change

Did we think or just do pink?

The week of talking about bullying has now passed. Pink shirts have been hauled out of wardrobes and hung up again for another year and I am concerned about what comes next. I do wonder what sort of talking was actually done, if it was just talking, and just who was listening or was heard. I reckon there were probably more conversations about ‘yanny and laurel’ to be honest. So this coming week is youth week, with the theme of ‘be who you want to be’. I think we needed to talk about why we don’t let people be who they are last week.

For the sake of simplicity, bullying cannot be eradicated like some disease. There is no ‘social vaccination’ for bullying and it thrives in conditions where difference is feared. While we live in a world that is determined to make difference a problem, being who you want to be is not always going to be straight forward. I think it’s naïve to tell young people to simple ‘be yourself’ when then are very real risks for coming out as gay if you are from a culture or religious background that overtly hates, persecutes and punishes people for being gay. Or how about allowing young people to feel confident in their bodies, not shaming them for their size, shape, style. Maybe parents not freaking out when their 16 year old says ‘I don’t want to be a _______ (insert highly valued job/profession here) I want to _________(insert parents ultimate fear of failure or assumptions about less valued professions or careers).

Let’s actually have conversations about the ways we make it hard for people to feel included, valued, respected and cared for in this world rather than placing the onus on young people to ‘be’ something they might not be ready or willing to be.

And for the record it is ‘Laurel’ and if you think otherwise I can’t be your friend (please read as sarcasm).

Train of thought part 2

My first week of using public transport has opened my eyes to a new world. I’ve partially adapted to the culture of the morning commute, which I describe as ‘the zombie apocalypse’. Everyone looks half dead, no-one is speaking or smiling or interacting. I had one human interaction the whole week a single ‘good morning’ which I received after I initiated contact. This was the one person I sat next to who didn’t have headphones in or was talking on the phone. I watched enviously as people boarded with bikes, that will definitely be my next step.

I was still easing in to full time work so the train home varied depending on the time I left. My favourite was just after 3pm when intermediate aged students were boarding. I enjoyed listening to their banter about school, laughing like human beings. On Friday I was even more adventurous catching the train from a new station and then a bus at the other end. I raced up to the platform hoping to catch the next bus, searching the times I couldn’t believe they only ran every 30 minutes. I had 20 minutes to wait so decided to risk using to bathroom. Big mistake, never again, honestly it could not have been further from the clean, well maintained, fresh smelling, well lit experience of the train. The bus finally arrived, but if it hadn’t been for my familiarity of the area I would have wondered where the fuck we were going.

Basically I think the bus routes in Auckland were made up by some drunk people at Auckland Transport one night by throwing darts at the map and saying ‘yip that street will do’, or let snails loose on a map with ink in their slime to mark out routes – who knows but it’s honestly random AF. If the trains are direct then buses are there to ensure you have to have a degree in geography, synchronising times and do not expect to get anywhere in a hurry. But I did get home and I’m definitely more positive overall, but I am counting down to getting back on the bike. I’d happily take daily abuse from motorists and random strangers chatting to me at the lights than the zombies.

A Train of thought

I started back at work today after 6 weeks off after surgery. My surgeon laughed when I discussed the idea of riding my single speed, it was a warm laugh – one that validated my body would not be ready (she said not for 3 months…we’ll see). Therefore I needed an alternative way to get to work, so today I embarked on an adventure with public transport, catching the train. Here are my first impressions:

I have my loaded Hop Card, and get on the 7am train, it’s already quite full but I find a seat. The only thing that surprises me is how bright it is inside, lights on full while outside it’s still pretty dark. I can’t get any sense of where I am, my bearings have all gone, I just stare out the window trying to pick up land marks. I resist getting out my phone but also respect that the guys I’m sitting next to probably doesn’t want to chat at this hour on a Monday morning. I’m suddenly conscious of my deodorant and the smell of my hair product, hoping I’m not suffocating the poor guy. Being on the bike is almost the opposite; it’s quite an intimate feeling in comparison, even if no-one is talking. I catch people’s eyes but am careful not to go full Cheshire cat smile. I have no idea what the etiquette is so I try and keep a friendly neutral face by occasionally checking in the glass to avoid RBF (resting bitch face).

