Benjamin Law starts his Quarterly Essay, Moral Panic 101, with a powerful recollection of the suicide of Tyrone Unsworth, a thirteen year old Aboriginal boy from Queensland. We remember Unsworth’s suicide as well. It was a tragedy that sent shockwaves through the Australian queer and Indigenous communities – a tragedy that to many seemed almost inevitable given the nature of the debate both on Safe Schools and marriage equality, and also because of high rates of youth suicide among LGBTI and Indigenous young people.
Yet, as we reflect on both of these debates it is important to critically engage with the relationship between queer people and mental health issues, particularly suicide. While it is important to acknowledge the impact systematic homophobia continues to have on mental health issues within queer and Indigenous communities, a narrative that inherently links these communities with mental health issues can be quite dangerous. This narrative has the potential to actively weaken our mental health, as well as the resilience of our communities and political movements.
The threat of mental health problems, and suicide in particular, has formed a large part of queer discourse in recent years. The defense of Safe Schools framed the program as an anti-bullying initiative, with the slogan ‘Safe Schools Saves Lives’ becoming common. Through this lens Safe Schools was seen as a program focused solely on getting kids through the tough times of queer childhood. It was about helping them to survive. Similar narratives have run throughout the debate on the postal survey on marriage equality. Opponents of the survey focused on the impact the ensuing debate would have on the mental health of queer Australians, in particular vulnerable youth. It has been treated as inevitable that any form of debate would hurt queer people, with Greens Senator Janet Rice at one point arguing that, ‘it is no exaggeration to say that a plebiscite will mean that some people will feel that the best way forward is to take their own life.’
Mary Lou Rasmussen and Rob Cover (2017) have argued that linking non-heterosexuality and suicide has become a dominant narrative in popular culture, within and outside queer communities. We can see this throughout Australian culture at the moment. For example, Hannah Gadsby’s award winning show Nanette has received accolades for her ability, in her own words, to ‘take a story of woe from my actual factual life and make it hilarious.’ Gadsby’s show seems to have touched on a part of the queer psyche, with queers across the country relating to its content. In another example the comedian Magda Szubanksi has increasingly spoken about the difficulties of her childhood, and was almost in tears on national television, saying she ‘barely made it through my childhood.’ Personal stories such as this are common within our debates, providing evidence for need for programs such as Safe Schools. Eve Sedgwick links this to perceptions of internalised shame, arguing that shame forms a foundational part of the queer experience, one which becomes ‘contagious’. She argues that ‘at least for certain (‘queer’) people, shame is simply the first, and remains a permanent, structuring fact of identity.’
It is this trend that we saw in Law’s essay. By starting with Unsworth’s suicide, Law’s essay clearly rested on an association between queer youth and suicide. In doing so he treated the purpose of Safe Schools as being a program designed in large part to deal with this problem.
We are not arguing that homophobia does not exist in our modern society, that mental health problems and suicide are not an issue within the queer community, or that we should ignore issues of suicide. However, at the same time, we argue that we must be more careful and nuanced about how we deal with this issue, as we believe that the above framing is potentially making things worse.
Current debates which link queerness with mental health and suicide, we argue, treat queer people and communities as vulnerable and weak. It associates queer people with suicide in pathological way, taking away a significant amount of agency from queer people to both be happy, and to shape a positive future for ourselves. As queers we want to push against this narrative, because we think that it has the potential to heighten vulnerability in young people who are non-heterosexual identified.
We think that we must be careful about the linkage between queer kids and suicide, for while the numbers on this issue seem compelling, they remain heavily contested. Tom Waidzunas has written a persuasive paper about how the social problem of ‘gay teen suicide’ came to fruition in the US in the 1990s. He argues that the linking of queer people and suicide was based more on social needs than on hard data. This was backed up by a recent study by Richard Burns at the ANU, which suggested that lesbian, gay and bisexual people are not at major risk of poor mental health and suicide (Burns, Butterworth & Jorm, 2016). A systematic review of mental disorder and suicide in LGB people conducted in 2008 by Michael King et al. reports a higher risk but also points to the lower than expected prevalence of LGB populations in many of the surveys used in the review.
