I went all the way through St Cuthbert’s College – from New Entrants to Year 13. I came out as bisexual in Year 10. I use the phrase “came out” loosely – I told a couple of people that I might not be straight, and they told everyone else. The news wasn’t received well by my peers, but it was never something I denied. I take pride in it as an experience that taught me about myself; about having the strength to be upfront. I put my head down and stuck it out with the whispers and rumours, eventually realizing that it was not worth caring what other students thought about it when I knew I had done nothing wrong. But it would not be until the second year of university that I would tell my parents.
At the time, I didn’t recognise a school-endorsed alliance group as essential, because I had ample support from a group of accepting friends. My close friends weren’t just accepting, but many of them also came out around a similar time. Despite how other students regarded us – to our faces and behind our backs – I found comfort in our informal alliance. For girls who didn’t have the same support (and some who did), it was a different story. I was dismayed when I discovered that an older student had attempted to form an alliance group and was refused by senior management. That dismay increased over time, when I realised just how many girls waited until they left school to come out. One girl I caught up with a few months ago said that seeing how students reacted to my specific experience was the reason she kept her sexuality to herself. Another friend of mine, who now identifies as transgender, remained in the closet until after he left school.
From some students, there were plenty of ‘unthinking’ put-downs, like using “gay” as an insult. But far more concerning were the number of girls who thought lesbians were yucky, in an “oh my god she touched me!” kind of way. That hurt. The homophobic culture was not simply an aggressive undercurrent – it was explicit. I can count at least ten friends who were in lengthy relationships with other girls during high school. Six of those friends kept it to themselves; the four who didn’t were dragged for it.
Women’s empowerment was always a key part of my education at St Cuth’s. At the time it seemed heavy-handed, because it was all I had ever known. But once I went to Uni, it soon became clear that other girls did not receive the same push from their schools, and it was clear to me that it made a significant difference to how I and other girls saw the world and our place in it. St Cuth’s girls could do anything, and we were not allowed to forget it.
Girl Power aside, my school remained conservative, and the school’s reputation was all-important. As I have never forgotten, St Cuthbert's College is a business and, like many others, it values its image tremendously. It prides itself on being an institution that advocates strong values, and it certainly delivers in some respects. We were all pushed to succeed, albeit within a limited definition of “success” and “respectability”.
By the time I got to Year 13, things had changed. The same people who were nasty to my friends in Year 10 were supportive of others. Considering that 16-year-olds could evolve and see the effect their attitudes had on others, it baffled me that the institution did not. In my last year of school I sat in an office, with another girl who was gay, and was told “the board members wouldn’t approve” of a video where two girls recreated a heterosexual marriage from a movie. It seemed even the faintest hint of gayness was too risqué for an event where media might be present, and we were told to edit it out.
I cannot entirely discredit St Cuth’s ‘attention to image’, because I can honestly say that I have benefited from it. I don’t just mean the school’s reputation, but also the way that I pay attention to my own actions. St Cuth’s taught me to shake with a firm hand, to hold doors open and to smile for days. However, my school’s intense attention to maintaining a respectable image, combined with an emphatically hushed tone surrounding LGBT issues, has taught me that a traditional ‘good image’ and identity politics exist in opposition.
Although St Cuth’s was an institution that empowered me, the fact that it didn’t have my back made a big difference. The thing is, it was not enough knowing that some of the other girls accepted me for me. By refusing to explicitly stand by its LGBT students, it felt to me that the school almost validated those students who were unaccepting. I still feel the presence of my school, strengthening my backbone when I find myself talked down to by a man. But when students sneered at me and chased my friends down the street, the absence of support was noticeable. Silence has meaning.
Our sexual education was somewhat limited, although from what I can garner ours was comprehensive in comparison to others. I left school knowing how to put on a condom, and the perils of the pull-out method. We did have a class with Rainbow Youth, notwithstanding one girl’s fear that she would have to be in a room with a lesbian. We learnt about the sexual orientation spectrum. But what I would have liked to see was a bigger discussion surrounding acceptance. Most of all, I would have liked to see a practical commitment by the school to show their support for LGBT students.
When I got to University, I honestly didn’t know what to do with myself. I was so used to everyone knowing that I was bi (both a blessing and a curse, it turns out) that I didn’t know whether to tell people, or how. Despite the fact that I co-directed a LGBT+ alliance group during my final last two years of study, I still feel insecure about what others might think. With a conservative undertone and fish-tank social scene, law school has been a lot like high school. But having support from the Law Faculty has also brought home the difference an institution can make. I’m a little ashamed to admit that my status as “out and proud” is somewhat short on pride, but I’m working on it. I hope that my old school can too.