Rugby, farming and homosexuality: Brave gay students tell their stories of schoolyard bullying to inspire others
"It was hard being myself," Henry Yuen recalls, quietly.
The schoolyard hostility he faced at one of New Zealand's biggest and most respected schools was overwhelming. "I was probably 14 or 15, finding it hard to get out of bed. I think I knew that I was gay – it's a little complicated."
So he kept his head down, worked hard, and earned the plaudit of dux at Auckland Grammar School. But Yuen said he dreaded going to school because he was treated differently. "There were occasions of bullying and slurs thrown at me. It was hard feeling that I could stand up and have confidence.
Now studying computer science at the prestigious Duke University in the USA, Yuen and other students are lifting the lid on their experiences with schoolyard homophobia in a bid to give a voice to those struggling for acceptance.
Last year, Yuen and his classmate, Auckland Grammar head boy Joel Bateman, launched the Grammar Pride blog exposing and taking a stand against prejudice at the college. Now they have launched a nationwide site, Voicing Pride, for students across New Zealand to share their stories of overcoming discrimination.
The aim of the page was to speak out against schools' out-dated attitudes in dealing with LGBTQ concerns.
Yuen said it was hard enough for teens to deal with their own sexuality, without being made to feel like an outsider at school. "A lot of people say you've just got to battle through it and wait til you get to uni 'cause no-one really cares so much," he said. "But there's no reason why you can't have a supportive environment earlier to really encourage people to be themselves. High schools need that environment earlier."
The reason he and Bateman (who also came out to his friends and family while at university) wanted to start Voicing Pride was to show schools what was really going on in the lives of students.
It was often hard for teens to talk to their teachers, Yuen said. Most turned online, and Voicing Pride was designed to be a supportive place where people could share their stories and encourage others to do the same thing.
The Grammar Pride blog, launched at the start of 2016, had an immediate and overwhelming impact, with thousands of page views and countless messages of support. The school was quick to change, setting in place support structures for gay students.
Yuen said attitudes were gradually changing at schools, but said more needed to be done.
"There are a lot of undercurrents of homophobia, behind the scenes, casual homophobia. It's a problem we can address early, that we should address, schools have a big role to play in that.
"The end goal is that we have those support networks in high schools to really make our rainbow community feel at home so we can combat and eradicate the blatant homophobia. It's about making the inclusive environment, at the end of the day."
REKHA: 'HOMOPHOBIC CULTURE WAS EXPLICIT'
A former St Cuthbert's College student says the school is more intent on protecting its image than supporting homosexual students.
Rekha hit out at the exclusive $21,000-a-year Auckland school, saying: "Homophobic culture was not simply an aggressive undercurrent – it was explicit."
In her Voicing Pride post Rekha describes how she, and other students who identified as LGBTQ, felt let down by the school hierarchy.
An attempt to start a support group for LGBTQ students was stifled by the school. "I was dismayed when I discovered that an older student had attempted to form an alliance group and was refused by senior management. That dismay increased over time, when I realised just how many girls waited until they left school to come out."
The school was too focused on its image and anything that could detract from its "all-important reputation", she says.
Rekha has left school and now directs the Rainbow Law group for Auckland University law students.
"In my last year of school I sat in an office, with another girl who was gay, and was told 'the board members wouldn't approve' of a video where two girls recreated a heterosexual marriage from a movie. It seemed even the faintest hint of gayness was too risqué for an event where media might be present, and we were told to edit it out.
"As I have never forgotten, St Cuthbert's College is a business and, like many others, it values its image tremendously."
Rekha is bisexual, and says most of her friends knew that while she was still at high school. But she waited until the second year of university to tell her parents.
The biggest source of support came from her friends, and she says she was lucky to have such a close friendship group, many of whom also came out around the same time.
Roz Mexted, newly appointed principal of St Cuthbert's College says she took significant steps support LGBTQA students when she led a previous school, including the provision of gender neutral bathrooms and the development of a diversity group led by students.
"I believe St Cuthbert's has made inroads, but there is more that we and many other schools can do. St Cuthbert's uses Rainbow Youth resources to teach acceptance as part of the curriculum and it is my intention, when school resumes, to meet with students to better understand how the College can support them, as part of a wider review process."
Rekha says St Cuthbert's and other schools needed to promote support networks. By failing to do so and "by refusing to explicitly stand by its LGBT students", they were validating discrimination.
MATTHEW: 'NEVER TALKED ABOUT IN SCHOOLS'
Matthew Denton was so dedicated to extra-curricular activities that he won the award for exemplifying the 'spirit' of Auckland's Mount Albert Grammar School.
But under the surface he says the school's spirit and general attitudes towards homosexuality didn't sit right.
The former pupil, now 23 and studying arts and law, said he endured a constant fear of being judged for his sexual preference and that chipped away at his confidence.
He threw himself into his study but the dread of "exposure" from classmates got so bad that he started skipping school.
"It was just an unhealthy environment because I associated school with that internalised fear."
The anxiety was compounded when a friend was bullied after coming out as gay to classmates.
"It was that thing where guys would say to him 'are you gonna come on to me?' and he was treated as some sort of predator. I think that said a lot about the other students being uncomfortable and maybe just being unaware or not being familiar with different sexual orientations."
Denton says there was widespread casual homophobia that made him feel like an outsider, right up until the end of year 13.
That played out in the schoolyard where other students would use insults such as "gay" and "faggot".
"Largely all the dialogue is hetero-normative so when you start to identify that you don't fit that mould and there's only really negative discussion about that other mould that's when you start to freak out."
He confided in some friends but ultimately waited until after graduating to broach the subject of his sexuality.
That was partly because of the lack of a support network at school, he said. "Sexual orientation is just never really talked about in schools. And sexual education is pretty abysmal."
He says it's time schools get more proactive in running educating programmes on sexuality. "Schools have got to realise that there is this body of students that they're not recognising, and they should be doing more for these students so they don't suffer even more."
CAMERON: RUGBY, FARMING AND HOMOSEXUALITY
For Cameron Eade, finally admitting to himself and others that he was gay was a weight lifted of his shoulders.
He's content with it now although at first, he admits, coming out was a daunting prospect.
"It's very tough, especially when you're trying to find yourself. It's sort of like an abyss. You don't know what will happen," Eade says. "You just want to fit in. It makes you feel like you're not normal and you need to not be the person who you actually are."
It wasn't until his final year at James Hargest College in Invercargill that Eade, the head boy, decided he needed to face up to it and accept what he had known since age 11.
Rumours circulated for years that Eade was gay but he ignored them and went about his day-to-day life doing all the things kids in Southland did. He played rugby, hockey and hung out with mates.
He decided he needed to put the rumours to rest when his older brother, former Southland rugby halfback Scott Eade, asked about them. Cameron told his mum first; the whole family accepted his sexual orientation.
It came as somewhat of a surprise that people would be so accepting of him in a city like Invercargill where rugby, farming and homosexuality didn't feel to him like a natural fit.
Now, he tells people if they ask – otherwise he's not bothered.
Studying in a more diverse city like Christchurch has also helped with his own acceptance of being gay. A third year law and politics student, Eade has found a "like-minded" crowd with which to talk and socialise.
He has one regret and that's not using his position as head boy as a platform to reach out to other LGBTQ pupils.
But he has one piece of advice for others: "It's not something you need to rush. Get comfortable with it in your own skin."
- Sunday Star Times