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Thursday 09 October 2008


Labour MP Maryan Street: On sticking up for diversity

Posted in: Features, Features
By Maryan Street MP - 11th September 2007

Maryan_Street_1.jpg
Labour MP Maryan Street
Just recently I was part of a panel of MPs participating in a Diversity Forum at the Museum in Auckland, run by the Human Rights Commission. Five political parties were represented and our topic was race relations and what New Zealand needed to do most to address race relations in the future.

Before we did our bit however, there was a presentation from a number of secondary school students present who had put together, in double-quick time, a number of skits about cultural diversity as they saw it. They presented a powerful voice, not only about how they perceive their friends who come increasingly from a widely varying cultural mix, but what they think of the efforts of do-gooding adults who never actually take the time to find out about diversity but who only accommodate it in the most clichéd of ways.

When I got up to do my five minutes' worth, I departed from my prepared notes to go “off-task” for a moment. My time as a secondary school teacher had been evoked by these brave and clever and insightful students. There must be, on the law of averages, at least one queer student among them, I thought. So I thanked them for their contribution, told them I was queer and that if there were any gay, lesbian or transgender students among them, that they could be anything they wanted to be. I went on to urge the straight ones amongst them to stick up for their GLBT friends and classmates, to help stop the bullying that went on in secondary schools against any student who was different, but particularly against GLBT students.

I held my breath for a moment, wondering if I had overstepped the mark with this very diverse audience. Some people present, especially some ethnic minorities, found my admission of my sexuality cause to snigger, but perhaps that came from the fact that it was the first time anybody had said these things in their hearing. I don't know. I was surprised, however, that the audience burst into applause and it seemed to some there who spoke to me later, that the loudest applause came from where the students were sitting. Then I went on to talk about race relations.

I didn't tell them about a student of mine who was on my mind at that time. I had been teaching in an excellent co-ed school in Auckland and one of my fourth form boys struck up a friendship with me. He was clearly gay and he responded to something he recognised in me. I wasn't very out in those days, but I wasn't closeted either. I just didn't talk about it openly with students. Paul (not his real name) didn't talk about it either – he just needed acceptance and affirmation from someone in authority and I could give him that. His closest friend was a girl from a neighbouring girls' school who was also obviously (to me) gay and he got a lot of support from her. I wish now I had been braver and more supportive of Paul. His friend Kath told me a few years later after he had left school that he had committed suicide.

Paul went to a great school which encouraged diversity and had zero tolerance of bullying. I never saw him bullied at school but I am sure he was called names out of teacher earshot. I have stayed in touch with Kath from time to time over the years – we haven't forgotten Paul.

A few weeks ago, I went to speak at the Nayland College (Nelson) Association of Gays and Straights (NAGS!) evening event in their week-long celebration of diversity. It was a fantastic occasion. The straight guidance counsellors at Nayland College have, at the instigation of some brave young gay students, put together a gay/straight support group for students who are questioning their sexuality. It has been going for a few years and has the full backing of the principal, Charles Newton. I mention him because even with the resources that are being developed now with the money the Government has made available to counter bullying in schools ($9 million), it will still take strong, committed leadership of principals who recognise that there is a problem, particularly for GLBT students, and deal with it head on, for the programme against bullying to work.

That evening concert/auction/event in Nelson attracted guidance counsellors and students from other schools in the area as well as parents and friends of the Nayland students. Students and staff had come over from Motueka and the NAGS group has support at Nelson Boys' and Nelson Girls' Colleges, as well as Waimea College.

These brave out young people are creating something beyond tolerance – acceptance and affirmation, even celebration at being different. What a difference that would have made for Paul, had there been something like it in the 1980s. These young people are heroes and they are spreading the word to the schools, town and communities around them. I was proud to be supporting them.

maryan.street@parliament.govt.nz

PS: Of course, there was a transgender student in the audience at the Diversity Forum, I discovered later. Perhaps I did something for him that day which I hadn't done for Paul.


Maryan Street MP - 11th September 2007