By the time I get off at New Market I feel ready to stretch my legs and the walk up to work is perfect. Sitting at my desk at 7:45am I wondered about others who, like me, imagine public transport is somehow rough and unpleasant (I can’t comment for those who have accessibility needs) it gave me an opportunity to set aside my assumptions and allow experience to inform me. I even started looking forward to the trip at the end day which surprised me.

But it was a different story on the way home:

Scampering down to the platform with 2 minutes to spare, I sighed with relief when I saw the train was empty and I enjoyed being insulated from the wind and rain (Cyclone Hola had arrived). However a few minutes later we ground to a halt due to an ‘operational – personal matter’. The garbled barely audible message just instructed us to get off at Mt Albert and I really hoped it wasn’t code for an accident on the tracks. So out I get, disoriented with no-one directing us to buses I just thought ‘fuck it – if it has New Lynn on it I’ll get on’. Once on board my surroundings took on some familiarity but I felt some of my enthusiasm for public transport wane. Walking through my front door I reflected on the contrasting journeys, sure I was dry-ish but it still took me an hour and a half to get home, double the time it would take on my bike.

Maybe this is the beginning of a new relationship, but it’s off to a bit of an uncertain start. You could say I am courting public transport and I’m sure there will be a few more awkward moments – as there are with anything new but that’s not a good enough reason to give up on a potentially rewarding relationship, I probably need to give it some time. My bike (Emmett) need not worry though as I am a committed cyclist, we will be reunited soon and perhaps an unconventional union could happen – a blending of modes of transport as a way to ease back into things.

To be continued…hopefully not delayed…or derailed

Census or Censor Us

(Disclaimer: second blog in as many days – still possibly a bit rusty/ranty)

I can time the census by the time it takes me to get around to clearing out my wardrobe. Five years already since the last one? But I’m unclear about being ‘counted’ because statistics is a strange process of deciding what matters, in other words it has the power to shape what is counted as real, important, ‘true’ representation of households in 2018. Here is the official blurb from stats NZ:

“Every five years, we run the census – the official count of how many people and dwellings there are in New Zealand. By asking everyone to complete a set of questions about themselves and their household, we can capture a snapshot of who is living in, and visiting, New Zealand.”

Sounds simple enough until you get to the kinds of questions being asked or in this case NOT being asked. This snapshot is going to be taken in …well…black and white and I’m not referring to ethnicity. This year they have decided to drop options around gender diversity and sexuality. Important information about people’s identities, something so fundamentally intrinsic to being human that in some countries you can be killed (legally…and not), is not being collected. This begs the question of the legality of the census. Everyone has to fill out the census accurately and it’s illegal not to complete. Not including gender identity and sexuality for me contradicts the purpose of a census – to collect an accurate picture.

The irony is how many other people seem invested in the existence of rainbow communities. The daily onslaught of abuse, violence, invisibility and persecution of queer people all around the world should make it plainly obvious that it matters! It’s weird to live in a country with marriage equality then not have that counted. Stats New Zealand have explained their position which basically boils down to ‘too hard basket’ and ‘it’s a bit personal for some people’. They won’t get ‘high quality data’ – yes we are a bit of a messy bunch and that is my point. When statistical modelling is privileged over representation the picture is ‘straightened’ out, focus sharpened, cropped neatly (painlessly – because we don’t want to cause offense) there is a cost – further marginalisation as the margins become exclusive rather than inclusive.

It’s good to know they are ‘working on it’ but FFS – it’s not like it’s a new phenomenon. Religion is a bit messy as well but that is still included, so is ethnicity. Perhaps to keep it more in line with the heteronormative stance, they should just have ‘Christian and non-Christian’ – and how Christian do you have to be, to be counted as Christian – what is the criteria – church attendance, bible verses able to be recited? God knows. Why is someones faith or beliefs put ahead of the material being and reality of LGBTQIA+. Funny how LGBTQIA+ are over represented in other stats, suicide, hate crimes, mental health, lack of housing, but are somehow too difficult to count.

The really sad thing is enabling people to make a meaningful decision to identify. Imagine being a young person and this is your first census – You’ve just come out or you have become aware you are intersex – yes – someone who is statistically just as common as red heads – and you only get M or F as your sex (apparently they will let you tick both…how accommodating of them). How does that help a young person feel their identity is meaningful and valued, real and their existence matters? Or anyone for that matter finally having language to put their identity.

