certainly contexts in which these are very valid. But, there is also the fact that our discourse about childhood and adolescence rarely allows for the admission that young people have real and meaningful thoughts and feelings and that they do not magically become autonomous people on their eighteenth birthday. Our culture too often fails to acknowledge and cater to their needs and to accept their right to exhibit individuality.
I remember vividly what it was like to be a child. I recall in searing detail the powerlessness I felt in the face of silencing and dismissal from adults around me. And I am all-too aware of how that routine failure to listen to and engage meaningfully with children — that is, how our insistence that children are not only able to be controlled but should be controlled — doesn’t make children safer and keep them more innocent, as many adults assume. The reality is quite the opposite.
I am, in many ways, a fairly traditional parent. Some aspects of my parenting and our family life consciously acknowledge Bean’s personhood: some aspects, quite honestly, do not. I am not perfect; and in any case, I am still working out where a comfortable balance falls, for us. Sometimes I feel uneasy about that.
But what I mostly feel, when I think about this, is an overwhelming sense that until more people start to question the status quo regarding the rights of young people, until more people agree to re-write the cultural script about the abilities — or lack thereof — of children and teenagers, until fewer people are willing to view issues concerning children and young people as just women’s business or family business or ‘mummy blogger’ business or as something they can choose to engage with or not, any progress we make in our family will come up against societally imposed limits.
Our culture, in many ways, is toxic to children and young people: the child abuse statistics and the failure rate of government-run child protection services tell that tale aptly. So does the need for organisations like Collective Shout, and The GreyMan. So does the latest Amazon Fail. So does the high rate of bullying and tragic bullycides, and so does Ivanhoe Girls Grammar’s insensitivity. I care about the rights of children, in part, because protecting and caring for a child is what I conceive to be my primary job. But I also care because I was a child, and because children need us to care. And they don’t need just ‘mummy bloggers’ to care. Opting out of giving a shit about the personhood of children might be possible for those not actively engaged in the life of a child — but just because you can doesn’t mean that you should.
Yes, that sounded preachy, and I’m not even going to apologise for that. I can preach now. I’m 31 years old and I am seen and heard.