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Monday 08 November 2010

Standing up against the bullies – together

Posted in: True Stories
By Kitten Power - 28th April 2010

To mark Pink Shirt Day, two young gay men share their stories of being bullied at school.

James as a schoolboy
James Hope, 24, went to a Christian all-boys school in New Plymouth, where he was ostracised and bullied to the point that he started wagging copiously and eventually ran away from home.

He says it began in 3rd form, when his peers suddenly started calling him a homo, a faggot and gay.

The labels stuck fast and were picked up by other students. James says eventually it got so bad even his friends, who were the 'freaks and geeks', no longer wanted to be seen with him.

"Even the kids with no friends wouldn't want to hang out with me. It was before I even knew I was gay – and that's what most of it was aimed at," he says.

"Mostly it was taunting, but there were also the moments in the classroom where a big group of kids would sit at the back cutting up rubbers out of their pencil cases just waiting for the opportune time to throw. I remember one class a kid even threw a pair of scissors at me. It didn't get me, but it freaked the hell out of me."

James started sneaking home for lunch and not coming back, skipping PE where he was picked last and suffered comments like 'that faggot can't catch the ball'.

"It started with classes, then it turned into days and eventually I didn't want to be there at all because if I even put my head a room someone would look up and yell 'homo'."

The school guidance counsellor tried to help, by speaking to him and his mum, then coming up with the idea that he should go to another school. But James was scared he'd just find the same kind of bullies at another school. Finally, when he was 15, at the beginning of his 5th form year, the naturally-bright teenager ran away to Wellington, got a job at McDonald's and slowly but surely discovered who he was and came out.

"Like I said, the other kids seemed to know it before I did."

You would hardly think he was a victim of severe bullying if you met James now. He is out and proud, has a successful job, a thriving social life and many close friends. However, James still feels as though he missed out on vital parts of being a teenager.

"I look at the schools these days and how they have gay students and I just think that kids today are so lucky that they can be out. Maybe not everywhere, but a lot of the places you hear about gay kids at school and people wanting to take their girlfriend or boyfriend to the school ball. But back in New Plymouth, you wouldn't talk about that sort of thing."

James says leaving school at 15 didn't given him many career options. He has had a couple of lucky breaks since his stint at McDonald's and feels he has landed on his feet.

"But it could have gone completely the other way, I was lucky. Where could I have been? Well, you know, I could still be at McDonald's. I could be in a gutter."

James concedes running away at 15 made him street smart and taught him about the world, but he can't help but wonder what he missed out on.

Ted, 21, from Hawke's Bay, was often bullied at school. One of his worst memories comes from when he was in the 3rd form, when he didn't yet know he was gay.

"I used to catch the bus home from school and I sat in front of these two 6th form guys - they started asking me personal questions. I was ignoring them, then they grabbed my bag and when I reached around to get my bag back the held my arms behind me and pulled out permanent marker and drew all over me writing words like FAGGOT, POOFTER, BATTY BOY, I LIKE COCK ... just really mean stuff all over me," he says.

"When I got home from the bus stop I walked in the front door of my house and my mum started crying because I literally was covered in permanent marker."

Ted says his mum took photos of him, called the school and the boys were expelled without question.

"I never got an apology from these guys. But in a way it made me a stronger person. I'm proud to be a member of this ever growing gay community."


Across the country today people will be pulling on pink shirts to collectively stand up against the type of school bullies who made high school hell for people like James and Ted.

The idea came from a group of students in Canada, when two 17-year-old high school students decided to go into bat for a friend who had been harassed for wearing a pink shirt to school. The boys, David Shepherd and Travis Price, decided that the bullying had to stop. They went to a discount store and bought 50 pink tank tops, sent out the message to schoolmates that night, and the next morning handed them to students to wear. When the bullied boy walked in, according to Travis Price, "It looked like a huge weight was lifted off his shoulders. The bullies were never heard from again."

It has been adopted in New Zealand by the group Safety in Schools 4 Queers, which is urging the community to take the initiative into their own hands, not only by wearing a pink shirt today – but by spreading the anti-bullying message everywhere they work and play.


Tom Hamilton from Rainbow Youth
Rainbow Youth executive director Tom Hamilton deals with stories about queer students being bullied on a daily basis. He says it's impacting on teenagers' self-esteem, making them feel isolated and increasing their anxiety and pressure.

"Research shows that 30 percent of young people are impacted by bullying in New Zealand. Out of that 30 percent, I would say quite a high percentage would actually be students who either identify as queer, or are perceived as queer."

Hamilton says the most powerful thing about Pink Shirt Day is that it is about getting the teenagers themselves involved in offering peer-to-peer support.

"That's a clear message I hear from queer young people: 'I can't tell my teacher, I can't tell my school counsellor, I've told them but they're not listening to me'. These are words that young people have said to me."

Hamilton says if students can find solidarity in their peer group, it may be a better approach than having to go to someone in some sort of hierarchy, which automatically highlights them and isolates them.

"Within your peer group, any kind of conflict that you can resolve is always going to be more successful," he says.

"It's about trying to find ways for young people to help each other. And we need schools supporting that, from the school boards, to the teachers, to the students themselves -everyone's responsible for each other's safety."

Hamilton says the wider community also has an important role.  He thinks a queer teenager walking down the street today and seeing people clad in pink would likely think 'wow, I'm not on my own here'.

"They come into the world thinking that they're the only one. Something like the pink shirt campaign might might make them feel safer."

Proceeds from this t-shirt go to Rainbow Youth (See Vintage T Shirts link below)
Rainbow Youth will today have a stall outside their Karangahape Rd drop-in centre in Auckland, handing out Mental Health Foundation anti-bullying badges and talking to people on the street to make them aware of Pink Shirt Day and what it means. They welcome volunteers. The group has also made a special agreement with Mr Vintage to sell collector shirts reading "Don't push me, push a push pop" and carrying the anti-bullying message.

In the video below, Rainbow Youth education officer Priscilla Penniket shares her experiences of going into high schools to talk about queer issues, which has sometimes inspired students to come out in class.  Thanks to the Mental Health Foundation.

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Kitten Power - 28th April 2010