Homophobic prejudice casts a long shadow

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Next month, on 22 November, it will be two years since Aspley State High School student Tyrone Unsworth took his own life. He was 13.

Tyrone UnsworthWe lose more than 2800 Australians to suicide every year, with 65,000 Australians attempting suicide annually; the number of people impacted by those attempts is exponential. What makes the loss of Tyrone stand out is that his suicide followed years of homophobic bullying, and occurred in the midst of conservative attacks on the Safe Schools program, and a divisive postal plebiscite as to whether non-heterosexual people deserved the right to marry.

Tyrone was different. In high school, that made him fair game for abuse. In the wake of his death, Tyrone's mother told News Corp that her son 'was a really feminine male, he loved fashion, he loved make-up and the boys always picked on him, calling him gay-boy, faggot, fairy; it was a constant thing from year five.'

Suicide does not occur in a vacuum. In Tyrone's case, the events of 27 October 2016 prefigured his suicide. Tyrone's aunt stated that, on that day, the boy chose to defend a young girl who'd been spat on outside the Zillmere Police Citizens Youth Club. In retaliation, Tyrone was struck from behind by a fellow student brandishing a fence paling, which broke his jaw. Surgery followed. The lad never returned to school.

The ABC's 7.30 program interviewed a friend who recalled that, the day before his suicide, Tyrone 'was an absolute mess, crying his eyes out and telling me everyone wants him dead and I said, "Tyrone, what do you mean everyone wants you dead?" He said, "The kids at school keep telling me to go kill myself", and I was obviously gobsmacked.' The other students 'did call him nasty names, like faggot and fairy. He loved girly things, he's chosen dresses for me and his mum to wear, he's asked to use makeup. Kids obviously thought because he's like that he could be a target for their bullying.'

For some people of faith — truly, for many people of faith — deviation from an expected norm of sexual orientation and expression is anathema. Encouragingly, 74 per cent of participants in a Fairfax-Ipsos poll oppose discrimination against gay students and teachers in our school system.

That still leaves 21 per cent of participants who believed religious schools should have the right to discriminate against gay teachers and students. (The percentage wishing to discriminate against gays was as high as 45 per cent of One Nation supporters polled.)

 

"Everyone should be able to make their own choices in life. But that is a shallow sentiment in a country where kids like Tyrone Unsworth are bashed for who they are, and don't live long enough to make those choices."

 

That prejudice flies in the face of contrastingly inclusive views expressed by other spiritual leaders, such as Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who famously compared homophobia with apartheid: 'black people were being blamed and made to suffer for something we could do nothing about — our very skin,' he reflected. 'It is the same with sexual orientation. It is a given. I could not have fought against the discrimination of apartheid and not also fight against the discrimination that homosexuals endure, even in our churches and faith groups.

'Opposing apartheid was a matter of justice. Opposing discrimination against women is a matter of justice. Opposing discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation is a matter of justice.'

As to how to break down that prejudice, bestselling US Christian writer Philip Yancey, a moderate, believes religious people will only begin to show grace towards people of different sexual orientation when they have 'personal exposure' to LGBTIQ people.

'It's amazing how feelings change when suddenly it's your daughter or your brother who comes out of the closet,' he wrote. 'In my case, it was my friend Mel. The issues I had read about suddenly had a face, a person with a story. When that happened, everything changed. That's one reason why I think it's sad that the churches have so little contact.  I have attended gay and lesbian churches whose fervency and commitment would put most evangelical churches to shame. Disapproving conservatives should have contact with those people, and vice versa.'

When unchallenged, unexamined religious beliefs are allowed to impact others' lives, religion is at its most toxic, serving to reinforce homophobic bullying and prejudice in society at large. The report 'Preventing harm, promoting justice: Responding to LGBT conversion therapy in Australia', released on 15 October, reveals that not only is 'praying away the gay' a furphy, it is accompanied by abusive practices such as attaching electrodes to people's genitals.

Those who survived 'various conversion therapy practices between 1986 and 2016 as part of their struggle to reconcile their sexuality or transgender identity with the beliefs and practices of their religious communities [have] ultimately been forced to choose between one part of themselves at the expense of another,' reveals the report.

'Those who have sacrificed their religious beliefs to be true to their sexuality or gender diverse identity have had to deal with the deep grief that comes with a loss of faith and being separated from their faith-based community, family and friends. Those who have remained faithful to the beliefs of their religious communities have often done so by denying their sexual feelings or gender diverse identity in order to pass as heterosexual and cisgender. Some live in a constant struggle to maintain their diverse gender, sexual identity and faith in the face of varying degrees of rejection from both LGBT and religious communities.'

Reparative therapy's emotional, physical and spiritual abuse is still legal. Our federal leaders evade the issue of gay conversion therapy, with the PM saying that people should 'make their own choices about their own lives'. 

Yes. Everyone should be able to make their own choices in life. But that is a shallow sentiment in a country where kids like Tyrone Unsworth are bashed for who they are, and don't live long enough to make those choices.

