Jay currently attends a secondary school in Wellington and talks to us about the incredible LGBTQ+ support group at school called Spectrum.
How long has Spectrum existed at your school?
Spectrum has existed for about 8 or 9 years now, although it's only been officially recognised as a club for about 5 or 6. It was started by a group of LGBTQ students who just wanted a space to hang out in a safe environment, before QSAs (Queer-Straight Alliances) were a widely accepted thing and while high school was still a rather hostile environment for LGBTQ students. Even as tolerance for the LGBTQ community increased, it still went very much unnoticed by the wider school until a few years ago when a couple of former leaders took it upon themselves to raise its profile, which is when the ball really got rolling on the positive difference we make.
What work does Spectrum do to support LGBTQ students?
Spectrum holds weekly meetings in a classroom booked out specifically for us, which is then a safe space for LGBTQ students and their friends to come along and hang out. Sometimes the meetings are entirely just having a good time playing games (Pictionary is a favourite), and other times we use the time as an opportunity for some guest speakers or discussions. Alongside this, we do a lot of work with InsideOUT and other organisations to help make a difference in the wider world. Our senior students do a lot of work with the teachers to connect them with resources on how to make their classrooms safer, and we lead the school in taking part in the annual Day of Silence to raise awareness of our community and the issues that we sadly still face. On top of all that, we also have a Facebook group for our members and a public Tumblr page to share informative, interesting, and/or entertaining things relating to the LGBTQ community as a kind of online safe space.
How have staff and students responded to the Spectrum group?
As I said, Spectrum is an old group as QSAs go. It initially ran as a sort of underground operation because the response from the staff and students really wasn't great. However with the work that's been done more recently to raise awareness and acceptance, we're looking now at a much more positive response from the rest of the school. One year we had over 800 students take part in the Day of Silence, and there's nowhere near as much insensitivity or harrassment from students as there used to be. Staff are more and more willing to tolerate efforts to be more inclusive, even if they're not entirely on board. The work insideOUT have done with them has been crucial in this.
Do you believe that support groups like Spectrum should be applied in other New Zealand secondary schools?
While we still have a very long way to go, our school is one of the leaders in acceptance and inclusion of LGBTQ students, and a large part of that is thanks to the activism and advocacy that has come from within the school. While it's possible for single students or outside influences to make a difference, having this base of support and non-judgement for students makes it easier for the LGBTQ students to feel accepted and there is strength in numbers when it comes to advocating change. Without groups like Spectrum, it's far too easy for LGBTQ students and issues to be cast aside which can be catastrophic.
If so, do you think it’s important to have LGBTQ-specific support groups, or is a general anti-bullying approach sufficient to support LGBTQ students?
I think it's always going to be important to have LGBTQ-specific groups, even after homophobia, transphobia, and other anti-LGBTQ bullying come to an end. Our experiences as LGBTQ are always going to be so different from those of straight cis-gender people and it's incredibly valuable to most LGBTQ people, especially young people, to be around a network of people who share similar experiences, for bouncing ideas off and learning more about themselves. That's also why it's especially important to have LGBTQ-specific approaches in anti-bullying campaigns because general approaches often tread very close to the line between helpful and harmful since they lack understanding of the many LGBTQ experiences. I'm not saying general approaches are not important, but they need to happen in conjunction with more specific approaches.
What other steps has your school taken to support its LGBTQ community?
Our school has been making a significant push in making health classes more inclusive, which for young high school students is one of the biggest ways they can improve. We've also just had a trousers option added to our uniform thanks to the efforts of another of the Spectrum leaders, which took some pushing but ultimately the school was supportive in implementing this new option. While our school is only taking small steps at a time, they're steady and add up to a lot of change over a comparatively short amount of time.