Words Michael Stratford Hutch
Image Wayne Ye
The first time I felt like I had words to describe my gender accurately was when I was 17 years old – almost at the end of my secondary education.
While I was happy that I could finally put into words the frustrations I had felt for years, I was also incredibly upset that it had taken that long – and that I had to do it myself.
Why had the education system failed to provide such a vital service as to let me know there were options other than ‘he’ or ‘she’? That I could choose my gender; that it wasn’t determined from birth?
To put it bluntly, I am not a man. I’m not a woman, either. I’m not ‘in-between’ man and woman because there is no in-between.
Man and woman are two genders in a very loose assemblage of identities, some of which predate Western civilisation, such as the indigenous North American two-spirit, the Samoan fa’afafine, and the South Asian Hijra.
I experienced intense distress during my high school years. I developed a lot of negative perceptions of my body, so much so that I became chronically anxious and could barely function for the first half of grade 10.
What’s worse, mine is probably one of the less serious cases.
I know a lot of young people who, as a result of these problems, end up taking things out on themselves. Their mental, emotional, and physical health suffers.
No one ever asked me what I wanted to know about sex, sexuality, or gender; nor was I convinced that my teachers were qualified to talk about these issues in an objective, positive, and affirming manner.
They used to play half-hour videos from the ‘90s, which focused on heterosexual couples, and condoms and ‘the pill’ as the only forms of contraception. They barely approached gender as a concept.
We used to leave those classes joking about how bad they were. But I didn’t realise the effects they would have in the following years.
This brings me to, well, me.
I had been scrolling through my Tumblr, taking in pop culture, music, art, and society, when I came across a post quite plainly labelled, An explanation of non-binary.
Two-and-a-half years later, I can still remember its contents clearly. Not only did it state that there were other genders besides man and woman, but there was a gender itself that questioned and challenged that very binary. And so the idea of non-binary gender was what resonated with me so strongly.
After struggling with my mental health for a number of years, I had finally found something that helped me: the support of a community of people who had experienced the same hardship (or worse) because they were simply not aware of their options.
It would have saved me years of mental anguish to have had access to such a resource.
There is no grey area — I believe our education system misleads and underrepresents the true diversity of young people.
People can feel like outcasts when they find themselves lost or misunderstood. And when they feel like outcasts, with little to no support system or self-care strategy, they can turn inwards. They may not ask for help, or even share their feelings with loved ones. They can self-destruct.
The more we stall on providing safe spaces for our young people to respectfully and safely experiment with their gender identities and sexualities, the more we isolate generations of young adults.
The more we stall on providing comprehensive sexuality and gender education, the more we expose the young people in our community to minefields of mental health issues.
It may seem extreme but I feel it’s the reality of the situation, and we absolutely must do something about it.
There are limited services available in Hobart, and Tasmania more broadly. There are services that offer fantastic programs such as Headspace and The Link, which work with young people of diverse cultural backgrounds, sexualities, and gender identities. However, these services must be better integrated into our education system.
Schools form some of the building blocks of our society. As such, their curriculum should account for the diversity of their students and the students’ families. It’s only through public and private schools that a whole generation of young people can be reached with one comprehensive program.
We should be working with young people to develop such models — after all, during adolescence, neuroplasticity (the brain’s ability to change in many ways, even into adulthood) is at some of the most active levels you’ll ever see during a lifetime. We should be making use of this fantastic, natural receptiveness to foster a more loving and accepting social culture.
Obviously, we need to implement changes regarding the existing curriculum of sex education – for one thing, making it sexuality and gender education. We need to incorporate a holistic understanding of the diversity in our societies, and the widely different needs for varying sociocultural groups.
Once we’ve instituted positive changes in our education system, a shift in community values is bound to happen.
We owe it to our young people to listen to them, and accommodate and facilitate their diverse identities and needs rather than just managing.
We owe it to our young people to allow them to thrive.