Members of Q-Youth Nelson and Rainbow Youth Auckland, the groups responsible for Pink Shirt Day, met with the Prime Minister last week to discuss homophobic bullying in schools. Now Q-Youth executive director Seb Stewart and Olympic speed skater Blake Skjellerup are embarking on a nationwide schools tour to educate youth on embracing diversity.
On meeting the PM, Blake Skellerup said, “The experience for me has almost been like a fairy tale. The Pink Shirt day campaign was a huge success and the follow up with the Prime Minister was an ideal outcome. To have an audience with him, and to be discussing such important issues pertaining to the development and future of youth in this country is extremely comforting.”
Tabby Besley, who is the Youth Representative for Q-Youth said, “The meeting with John Key was a great outcome to the 3000 plus letters sent on Pink Shirt Day. It is empowering for queer youth around New Zealand to know that the Prime Minster is listening to their message, and that he understand their concerns”.
Seb Stewart said, “There is growing concern for the plight of queer youth in our schools. The disproportionate bullying experienced by queer young people in our schools has largely gone under the radar. The Youth 07 Report by Auckland University highlights the concerning levels of depression, anxiety, alcohol and drug abuse, self harm and suicide experienced by queer young people. It is encouraging that the Prime Minister is indicating his willingness, on behalf of the Government, to address these important issues.”
The group shared their findings from the Pink Shirt Day campaign and asked the Prime Minister for his support on several issues.
Rainbow Youth executive director Thomas Hamilton would like to see the Prime Minister endorse their education program. Aimed at students, teachers, youth workers, health professionals and whanau, it is a tool that can be adaptable to any work or family environment. He says the aim of the education package is to clarify the difference between sexuality and gender identity and also recognise validity of these identities within heteronormative society.
Stewart and Besley asked the Prime Minister for his endorsement of the newly formed Queer Straight Alliance (QSA) Network. The idea of the group is to support and establish the creation of student driven diversity groups in New Zealand high schools. “Student led groups are the best way to bring about culture change from within the school. Strong leaders in the school, queer and straight, make a public stand against discrimination and bullying. The support of the straight students, especially the boys, is important in setting a culture in which people are valued for who and what they are”, says Stewart.
“The Prime Minister’s desire to address youth suicide in New Zealand and his acknowledgement of the plight of queer youth in particular is encouraging,” says Stewart.
Hamilton says, “It is a relief to know that some of the key issues we face every day at work he was willing and able to listen too; that was a gift. I just hope we succeeded in harnessing and sharing the huge voice of our queer and trans youth with him effectively.”
Overall the group found the meeting with the Prime Minister a positive experience. They are excited that he sees the value in the work the groups are under taking and hope that this is the start of a new partnership on queer youth issues between the groups and the government.
“There are some really interesting opportunities arising in the future,” says Stewart. “John Key says that Prime Ministers get to take on a select few portfolios, and if he is re-elected, one of his focuses will be youth suicide prevention. We told him that queer and trans youth are six times more likely to commit suicide than their straight peers – he agreed that work needs to be done in order to halt this trend.
“Mr Key was also interested to know what our funding is. We made it clear that in terms of the work we do collectively, there is some real potential and need for ministerial support for queer youth. Given the fact that homophobia and bullying are a product of our society, there’s a requirement that government address this problem through funding and support.
“All in all, I went away form the meeting that the door is still open and that John was actually quite interested in everything we had to say,” says Stewart. “The future looks promising.”
Stewart and Skjellerup on schools tour
On Tuesday June 07, Seb Stewart and Blake Skjellerup are touring high schools from Kaitaia to Invercargill, giving school assembly talks. Blake will share his personal experience on being an Olympian and his journey to where he is today.
“As New Zealand’s only out gay professional athlete, Blake is an important role model for youth. Blake’s story is really inspiring,” says Stewart.
Prime Minister John Key supports the tour, and says, “The government takes the issue of bullying very seriously, and we will continue to work alongside schools to help keep students safe. When I met Blake and Seb, I was impressed by their enthusiasm and their efforts to reduce bullying in schools throughout New Zealand. I wish them all the best.”
The schools tour also comes with support from the Human Rights Commission, the Post Primary Teachers’ Association (PPTA) and the Children’s Commissioner, this timely tour promises to deliver a message that is important for all students and staff.
In April, Skjellerup gave five high school assembly talks in the Nelson/Tasman region. The response to his talks encouraged Stewart and Skjellerup to organise a nationwide tour.
“Blake delivered a simple but powerful message. Having a highly successful athlete address issues around respecting diversity, with a particular focus on homophobia, gives us a great base to make some shifts in our culture,” says Roger File, principal of Golden Bay High School.
“Homophobia and gay bullying in our schools are topical issues that we should no longer ignore. Blake Skjellerup brings credibility to the debate as a young man, as a successful sportsman and with a story of his own school experiences that delivers a powerful message for all,” says Rex Smith, principal of Nayland College in Nelson.
The Anti-Bullying and Diversity Tour will be promoting the newly created Queer Straight Alliance (QSA) Network Aotearoa. The aim of the group is to support students all over the country in developing school based diversity groups.
“Student led groups are the best way to bring about a culture change from within the school,” says Stewart. “In Nelson, five out of the six schools now have student led Queer Straight Alliances.That’s where strong leaders in the school, gay and straight, make a public stand against discrimination and bullying. The support of the straight students, especially the boys, is important in setting a culture in which people are valued for who they are.”
Skjellerup says, “I have seen the support available to the youth in the Nelson region through their diversity groups and it’s invaluable. Adolescence can be a troubling time for many teens, where they often feel very alone and are left very vulnerable. Bullying on top of this some times pushes many youth over the edge, leading them to self harm. This is a situation no young person deserves to be in.”
The tour begins on 7 June 7, traveling from Stewart’s old high school in Kaitaia right through to Invercargill. High schools are encouraged to visit www.qsanetwork.org.nz for more information.