In light of it being Auckland Pride Festival, and all things rainbow are being covered, show me actual change, real life shit – not words, publicity stunts (rainbow police cars), platitudes, hand wringing angst about diversity.  Sam Orchard  points out the problem (probably more succinctly than I am) of how can services, support and funding be legitimately advocated for if diversity is not represented? Perhaps what this demonstrates is society has outgrown it’s comfortable containers (not that some of us ever really fitted – we had to be squeezed in).

Finally – the only legit way to avoid the census is to be out of the country. I’m thinking a cruise ship out in international waters on the 6th March, shit I could have hitched a sweet ride to Mars yesterday – riding a big rocket, playing David Bowie…pretty gay

Image difference

The longer I work in a secondary school, the more I realise how much the public image of a school matters. I’m really fascinated at how diversity fits with a schools image. Many schools report they ‘value diversity’ or ‘celebrate diversity’. More often than not they mean cultural diversity, actually I would say almost exclusively (thanks to the New Zealand Curriculum statement) diversity really just means ethnicity. But this is where things get interesting and a little perplexing.

Alongside this schools are charged with supporting young people to develop a strong sense of their identity. Again this seems on the surface to be just fine, except when other forms of diversity start to ‘contaminate’ the pristine, clean cultural definitions. This is the most popular image used in school advertising across the county, a picture of smiling faces of various ethnicities. For simplification, the rhetoric goes something like this:

  • We love diversity – so you need to all wear a uniform, and wear the correct one for your assigned sex, oh and no other outward signs of individuality like piercings or hair colour, style, length…but we want you to be yourself.
  • We celebrate diversity – but not pride week, no you can’t have an LGBTQ+ group – people might object and that would make the school look bad. But we will do pink shirt day because being anti-bullying looks good for our image.
  • We value diversity – but let’s make sure students with unique needs are siloed off so they don’t disrupt the learning of others.
  • We are inclusive of diversity – but our common room isn’t accessible.
  • We encourage diversity – so long as you’re not failing NCEA and making our stats look bad.
  • We welcome diversity – but we are a single sex school so you have to have the right body parts to attend.
  • We embrace diversity – so long as you manage your anger, fear, sadness and frustration and behave the same as everyone else.
  • We recognise diversity – but if you are bullied for being transgender this might not be the school for you, you’re asking for special treatment and it’s just too hard for us to adapt to the 21st Century, bathrooms have always been this way, actually we’d prefer not to know you exist at all.
  • We support diversity – only if you behave in ways that keep everyone comfortable, so don’t be too gay…
  • Basically – we accept diversity – so long as you’re not different.

None of this is ever blatant, it is a quiet dismissive attitude, an omission in policy, an intentional avoidance, an awkward silence, or a flustered defensiveness. Because schools are now brands with an image to uphold (sounds a bit like political parties). Diversity is messy and complex and while education is locked into the neo-liberal politics of advanced capitalism, a schools image will often be prioritised at the expense of a fuller definition and recognition of diversity.

Choice Uniform

Ok, its been a while since I blogged and I am probably going to piss people off or take the warm fuzzy glow off something that most people are seeing as a move in the right direction when it comes to enabling flexibility of gender expression in schools. My Facebook feed went crazy a few days ago with the story of the Dunedin intermediate school that was eliminating gendered uniforms. This move is seen as revolutionary, some sort of highland fling needs doing as kilts and skirts blend boys and girls in a new gender neutral utopia that allows students to freely express themselves.

I want to be excited ‘yay’. I want to be optimistic ‘maybe other schools will do it now’, I want to be supportive ‘it’s important’. Right, now that I’ve got that out of the way – time to get realistic and bit more critical for the sake of actual change. So stop reading now if you want the warm fuzzy version.

Has this school actually done anything earth shattering? No. They are talking about adding long pants as an option and culottes, which are about as functional as stubbies. If guys choose to wear a kilt…it’s a kilt, not a skirt…duh. This is the same as wearing any other form of cultural dress. Get guys in culottes and then I’ll be impressed.

There is no such thing as gender neutral – because neutral is masculinised – pants or shorts. So what we are talking about is not feminising or enabling feminine expression. KILTS ARE NOT SKIRTS!

It is an intermediate – these are still ‘kids’ – show me a high school – or better a single sex school that does this and I will be convinced, more so if it’s a boys school.