Even if suicide rates are higher within queer communities, we still argue that by treating ourselves as weak, vulnerable, and perennially suicidal we diminish the potential for the power and joy of the queer experience. It does so in two ways.
First this narrative treats queer people as weak and without agency. The framing of queer people as ‘vulnerable’ treats us as a community in need of help, help that largely comes from Governments, and other institutions. In political campaigning this has resulted in a focus of energy around campaigns for recognition (marriage equality) or protection (Safe Schools), two forms of state-based recognition that are increasingly framed as essential for our survival.
This, to us, runs counter to the potential of the queer community. Some of the most powerful moments of activism in queer communities in Australia, for example the first Mardi Gras, have occurred when queers have taken matters into their own hands. Queers have been required to build resilience through our own marginalisation, and it is through this resilience that queer communities have often managed our greatest achievements.
Secondly this framing of vulnerability treats queerness as an entirely depressing state. We could see this throughout the Safe Schools debate, in which queer childhood was often rendered in exclusively depressing terms. It was something that you survived, not something that allowed you to thrive.
This, at the most obvious level, denies the potential joy that can come from queerness, and denies it for queer youth in particular. There is much that is great about the queer community. Law highlighted this with his interviews with the young attendees of the same-sex formal. Throughout our history queers have actively created these positive contexts, turning queerness into a space of joy and creativity.
Treating queerness as inherently depressing also becomes reinforcing. The more we talk about how depressing being a queer young person can be, the more this can become embedded in the queer psyche. If we tell queer kids that life will always be hard, and that they should expect to be suicidal, the more likely it is that this will happen. We believe this has been particularly relevant during the debate on the marriage equality postal survey, in which a narrative of inherent-suffering has reinforced and amplified the negative experiences that have circulated around the debate.
We should be talking about the positives of the queer experience, ones framed around the queer community. It is this community that is often ignored, but is one that can provide both happiness, and a support network for those queer people who are experience homophobia.
We should be talking about the positives of the queer experience, ones framed around the queer community.
What is ironic is that the alternative to this approach was found within the Safe Schools program itself. As Law notes in his essay, the founders of Safe Schools aimed to get away from this negative narrative through positive messaging. Contrasting with the Beyond Blue’s 2012 anti-homophobia campaign, which Law says ‘featured gloomy, moodily lit portraits asking the public to Imagine being made to feel crap for being left handed, Safe Schools aimed to present a positive image of queer youth. As one of the co-founders of Safe Schools, Roz Ward, argued, ‘It’s not about bullying. The most effective way to reduce bullying around gender and sexuality is to have more positive and inclusive schools.’
If you look at the Safe Schools materials you can see this ethos play out. As Law notes the All of Us document features bright, happy, diverse and well-lit portraits of queer youth talking about their gender and sexuality in an affirming and inclusive manner. The program is designed to boost the potential of queer childhood, rather than to dampen it. This positive approach, although not without its flaws, we believe provided more value than one framed through the lens of vulnerability and mental health.
Given this, it was disappointing for us to see the campaign to protect Safe Schools focus so heavily on suicide and bullying. In fact this was the biggest failure of the campaign. First, it opened the program up to attacks, particularly when any conservative found parts of the program that were about inclusivity and positivity and not about bullying. If this program was just about bullying, then why was there so much positive and inclusive messaging within its materials? More importantly the campaign put queer Australians on the back foot. It immediately put queer youth in particular into a position of vulnerability, treating them as kids who needed to be protected. By talking about Safe Schools primarily through the lens of bullying, mental health, and in particular suicide, Law added to a discourse that is dominant within much of modern queer and mainstream discourse. In doing so he, inadvertently, once again took away agency from queer kids, treating them as those who need to be protected in order for them to survive.