 

If you are troubled and want to talk to someone, you can call Lifeline, on 13 11 14.

 

 

Barry GittinsBarry Gittins is a Melbourne writer.

Topic tags: Barry Gittins, LGBTIQ, discrimination, same sex marriage

 

 

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The story of Tyrone's life experience is tragic beyond understanding. All human function is subject to variation. Some have higher IQs than others, some are more physically endowed, some run faster, some are stronger, some are severely burnt and blistered by the sun and others simply tan. Sexual orientation and function can also be reasonably expected to show variation. We are not dealing here with a flaw in the person with an obvious variation, but a flaw in those who persecute them - something the human being has been expert at since time immemorial. In all cultures and belief systems, the human being has always cast out the mentally disabled, the physically disabled, the ugly, the leper. Christian Western Civilisation was the first ever in human history to at least make an effort not to exclude the different, exemplified by the early Christians and formalised in the AD300s , through the monasteries, nunneries and Christian communities who gave the world the first institutions caring for the sick, disabled and disadvantaged. We should acknowledge that and focus our attention of those who do the bullying, who do not understand and don't appreciate their own ugliness. Not surprising that 45% of One Nation voters, predominantly from the deep north in Q'land, persecute the LGBT community when they do the same to people of different cultures and skin colour. It is these who are "behaving aberrantly". The LGBT community might also do well to realise that society at large (74% according to this article) supports them and their rights and has removed the British Law which enshrined their persecution and forbade civil partnership benefits to couples of same sex orientation. Life is too short to be lived in the yesterdays rather than the days and tomorrows. Both the LGBT community and their persecutors need to get over it - the bloody war is over. -
john frawley | 17 October 2018


Thanks Barry for a challenging article. Pope Francis has said, "If a person is gay and seeks God and has good will, who am I to judge?" I agree wholeheartedly. Pope Francis also said he wanted a greater role for women in the Church, but insisted they could not be priests. I disagree with Pope Francis on this. Other Christian religions have women priests or pastors. Many/most young people won't have a bar of an organisation that is sexist. I'm looking forward to the day when the Pope can say, 'My husband and I ... ' but I think the prejudice against women in the Catholic Church will remain for a long time and will be a major reason for the continued rapid decline of this Church.
Grant Allen | 17 October 2018


Where were the teachers ? Where were the parents ? Where were the children at school to stick up for this little soul ? This seems to be more about the cruelty of children and the lack of (any) oversight at a third rate public high school than about allowing a certain class to pursue their religious beliefs / discrimination. It strikes as an incredibly insensitive example regardless of the merits of the LGBTQI case.
Patrick | 18 October 2018


Patrick, As a retired teacher who taught in the Catholic system, a good part of my career was in a all boys high school, I was aware of bullying although not 'gay bashing' in the schools I taught. Sadly our influence on these issues is a lot less effective than many outside the education system think. Sure I have broke up many playground fights during my career, but bullying is often carried out of sight of teachers- these days "on line" too, so unless we come across it in our daily work, we are not aware of it. Also the bullied rarely come to us for help , fearing the consequences if found out. There was a Year 8 lad in one of my Pastoral Care Groups who commited suicide one Sunday afternoon many years ago in the Park across the road from our Parish Church and Presbytery . I only found out after the event full extent of the traumas he had experienced That event continues to haunt me. The account of Tyrone's life written by Barry is deeply troubling, as it shows the limits of our ability, certainly as teachers , to help these poor souls.
Gavin O'Brien | 18 October 2018


A long time ago I realised that homosexuality was not, as I had previously believed a learned practice but something that occurred naturally in a percentage of human beings. That is, God had created these people in this way. It seemed to me that if this was the way God made them and if I accepted that God had made us all, 'Who was I to judge?' Of course in day to day living things are not quite so simple and it is hearts that need to be changed, not laws. The respectful discussion needs to be had. It needs to be informed by both science and love.
Margaret McDonald | 18 October 2018


An apology for using outdated language in my earlier post.
Margaret McDonald | 18 October 2018


Barry, thanks for this tender and insightful piece. Years ago I taught Nicholas, a bright and hyperactive boarder at my first appointment. Nick was obviously different: curious, honest, and cast from another mould. Within three years Nick had killed himself. While it was constructed as an accident, I knew that Nick had been bullied. Somehow his fellow boarders had discovered that my family, subject to school permission, had invited him to tea. The payback, in terms of teasing was merciless, as Nick later told me. Gay children get mercilessly bullied: playing Portia in 'Twelfth Night', the name stuck with me and one of our masters used it to make me the butt of his puerile jokes. As a promising boy soprano, my solos were met with cat-calls. I was assaulted in the toilets and while changing for sport. These atrocities, common to gay children of my era, left me rudderless and more intent than ever to pass as 'straight'. The priest who married me simply asked if I slept with men, when I confessed to him that I was gay. "You can't be", said he. "The Church teaches that homosexuality is an act and not an existential condition." Go figure!
Michael Furtado | 19 October 2018


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