If people think students now have ‘freedom’ to choose – think again, the gender norms still apply and when boys can grow their hair long, girls can cut theirs short and not shave their legs and it be ok – THAT is the other uniform rule that has to be broken. When a girl can wear short hair and not be asked if she is a boy or a girl that will be the sign of change.

Finally – a truly radical move from schools in New Zealand these days is to NOT have a uniform. I went through primary and intermediate without a uniform, I think I am ok as a result. Show me a school that moves from uniform to no uniform and that will be radical and ground breaking

Uniforms perpetuate the idea of gender, regardless of flexibility – there is still an absent but implicit assumption that there are feminine and masculine uniforms.But good on ya Dunedin North Intermediate for listening to students, that is worth celebrating. but wait until you guys get a good southerly up those kilts and I reckon there will be a quick run at the uniform shop for pants. And no modern uniform should have culottes they are worse than gender neutral they are gender dysfunctional.

 

Quaking up

A week of *shaking

Fear, shock and anger

Fault lines drawn and blame jolting and dislodging people from places

Disbelief – people never saw it coming

The quiet tension building, opposing forces strain

Rumbling, grumbling, giving way, a landslide

Staring in disbelief as the numbers come in grief and shock wondering when it will stop

Ground giving way seeking safety and shelter

Isolation communities divided

Assessing the damage and strengthening supports but still the aftershocks

Salvaging hope in the ruins of familiar structures

Some may need to go, be torn down, too unstable and uncertain

But the doubt creeps in, what is deep underground hidden and unknown

As the pieces are picked up and the rebuilding begins

Analysis, understanding, awareness, this no comfort for many

Shattered lives and lives still on edge a daily call to know more, to understand to do it better to survive and thrive together

(*The political world wide quake of the US elections and Culverton-Kaikoura earthquake this week)

 

I’m out

Suicide is a sensitive topic and the media has bravely gone there with gusto over the last few weeks. I understand why, NZ leads the OECD – our stats are nothing to be proud of. People are desperate to know why, to work on prevention, to fix this epidemic, to grow resilience, to start conversations that make space for people to express their feelings.

All important steps. All these things need to happen, and schools do need better resourcing. Which is why it still baffles me that trained, qualified counsellors are not a requirement in our schools. That there is no mandatory requirement or ratio. There are recommendations and guidelines but given the seriousness of the need the government and MOE need to rethink their ‘hands off’ approach to mental health and well-being in schools.

You see it all comes down to section 77 of the Education Act which states.

“the principal of a State school shall take all reasonable steps to ensure that … students get good guidance and counselling”

It does not say how this will be delivered or provided. And many schools under financial constraints deem non-teaching staff too costly. So while some schools have trained counsellors, they might be split between multiple roles.  Many schools have no trained counsellors. I’d like to see the government take the lead for once instead of hiding behind notions of self-governance. Young people deserve better than ‘good guidance and counselling’. But I’m still not satisfied.

As someone working on the front line I have a privileged access to what pushes young people to the edge and to consider the option of being ‘out’ of existence. While I addressed many of these in a previous blog I want to mention something of the chronic despair I am noticing – regardless of individual circumstances such as bullying, abuse, struggles with identity, connection, emotional distress. I think it speaks to a generation who are very aware of social, political, environmental and economic circumstances.

Some young people are looking at a world in crisis and going WTF? They cannot just find their way in the world as they go – they are expected to have it all sorted out by the time they are 15-16, to make all the right choices at the right times. They are saturated with the problems of the world and told they are the hope for the future. FFS society is holding a gun to their heads and telling them to enjoy the thrill! Some young people recognise how sick the system is that perpetuates the cycle – the monetary system, the neo-liberal capitalist drive to consume at all costs. The systems of fear and division and they are like ‘I’m out’. Suicide is not just about individuals – it is about creating the conditions on which staying alive is worth it!

To me this is the greatest challenge facing society – to look at suicide as more than an individual choice, but a about a systemic failure to create a world worth being in, a world where young people say ‘I’m in’.

Spotlight on Mental Health

Next week is mental health awareness week and I’m already anxious. It’s also the first week back of the term and part of me is bracing for the inevitable leap onto the treadmill at full pace, desperately grabbing for the handrails of coffee and the sturdy support of my colleagues. Being a counsellor in a large secondary school is complex and next week puts the spotlight firmly on our area of work, but it’s one that I think is too directional and follows only certain players on the mental health stage.

