Issues Magazine

Alison’s Story: A Young Australian Comes Out

By Fiona MacDonald

Melbourne student Alison “came out” in year 8. Insights from her story could be useful to support young Australian lesbian, gay and bisexual youth.

The desire to belong, be accepted, valued and respected can impact on young Australian school students’ health and wellbeing as well as their school experiences and educational outcomes. While research is still exploring the direct causal effects of this relationship, there is a strong focus in educational circles on improving all young Australians’ sense of belonging at school (Student Engagement and Inclusion Guidance 2014, Department of Education and Early Childhood Development, Victoria).

Despite these efforts there continue to be groups of students who consistently have a lower sense of belonging than the broader school population. International research suggests that lesbian, gay and bisexual (LGB) youth regularly experience a lower sense of belonging in their school environments than their heterosexual peers (http://bitly.com/bundles/wools2/1).

Along with the rapid physical, physiological and cognitive developments of puberty, young LGB Australians are pursuing a sense of belonging at the same time as exploring their same-sex orientation.

Youth website Minus18 states that 10% or more of Australians are same-sex-attracted. Applying this to an Australian secondary school or college with between 700 and 1000 students, there are between 50 and 100, possibly more, young people exploring their feelings of same-sex attraction.

While many schools have established same-sex peer groups and reassure students that they can talk about their sexuality, homophobic responses to a same-sex orientation are still present. Studies being undertaken with young LGB Australians by organisations such as beyondblue and Safe Schools Coalition Australia reveal that considerable work remains if we are to provide school spaces where young Australians feel that they can “come out” and also experience a sense of belonging to this significant place in their lives.

What does it mean to young Australians who are same-sex orientated and feel that they don’t belong in their school environment or with their peers? What is the significance of “coming out”? These are difficult questions to answer without turning to young LGB Australians for knowledge and understanding.

Beyond research and online support resources, such as the cluster of “coming out” stories on YouTube, my connection to Alison (not her real name), an 18-year-old-lesbian from Melbourne, was important in building my insights and knowledge. A current year 12 student at a Melbourne all-girls government school, Alison has been a family friend for her secondary school years.

Alison’s story presents some of the challenges that young lesbian girls experience on their journey to accept their same-sex orientation. Alison was very clear that she felt that “everyone’s journey is different, so even if you talk to someone who’s gone through it, their story or their path is completely different to what you’re going to experience and how you are going to deal with it”. But she was willing to share her story with a wider audience.

I found it difficult, as I began to listen to Alison’s story, to remember that she was reflecting back on her primary school years when she first started to feel “different”. There is increasing evidence that 11–13-year-olds are identifying with a particular sexual orientation and “coming out” at much younger ages. Alison, looking back, can relate to these earlier years as being part of her journey, but she says she didn’t really know what “the thing” meant at that stage. What she can remember is how she tried to make her feelings go away.

To be honest I think it’s something that was always there. I just didn’t know that was what it was called, or that it actually was my sexuality that was, sort of not the problem, but the thing. But I think I have always felt different, growing up, and always felt something … First I would question it and then moving onto accepting it and working towards dealing with it.

If a sense of belonging is seen to be advantageous to young Australians’ health and wellbeing, then Alison’s thoughts of pushing her feelings away suggest a desire to conform to a heterosexual orientation that she interpreted as being the “normal thing” expected of her. Her memories of uncertainty and darkness at that early stage, with no opportunity to talk about her feelings of same-sex attraction, illuminate the types of challenges that may be faced by younger and younger Australians.

I think mainly because society’s views or ideas are put on you when you are younger and it’s known as the minority thing, so it’s not the “normal thing”. So I think for me, I was in denial for a bit of time. … It was a very dark time, it was a big struggle so I think I just reached a point where I have to accept it otherwise I don’t want to live like that, being very depressed …

Alison’s understanding and acceptance of her same-sex attraction came at the same time as her transition from primary to secondary education, a challenging time for young people. For Alison, the support of teachers was important.

I went to a teacher in Year 8 and it was the first adult I ever came out to. I thought she was going to kick me out of school or something crazy. … I was with a friend and she actually had to say the words because I was so nervous. I was like paralysed and the teacher’s just like, oh ok, she didn’t even make a big deal about it and I was shocked.

Alison also found support online, turning to the web for information and understanding.

… on YouTube, I found there’s a whole community out there. It was actually really comforting to see that someone else had struggled through the same things. You think you are alone, you think that no one understands it or is going through the things but when I was able to see that other people had dealt with the same things it made me feel like I wasn’t as crazy as I thought I was. I felt a bit more normal.

Schools put in considerable effort and planning to ensure young Australians are supported through this period. Alison believes that this was a journey she needed to take alone, although she admits that the response of her year 8 teacher was encouraging. Even with schools’ training and ready advice, I wonder how equipped they are, particularly primary schools or individual teachers, to assist these young Australians who may be uncertain of what “the thing” that dominates their feelings means.

After several years of being unable to share her feelings or journey, the weight Alison released by “coming out” was considerable.

… in year 9, I told everyone … I didn’t even realise how much of a weight it was until it was released. I felt so happy and free, like there wasn’t this huge burden I had been carrying around.

Alison’s experience at her all-girls school has been a positive one and the support of her teachers and school staff have enabled her to understand her same-sex attraction. Her friends have been helpful but even Alison questions how equipped 13- and 14-year-old girls are to assist someone who is uncertain of her same-sex attraction and feelings. I asked Alison about her friends and her decision to “come out” to them.

… I’ve been so lucky the school’s been so supportive and the teachers have actually been a great help. I don’t think I would be in the place I am without them. You know your friends are a great help but they don’t have the knowledge or the skills to help you in that situation and they (teachers) helped a lot.

Alison has found it difficult to discuss her same-sex attraction at home, so the understanding and acceptance by friends and staff was vital to her ability to share her feelings. School became the place that her lesbian identity was recognised and accepted.

So school became sort of a safe place, and I kind of started living a double life cause I would go home and I would be very scared about them finding out.

Although she still believes “my friends don’t really understand. I think they don’t understand that it’s something I didn’t choose”, their acceptance has been reassuring for Alison.

… overall it’s been pretty positive. I think generally I’ve been pretty accepted and people (friends) take an interest the same way they would take interest in a straight person’s relationships or interests or attractions.

Listening to her, I agree that the outcome sounds positive, but there is so much of Alison’s story that reveals the complexities and challenges she faced along with way. Even in this story of “success” there is uncertainty, darkness, struggle, depression, nervousness, a desire for “normality” and a feeling that this was largely a journey to be travelled alone.

With her friends’ support Alison has been able to participate in shared stories of sexual attraction and relationships. She knows, though, that this is not always the case.

A girl I was dating last year, she came out to her friends and her friends made fun of her and they were quite horrible, to the extent that she moved friendship groups. They would attack her every day and make comments. She was quite surprised that my friends were all so supportive because she’d had such a negative experience and I was quite shocked. I think it would have been quit damaging, emotionally and stuff, to me if that had happened. It would make it harder to come out to other people, to be open.

Alison’s openness has given me valuable insight into the experiences of LGB in Australian secondary schools, and reinforced the importance of belonging within this space. Yet she has left me pondering with concern the realities of young LGB Australians who are exploring feelings of same-sex attraction without the level of acceptance and support Alison received.

How challenging is everyday life for young LGB Australians who are unable to share their feelings of same-sex attraction for fear of no longer belonging in this significant place in their lives?