I moved to Grammar in 2007 at the age of 15, seeking to benefit from its climate of success and academic rigour. I had aspired to become a doctor since the age of 4 years old, and knew of the school’s reputation for providing an astounding success rate of med-entry. From day one I knew I had chosen the right place, and I seemed to have found myself in rowing, running, and student-led productions. But the momentum was unable to be sustained, as I was still grappling with a secret that had been with me since the beginning of puberty.
I didn’t know what the attractions I was having meant. Health education from my previous (Catholic) school had taught me that boys sometimes have same-sex attractions during puberty, but that they are transient and will result in eventual heterosexual peacefulness and stability. Every year that went by made me less and less convinced; one day I would think I was gay, the next certain that I was straight, and there seemed to be no trend of change or maturation. It would take me until the age of 20 to find comfort and acceptance in my identity as a bisexual male.
However, the path towards self-acceptance was not easy, and at times my mood and mental health were in a dangerous zone. Even though I had friends, even though there were counsellors, and even though I knew that the institutional structure of Grammar valued wellbeing and success, there were many times when I felt inadequate, ashamed and isolated. Adolescence is a turbulent period for most if not all, but for me it felt like I was experiencing more than the average pressures of school work, parental expectation and peer acceptance.
For most adolescents, peer-acceptance is a challenge, but for LGBTQIA youth the hurdle seems that much higher.
When someone would use words like gay or fag in derogatory or negative ways, it would cut. Even when I knew the speaker used the word unthinkingly, as a means to fit in, and not with malicious intent. Even when I knew they were my friend, or my coach, or my sibling. Such language damaged whatever self-esteem I had gathered, and further internalised the negative self-image I was so desperately trying to alleviate.
There is a large body of research which shows that LGBT youth suffer a higher rate of mental health issues, such as depression and suicide. These studies have also identified homophobic language as an antagonistic and perpetuating factor. But most importantly, in countries and environments that are more fostering and supportive of sexual identity, the effect has been shown to be reduced, while the reverse is true in societies in which homophobia is a prevalent and accepted behaviour.
We probably didn’t even need this research to arrive at this conclusion; it is just common sense. Last year alone, 46 teens between the age of 15 and 19 took their life. This is the highest rate since the coroner’s office started making records in this country. And completed suicide is only the ugly tip of the iceberg floating in a sea of adolescent suffering.
As a doctor, I have had to treat teenagers with failed suicide attempts. I have seen box after box of empty tissues, prescription after prescription of antidepressants, and young bodies disfigured by self-harm. Their stories and struggles may have a different narrative to mine or perhaps yours, but the underlying theme and climate rarely differ.
But I am optimistic. It could be better. It does get better. When I found myself surrounded by less homophobic behaviour, and when I was comfortable to be honest with myself and others, stress levels went down and happiness went up. Life went on, and the self-deprecation ceased. Talking with people does help, and it doesn’t matter who that first listener is. If you are frightened of what could happen, there are many anonymous and confidential helplines that exist to serve you (see end of this post).
#GrammarPride is a long awaited and much needed movement, and Grammar is ready for the challenge. It has the right people, the right ethos, and the right position in Auckland society’s spotlight to be a shining example of what a school can do to uphold the rights and dignity of its students.
There will be people who deny our universal right to dignity. People who perceive power in their words of malice, satisfaction in their ignorance. But we will strive through the difficulty towards greatness.
Per Angusta Ad Augusta
P.S. If you are ever feeling depressed or contemplating taking your life, please get help.
Talk to a friend, talk to me, talk to Mr. McKain or any other teacher.
If your friend’s or your own life is in danger, call 111.
Otherwise, the Depression helpline is available 24/7, 0800 111 757,
or Kidsline, 0800 54 37 54, where they can be a listener for any issue, big or small.
James is graduated in 2009 as a prefect. He attained his Bachelor of Medicine and Bachelor of Surgery at The University of Auckland and is currently working at Whangarei Hospital.