I’m anticipating the light to fall on anxiety, depression, suicide, as well as debates around diagnosis, medication and looking for warning signs. There might be some promotion of strategies for coping with stress, mindfulness, and lots of other positive psychology techniques. It’s a life-coaches smorgasbord and while I respect there are a lot of good people doing great things to support people to live happy fulfilled lives there are some things that bother me greatly about the intense focus on western concepts of mental health and the mind as well as the emphasis on individual responsibility for managing your own wellness. The effect of the spotlight is to reduce mental health down to brain chemistry, managing emotional states (where some emotions are deemed not healthy) and a checklist of tasks.

So I want to scatter the light, diffract it if you will through some uncomfortable contexts that in my line of work are all too frequent yet avoided in public conversations. It’s a little like poverty – people prefer to see something about the lack of personal management of money or make it about some failure in individual people. There is the pervasive believe everyone can be well off if they just tried hard enough. Mental health is similar.

Some themes I’ve encountered in my 20 years working in schools that I think need to be considered as much as discussions about depression etc:

  • Family violence is traumatic – whether it be physical, verbal, psychological, sexual and it happens!
  • Sexual abuse is traumatic for all people and it happens across cultures and genders
  • Adults rarely think about how the ways they speak to their children and about them impacts on their well-being – we’ve had generations of values that suggest put-downs, harsh language, smacking and basically denigrating children and young people is good for their character. The other end of the spectrum is also unhelpful both are harmful for developing balance
  • Few adults say ‘I’m sorry’ to their children and take responsibility for their actions
  • Bullying happens in families first and in other community settings, not just schools – young queer people of all cultures are often more exposed to this
  • Trauma impacts on the brain – especially a developing brain, but also adult brains (see my blog on the limbic system). Young people can experience post traumatic stress (PTS) just like adults.
  • Young people are resilient but they need adults to listen and BELIEVE THEM when they talk about abuse and support for who they are as people
  • There is an expectation to be happy 24/7 these days – normal responses to grief, loss, stress are being lost to medicalisation – thanks google
  • The future is uncertain rather than bright for many young people – schools are also very stressful places. NCEA requires them to be on their game for 3 years! Good grief people of my generation came out of hibernation for about 3 weeks for exams. That level of sustained pressure is not good for anyone (including teachers).

Finally we need to critique the separation of mind and body and recognise that this is simply one way of viewing people and might not be the most useful in the 21st Century. Bringing in the range of spectrums of perspectives from other cultures could enable new conversations that move beyond the single white spot that is white western health concepts that leave many in the dark, isolated and invisible.

Age old question

I’ve been trying to figure out what this aging thing is. I can see visible signs of age, the strands of hair becoming tinsilated, the smile lines etching deeper as do the frown lines although I’m hoping to have less of those. But I’m perplexed by the idea of being my age-gender and I’m wondering about the relationship as well as some intriguing possibilities this offers my penchant for messing with embodiment in general.

It came to me as I looked through photographs of me as a kid, class photos where I might have blended in as one of the boys. And then looking at people in their 70’s and above and also struggling at times to see the bodily clues that define male and female. It occurs to me that past a certain age men’s bodies become pulled toward female and female toward male. I know biology and physiology has a lot to do with this but here is a thought – why fight it? Here is my radical revision of aging-gender.

I’m not sure how this would work but imagine if you get to 60 and your body is changing shape with lumps and bumps moving, again it could be that illnesses such as cancer take hold of particular parts that have significance for identifying the common bodily sexual features (I realise this is a sensitive issue – I am not suggesting mastectomy’s and cancer treatment aren’t traumatic or any other form of body part removal, testicle, ovary) there might be an option to ‘go with the flow’. Doctors could offer hormone treatment to help keep that flow going rather than trying to turn back the clock. Society could create a new form of ceremony or ritual celebration (optional of course) where preferred names and pronouns are used openly.

What is interesting is there is little question about youth enhancing their cis-gendered bodies along normative gender lines. There are plenty of industries willing to increase sizes of particular parts. But when nature gives you the base ingredients to transition, why not make it easier. All I hope for is that I can still ride a bike, surf, skate, and that my pants maintain a waistline that is closer to my hips than my neck.