… queer youth are often resilient, creative, and determined to take matters into their own hands.
Yet, while we’ve treated queer youth as inherently vulnerable, particularly during times of attack such as the campaign against Safe Schools, what we actually find is that queer youth are often resilient, creative, and determined to take matters into their own hands. Post the attacks on Safe Schools, programs akin to Safe Schools have emerged in public and private schools. As Law reports, in 2017, Edmund Rice Education Australia – an association of Catholic schools, has adapted the Safe Schools program for use in their schools. Luke Gahan, Tiffany Jones and Lynne Hiller (2014) reported that young gay people who are religious are demanding that their schools address issues related to gender and sexuality, and anticipate futures in which they will marry and have children.
Young people have also developed a myriad of resources related to sexuality and gender, which are readily accessible through platforms like Facebook, Instagram and Tumblr. Young people are demanding, producing and consuming resources related to gender and sexuality that reflect their interests and needs.
School-based education about gender and sexuality continues to have important symbolic relevance, especially for the parents of young people, but all young people (and especially those who are queer) understand that school is not the place where they are likely to obtain in-depth information about gender and sexuality. Additionally, the proliferation of queer resources outside formal education powerfully shapes young people’s growing acceptance of, and demands for, recognition in curriculum and broader school cultures. These demands by young people preceded the Safe Schools debate and they will almost certainly continue to proliferate post this controversy, as well as post the debate related to the survey about marriage equality.
We do need to continue to recognise the impact homophobia has on Australian queer youth. Safe Schools was an important program designed to deal with these issues. At the same time, as queers, we need to work to disconnect the queer experience from suicide and vulnerability. As a community we are much stronger than this.
… we need to work to disconnect the queer experience from suicide and vulnerability. As a community we are much stronger than this.
Young people themselves are getting on with the job of creating platforms and places which help them to thrive and survive, far away from the brouhaha of marriage equality and Safe Schools. Law hints at this in his essay, but, unfortunately, reporting on these thriving queer youth cultures is much less newsworthy than reports pertaining to the abjection of queer youth. Frustratingly, these types of stories and research are more likely to attract media attention and government funding.
Burns, R., Butterworth, P., & Jorm, A. (2016). ‘The long-term mental health risk associated with non-heterosexual orientation’. Epidemiology and Psychiatric Sciences. pp.1-10. Accessed 1.10.17. Retrieved from https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/epidemiology-and-psychiatric-sciences/
Cover, R., Rasmussen, M., Aggleton, P. et al. (2017), ‘Progress in question: the temporalities of politics support and belonging in gender-and sexually-diverse pedagogies’, Continuum: Journal of Media and Cultural Studies, vol. Online, pp. 1-13.
Gahan, L., Jones, T. and Hillier, L. (2014). ‘An Unresolved Journey: Religious Discourse and Same-sex Attracted and Gender Questioning Young People’. The Social Scientific Study of Religion. 25(1). pp.202-229.
Law, B. (2017). ‘Moral Panic 101: Equality, Acceptance and the Safe Schools Scandal’. Quarterly Essay. 67. Accessed 1.10.17. Retrieved from: https://www.quarterlyessay.com.au/essay/2017/09/moral-panic-101
Simon Copland is a PhD candidate in Sociology at ANU. He is a freelance writer who has been published in the Guardian, SBS Online Australia, BBC Online, and co-produces and presents the podcast Queers. He is the co-editor of the online publishing site Green Agenda, and recently published a chapter in the book How to Vote Progressive in Australia: Labor or Green?
Professor Mary Lou Rasmussen is located in the School of Sociology at ANU. She is part of the ARC Discovery Project Queer Generations, investigating the experiences of two generations of LGBT young people in Australia. She is co-editor, with Louisa Allen, of the Handbook of Sexuality Education (2017, Palgrave) and her monograph, Progressive Sexuality Education: The Conceits of Secularism (2015, Routledge) has just been released in paperback.