Australian Human Rights Commission

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5.4Bullying and harassment experienced by young people

The consultation also heard a significant number of accounts of bullying and harassment on the basis of sexual orientation or sex and/or gender identity experienced by young people, largely in school environments. A recent study on young LGBTI people, Writing Themselves In: 3, found that school was the most likely place of abuse for young people with 80% experiencing abuse at school. 74

Young people provided the following examples of bullying or harassment:

I was bullied in highschool for looking, talking, walking and acting like a gay male. Obviously this didn't encourage me to come out...until I was "outed" by a friend....; being a teen is so so soooo hard. Add discrimination, fear, anxiety, stress, depression because of your sexuality and you become a headcase and end up in hospital. That's not how it should be. (Cisgendered male, 17)75

Yes. I have been called ‘poofter’ from the early days in high school, because I was small, weak and studious. I drew into a shell and did nothing but study. The thought of talking to anyone about my feelings, let alone complaining, would have been laughable. I was often physically attacked at school as well. I am surprised I got through those years.76

Several participants asserted that school teachers did not respond to abuse, were unsupportive of LGBTI students or engaged in harassment themselves. For example:

During my high school years I was severely bullied (physically and emotionally) to cope I want[ed to] confide in my schools Chaplin, I'm not religious I just got good vibes from him. I told him I was gender queer and that I wasn't straight, after that he stopped all communication and left me to deal with things on my own which lead to my first suicide attempt (Gender “undefined” female, 18).77

Throughout my time in high school I experienced constant harassment because of my gender identity. I was frequently made fun of in class, often by teachers. Students refused to use my chosen name, instead referring to me by my birth name and using female pronouns; teachers did not punish them even though it was quite clear that the harassment was deliberate ... Food was thrown at me on a number of occasions. I was pushed, spat on and hit. A group of boys in the year above me repeatedly threatened to rape me as "proof" I was a girl. There were several threats to my life. .. None of the people who bullied me were ever punished.78

The Youth Affairs Council of Victoria also found that more than 50% of young people surveyed said they had been treated unfairly more than 3 times because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.79

5.5The impact of discrimination, vilification or harassment on mental health

Australian and international research demonstrates that discrimination, harassment or vilification has a significant impact on the mental health of LGBTI people. For example, Suicide Prevention Australia estimates that suicide attempts by lesbian, gay and bisexual people are between 3.5 and 14 times higher than their heterosexual peers.80 In the TranZnation Report on the health and wellbeing of trans people in Australia and New Zealand, one in four respondents reported having suicidal thoughts in the two weeks before completing the survey.81

    Participants demonstrated the connection between discrimination, abuse and social exclusion with mental health issues including suicidal thoughts and attempts. For example:

    We would also like to highlight the very real links between community attitudes towards "normality" in sex and gender, and the very real health impacts on sex and/or gender diverse people that result from violence, social exclusion and social isolation.82

The effect of this pervasive abuse can be the development of significant mental health issues experienced by GLBT people. The impacts of discrimination, homophobia and violence were reflected in an analysis of 2007 Australian Bureau of Statistics data which shows that GLB people were more than twice as likely to experience ‘any mental disorder’. Alarmingly, homosexual and bisexual people were more than three times more likely to have had an affective disorder such as depression compared to heterosexuals.83

6The potential benefit of federal laws protecting from discrimination and harassment on the basis of sexual orientation and sex and/or gender identity

The consultation invited comments on the potential benefit of federal laws protecting people from discrimination and harassment. Overwhelmingly, participants argued that introducing such protections would result in significant benefits for the Australian community as a whole. A small number of participants argued that there would be no benefit from these protections.

A large number of comments argued that the introduction of such protections would lead to cultural change in Australia by sending a powerful message regarding equality. Participants commented on a number of other practical benefits from this legislation, including that it would:

  • provide a wider range of remedies for discrimination and

  • lead to greater national consistency in anti-discrimination protections.

6.1The potential for cultural change

A significant number of comments argued that federal legislation would send a powerful message that discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or sex and/or gender is unacceptable.84 For example the Victorian Bar stated:

    [S]uch a law would provide an important federal symbolic statement about the unacceptable nature of such discrimination. This would contribute to ensuring that all persons are treated with dignity and respect regardless of their sexual orientation or sex/gender identity. This symbolism would, it is hoped, extend beyond the formal scope of the law to the community more generally and so affect the way in which lesbian, gay, bisexual, intersex and trans people are treated by other individuals on a day-to-day basis. The absence of this kind of legislation could be seen by some in the Australian community as suggesting the Commonwealth government does not take this kind of discrimination seriously, or worse, sees nothing wrong with such discrimination.85

A participant at the Melbourne roundtables spoke of the positive changes they had seen in Tasmania since the introduction of legislation prohibiting discrimination on these grounds:

    The Tasmanian experience shows quite clearly that if a government takes those steps and puts in place good anti-discrimination legislation, that it brings about a change in societal attitude which is far beyond … simply a fear of breaching a law.86

Participants also commented that legislation prohibiting vilification and harassment could lead to cultural change. For example, the Tasmanian Gay and Lesbian Rights Group provided a powerful account of cultural change that has occurred in Tasmania since the introduction of laws prohibiting ‘incitement to hatred’:

During the bitter, decade-long debate over decriminalising homosexuality in the 1990s there was a constant stream of verbal statements and written materials that incited hatred against gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and intersex (GLBTI) people. This included written material published in newspapers and distributed through the mail. It also included vilifying statements by public figures. However, since the passage of the Anti-Discrimination Act in 1998, which included provisions against incitement to hatred, such written and verbal statements have virtually ceased. Tasmania’s public debate on GLBTI issues continues to be vigorous but it is profoundly more mature, respectful and constructive than it was before 1998. 87

Other participants made similar comments:

    I believe that such legislation sends a powerful message to anyone who is inclined to discriminate against, harass or vilify LGBTI people. A great deal of harassment is suffered by LGBTI people – especially same sex attracted young people – and research has demonstrated that this results in much higher rates of depression, drug abuse, self-harm and suicide. A federal law would provide a strong foundation for education campaigns aimed at changing the bullying behaviour that leads to these negative outcomes.88

    A federal law would make it clear to all Australians that vilification, and harassment on the basis of sexual orientation and sex and/or gender identity is never acceptable. Unless there is a clear law against it, it is too easy for bigots to feel their actions are justified, when actions based on prejudice and hatred are not, and never can be, just.89

A number of participants at the Melbourne Roundtables commented on the importance of education and leadership in this area:

  • Significant leadership would be required from our federal politicians to implement federal anti-discrimination laws. This leadership can affect the national psyche and change the future of the country.

  • Without specific anti-discrimination laws, sexual orientation is not given the same importance as discrimination on the basis of race, sex, age and disability.

  • A significant benefit of federal anti-discrimination laws concerning sexual orientation would be the education of young people.

  • Given that we are currently in the middle of developing a new national curriculum in schools, education programs could have a large effect on the future leaders of our country.90

The members of OUTthere Rural Victorian Youth Council for Sexual Diversity provided a powerful summary of the cultural change that they hoped would occur in their communities if federal laws were introduced:

  • Same sex partners could attend school events, such as formals.

  • Same sex attracted couples in schools would have freedom to walk around as a couple, not having to hide who we are [our identities or relationships].

  • Bullying would possibly be less, teachers and school staff would have to acknowledge and address homophobic bullying in the same way they would have to address racist or sexist bullying within the school.

  • A safer school environment would mean kids would want to be at school.91
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