by Rosanna Kellett
Like a magic trick, one law has made once-invisible relationships visible. This reappearance act has also focused attention on the impact of discrimination and the social problems and costs it causes.
Following last week’s passing of state legislation to legalise gay marriage in the ACT, support groups and activists in Sydney are continuing to work to support victims of discrimination and raise public awareness of related issues and problems it causes in the community.
The November SpringOUT Festival in Canberra is a cultural, community-driven event aimed at promoting community connectedness and raising awareness about issues relating to marriage equality and discrimination. Committee member Keiran says that while no protests had been arranged, there were marriage equality groups passionate about make their presence and displeasure known.
Keiran says the removal of discriminatory laws and attitudes was necessary for the social well-being of the community.
“There is a problem with homophobia, bullying, discrimination, depression and self-harm, even here in somewhere as generally progressive as the ACT. Wherever people are marginalised, be it by societal norms and values or by those of their families and friends, there is increased likelihood of problems with mental health arising.”
Keiran says the purpose of the festival was to address such issues by providing an environment of inclusion.
“Social connectedness is incredibly important for resilience so that you don’t feel so isolated and vulnerable,” he says.
In Sydney alone, a significant portion of the community struggles with issues of identity, sexuality and thoughts of self-harm.
Dr Michael Flood, editor of The International Encyclopedia of Men and Masculinities, has researched the social and personal impact of discrimination and says, “In schools, same-sex attracted people typically experience patterns of bigotry, exclusion and harassment.
“The consequences of this include marginalisation, higher rates of personal stress and alienation, lowered self-esteem and self-hate, lower school performance, dropping out of school, homelessness, drug and alcohol abuse, and suicide.
“Unfortunately, gay and lesbian people’s difficulties are usually interpreted as a product of their sexual orientation, rather than as a perfectly understandable response to ongoing prejudice and oppression.”
Statistics gathered by telephone helpline, Lifeline, show that feelings of being “different” or stigmatised by society, laws or attitudes and fear of rejection are major contributing factors to feelings of loneliness and isolation, and self-harm behaviour.
Kid’s Help Line research into help-seeking activity in NSW in 2012 found that 49.5 per cent of all calls to the helpline related to concerns about mental health and emotional wellbeing, which included the 7.3 per cent of calls concerning self-harm and 10.8 per cent concerning suicide. The research calculated that 1 in 10 of its phone counselling sessions related primarily to issues concerning self-esteem, self-image, self-concept or identity.
Research by the Headspace National Mental Health Foundation has found that suicide and self-harm combined account for a significant portion of the burden of disability and mortality among young Australians, with 24 per cent of females and 18 per cent of males aged 20-24 reporting self-harming at some point in their life.
The research estimates that 21 per cent of “years life lost” because of premature death among young Australians in 2004 was due to suicide and self-inflicted injury. Non-fatal suicidal behaviour and self-harm are linked to disability and loss of years of healthy life.
A wide range of initiatives in the Sydney area continue to tackle these issues in the hope that recent activism will raise public awareness of the impact of discriminatory laws and attitudes.
A University of Technology, Sydney study in 2005 found that the presence of a “homophobic culture” caused young people to feel “isolated at school, at home and in society, often experiencing an identity crisis and facing a number of mental health issues such as depression, anxiety, feelings of isolation, loneliness and thoughts of suicide”.
A 2010 national study by La Trobe University found that, of the 60 per cent of homosexual young people who had experienced verbal abuse and the 18 per cent who had experienced physical abuse, 29 per cent said the abuse meant they could not concentrate in school, 21 per cent said they had missed classes, 20 per cent reported a drop in their marks, 9 per cent were too afraid to use a toilet and 8 per cent had dropped out of school.
UTS Queer Officer Andy Zephyr was recently elected President of the UTS Students’ Association on a platform of initiatives focused on equity and inclusiveness, including campaigns to stop discrimination on campus, support for broader campaigns for marriage equality and reintroducing STUVAC (study vacation) in order to give students a mental health break.
He says the UTS Students’ Association supports the cause for equality through a range of services and organising events such as Pride Week.
“People come to events, or the Queer Space with the knowledge that they don’t have to face the bigotry that exists in our society.”
UTS has several initiatives and resources in place to address these issues, and people seeking help or information can contact the UTS Student Association Queer Collective, UTS Counselling or the UTS Equity and Diversity Unit.