Homophobic bullying towards young men in Australia: when does it come to an end?

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Words || Daisy Trethowan

[Content Warning: Instance of Bullying and Homophobia]

When James Adonis, a journalist for the Sydney Morning Herald, wrote an article about how to confront homophobia at work, he drew on his personal experiences. When he told his workplace about his sexuality, a coworker asked James , “Oh so you’re a gay now are you?,” as if he decided to turn gay then and there in the spur of the moment. Although James didn’t take offence, gay men are often subject to these kinds of questions and comments in the workplace. And sometimes, this crosses the line into bullying and harassment. James raises the issue that many gay men in Australia do experience some form of bullying and harassment at work due to their sexuality.

One young man who has experienced workplace bullying is Luke, a 26-year-old from Merrylands, in Sydney’s West, who identifies himself as a proud Aboriginal gay man. In an effort to try and make some money to support himself while studying, he got a job at a local bottle shop. Luke often did night shifts in Parramatta and came across a range of characters. Luke never mentioned his sexuality to his co-workers as he felt too nervous to disclose that personal information with others.

Luke’s manager would often work shifts with him. Whenever a beautiful woman in tight clothing would walk through and out of the store he would say did you see her, she was so hot Luke! Luke would often force a smile while tensing his face and nod in silence. He never replied to all the womanizing comments until one day it all became too much and spoke out: “I’m gay!”.

At first his manager was okay with it. Then slowly week by week, his manager started to show his homophobia. He’d ask questions like: how many guys have you fucked? Are you the one being fucked or are you the one fucking them? Throughout every shift, a new question would arise and it triggered Luke’s anxiety and depression. He never felt safe. The constant creepy questions pushed Luke till the day he snapped. “If it’s so disgusting, why is the G spot up the guy’s ass then?”.

Working with his toxic manager made him feel anxious and unsure of what to do. He put up with the abuse until his manager eventually moved on to another store and Luke felt comfortable again. He never reported the incidents but, what Luke experienced was a form of workplace bullying.

In spite of the increased awareness of bullying and homophobia, it still exists and affects the lives of young people in Australia’s schools and workplaces. The Australian government website ReachOut.com was originally created to provide support to those who experienced bullying and to decrease the suicide rate in Australia during the 90s. In 1997, the Inspire Foundation, which is now recognised as ReachOut Australia, was launched. It became the first online mental health service for young people in the world and is still preventing suicides today.

This year, with Sydney celebrating their 40-year anniversary of the Mardi Gras, the community has been reminded of the activist origins of the parade. The first protest occurred in 1972 and in 1978 Sydney celebrated its first Mardi Gras. The first Mardi Gras in 1978 was just the beginning of social activism in Australia to “stop police attacks on gays, women and blacks!”. The protestors who celebrated and fought on Sydney’s streets had one mission, to change Australia’s attitudes to homosexuality and to stop homophobia in the community.

In 1983 the Mardi Gras was more of a parade than a protest march, but still retained its strong activist purpose. One of the floats was the Catholic Gay Group. Their float was on the back of a semi- trailer and had a hill hoist attached to the back. The hills hoist had several items hanging off it, a pair of socks, a blue singlet and white T-shirt. Printed clearly on the white T-shirt in capital letters was the word ‘ACCEPTANCE’. This photo is key to Australia’s history as it shows that gay men can be religious too, and should be included in the social activism.

Today Mardi Gras is known worldwide, a huge celebration for the LGBTQI culture, and part of the mainstream culture of Sydney. Greg Waters, the screenwriter of Australia’s 2018 film Riot wrote an article for The Sydney Morning Herald reflecting on the original protests. The article highlights that the protesters back then would be “surprised to know that less than 50 years later 12,300 people including church groups, police and sports people would parade in support of the LGBTQI community and half a million people would turn out to watch”. However, as highlighted by the same sex marriage debate in 2018, the visibility of LGBTQI has not stopped discrimination in Australia’s community and schools.

Daniel, also known as Bella Hadid by his close friends, is a 20-year-old student studying Law and Business. Growing up Daniel experienced discrimination because of his sexuality. As soon as I stepped into his house in the Sydney suburb of Eastwood, it was noticeable I was in a catholic household. Daniel went to get me a glass of water and there on the fridge was where I saw the beloved mother Mary. Daniel’s make up was blended well and I could tell he had some highlighter on the top of his cheeks. As the sunshine’s rays hit the highlight, his cheek glowed and popped like champagne. He was so confident but, this wasn’t always the case when he attended an all boy catholic school in the Northern Suburbs of Sydney. Daniel continued to scroll through his Instagram and showed me several photographs of his group. Noticeably, he was the only boy in all of the photos. All the girls were petite, tanned and almost idolized Daniel as he was the only boy in the group.

“Aw your friends look really nice Daniel!”

“Yeah, I know, it’s hard being the only boy but, luckily my girls always do what I say. My mate got another mL in her lips because I told her so”.

“Ah, another mL?”

“Yeah, you know like lip fillers, like don’t tell me yours are real?”.

Not knowing what to say in response, I came back to the reason for our conversation and asked: have you been bullied at school for your appearance? Daniel rolled his eyes and made direct eye contact with me. His pouted his lips hard and took a second to think. Out of nowhere he laughed.

“Being a larger flamboyant person in my schooling years I did receive bullying for being gay. Like of course, the fat gay Arab kid is the easiest target”.

“How did that make you feel?”.

He took a deep breath and stroked his left eye brow. I wasn’t sure if I had pissed Daniel off or triggered a memory. He picked up his bottle of Kombucha and had a sip.

“I don’t know what type of person I would be today if I didn’t get bullied and harassed in high school. Going to an all-boys CATHOLIC school made everything a lot worse because, everyone was raised in a certain way which is so fine and, I just had my close group of three or four friends. We didn’t really care what anybody had to say about us”.

Another student who experienced bullying at high school due to his sexuality is Yahn, now a a 20-year-old journalism student. He attended three schools in Sydney’s North Shore from year seven till year twelve, having to switch schools due to bullying. . Yahn explained that at his first school he received “so much fucking abuse” because it was a co-educational catholic school.

Yahn explained how at his second school he barely experienced any bullying in real life. Yahn and his best friend Jess at the time would upload numerous make up tutorials on Facebook. All the comments were supportive like; Yasss, AMAZING, iconic.

Then one day after school Yahn logged into Ask.fm. The social media platform allowed people to post anonymous messages to one another’s profile. While Yahn received many questions like, when are you posting your next make up tutorial? He also copped a lot of hate messages like, yuck you’re gay, YOU’RE A TINY LITTLE POOF THAT EVERYONE HATES!.

At first Yahn tried to remain calm and asked his year coordinator for advice. The teachers at Yahn’s second school would never blame him but, would only tell Yahn to change.

“Stop and don’t reply back to them”, was the advice Yahn was given.

Eventually it became too much and Yahn and his army of girls in his grade turned to Ask.fm and responded with fire to every single troll that would gave him hate. With the support of his friends and all the sassy comments from his girls he was able to continue on but eventually, the bullying started again and he had to move to his third and final school to finish year eleven and twelve.

2017 was the year Australia said YES to gay marriage but, how long until we will see equality in our schools and workplaces across Australia? How many more men have to suffer despite the anti-discrimination laws emplaced until we give them the equality they deserve? Australian needs to have the conversation on homophobic bullying and include the LGBTQI community in the discussion.

For men like Luke, Daniel and Yahn, who’ve overcome bullying experiences, it was support that shaped them into the strong individuals they are today.

If you are struggling with bullying at school or the workplace, please do not hesitate to contact Lifeline Australia on 13 11 14.

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