How The Plebiscite Made School Unsafe
"My existence shouldn’t necessarily have been ammunition for points in wayward class discussions."
By Ivy Bullen
I think one of the worst experiences is when you walk into a classroom and everyone has their eyes on you. You’re sure of it. Even if they’re not looking, you feel some strange sense of surveillance, like you should feel a bit guilty about being an entity walking through a door at a fatefully awkward or tense time.
After my Year 11 prelim exams last September, I got back to school and rampant conversations about the marriage equality plebiscite erupted out of most of my classes. I think it was pretty damaging in a lot of ways. It was probably more damaging because I go to a Catholic girls school - a memo was put out by the Catholic Archbishop of the Diocese of Sydney, titled ‘To Vote With Pope Francis is to Vote No.’ My school’s staff were under the instruction by the Archdiocese to enforce a ‘no’ vote message to parents and students, despite opinions on marriage equality greatly varying between Catholics, as well as the plebiscite being about civil marriage, not religious marriage. Being name dropped in class as being a lesbian in these arguments that kids made against teachers, the church and other girls in my classes, made me feel quite uncomfortable - my existence shouldn’t necessarily have been ammunition for points in wayward class discussions.
‘You wouldn’t want to see Ivy get married?’
I understand people striving to be allies, but it made it unsafe for members of the LGBTQIA+ community. Being mentioned in heated discussions, in front of people who oppose the existence of anything divergent from heterosexuality, felt scary. The lack of education in a Catholic school around how to be an ally was evident. I didn’t want my civil rights to be discussed so often and in a framework that was fraught and nullified the experiences of other individuals through (mostly) theologically/politically incorrect arguments (‘God hates gays’ was one that I heard a few times). Somehow school was co-opted to become a place that felt increasingly more and more unsafe, leaving LGBTQIA+ students feeling estranged and trapped, even if it wasn’t the intention of heterosexual, cisgendered classmates voicing their opinions and arguments.
There were a few times I’d considered going home or to sick bay instead of sitting in class because I physically felt ill from the repeated barrage of arguments in class. I loved school though, I wanted to be there to learn, so I stayed. I walked through 7 different sets of doors every day until the 15th of November, to some degree feeling eyes on me, whether or not they were there.
But, there’s something unifying when you’re in an uncomfortable space and there are people that are feeling the same. You walk through those doors, with the eyes divided between 2, 5, 10 of you, instead of eyes just being concentrated on a solitary figure. November 15th - the day the plebiscite results were revealed - some of us jigged class, hunched over a phone or two the bathroom stalls with the livestream of the decision switched on. We were sweating, shaking, laughing, crying as the ‘yes’ vote prevailed - 61.6%. We shouldn’t have been so worried. I walked into my next class and all eyes were on me, but only because I spontaneously burst into singing ‘Allstar’ by Smash Mouth really obnoxiously out of nervousness and excitement and relief. Our teacher hadn’t gotten to the classroom yet, so everyone started chanting it until everyone forgot the words. Hoarse and happy and hating new HSC content in November, the vote didn’t matter anymore to pretty much anyone, nobody really made a fuss about it being a ‘yes’ outcome over a ‘no’ outcome. The teacher walked in, we skimmed over the syllabus and everyone sort of forgot about it. I got the leadership position I wanted, every consenting adult could now marry any consenting adult. The pairs of eyes naturally averted, looking for something to captivate them again.
That’s all it felt like - everyone had just lost interest. No resonating comments were left. But that’s probably what hurt the most - no longer did anyone have a strong opinion. I was left wondering if it was out of boredom or for the sake of it that what had been said by my classmates had been said. Did they realise what effect that had on me, on other students in my grade, my school?
That time between the August 24th and the November 7th was hard for the Australian LGBTQIA+ community. Although there were so many people looking at those who would ultimately be affected by their fellow Aussie’s decisions, it often felt like support was invisible for many, and LGBTQIA people’s struggles also faded to the background. I was fortunate to have a stable support system of friends and family who affirmed my identity and supported me throughout the same-sex marriage legalisation process, but my experience doesn’t speak for everyone. Australian helpline BeyondBlue reported a 40% increase of calls received daily, following the announcement of the plebiscite. To see the impact of the plebiscite, even now after the law has been passed, you might not have to go beyond a school classroom’s door.
Ivy is a 17 year old creative from Marrickville. She writes articles about the experience of growing up and living in in Sydney, and being a young woman in the LGBTQIA+ community. These experiences are also shared through zines, gocco prints and some new experimentations with film photography. You can see more of her work on her Instagram.
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