Ben Cooper remembers his years at high school all too well. They were hell.
I experienced sexual harassment and verbal abuse, he said. I felt pretty intimidated and ultimately depressed.
Ben is gay and said the reason for his hellish high school experience was entrenched homophobia which according to reports is alive and kicking in Northern Rivers high schools, causing isolation, marginalisation, self-hate, poor school performance, drug and alcohol abuse, and suicide amongst gay youth.
A national survey done by La Trobe University in Melbourne in 2004 found that 38 per cent of gay youth reported unfair treatment based on their sexuality, 48 per cent suffered verbal abuse and 16 per cent suffered physical abuse.
Ben came out to his family just two years ago and at 19, he is now an activist for LGBTI youth (lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, trangender and intersex).
He says his memories of high school are not happy ones and in fact, he felt so ostracised he left school early and went on to finish his HSC at TAFE.
I was quite introverted at school, said Ben. And I had deep feelings of isolation and depression. Now I would really like to help other youth who are going through similar experiences.
Ben will be part of a forum and teacher-training course to be held at Southern Cross University next week which will focus on homophobia and the education system.
Hosted by SCUs Centre for Peace and Social Justice, the AIDS Council of NSW (ACON) Northern Rivers and Family Planning NSW, the community forum Too Queer for School will be held on Monday, February 19, and will be followed on the Tuesday by a one-day teacher-training course: Thats so gay.
The forum will include guest speaker Dr Maria Pallotta-Chiarolli a senior lecturer at Deakin University, John Ryan, a Richmond River High School teacher whose Masters thesis is titled Under the Radar: Exploring Personal Complicity in the Silence Surrounding Sexuality in Schools, and Liz Hammond, manager of health promotion for Family Planning NSW and founding member of the NSW Anti-Homophobia Interagency.
The teacher-training course will feature Dr Pallotta-Chiarolli and a panel of young people (including Ben), teachers and parents who will discuss their personal experiences.
Well be able to give our first-hand experiences about what its like to be a lesbian or gay at school, said Ben. And highlight the issues of homophobia and hopefully the teachers will take something away with them and be able to plan long term strategies.
While Ben said he did have some supportive teachers and school friends, he believes it is the silence around sexuality that causes the problems.
The teachers dont talk about sex and they dont address issues around it, said Ben. Australian gay youth are eight times more likely to commit suicide and I feel it is highly important that teachers, parents, church ministers, school counsellors, health workers and local and state politicians gain a better understanding about the homophobia these students face in the school system.
The community forum will be held on Monday, February 19, from 5-7pm in room Z181. Bookings can be made by phoning ACON on 6622 1555.
The teacher-training will be held on Tuesday, February 20, at Invercauld House and costs $80. For information contact Family Planning NSW on 8752 4349 or email email@example.com.
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