Closing the next gap

Policymakers may have started understanding issues for LGBTIQA+ students in the school setting, but for gender and sexuality diverse Aboriginal youth the struggle remains.

When Emerson Zerafa-Payne was a secondary teacher, he saw first-hand the confusion and complexity experienced by young people growing up Aboriginal and sexuality and gender diverse in our schools and society.

Speaking at Federation’s Diversity in Education conference held during WorldPride in Sydney, Emerson’s presentation posed questions about education policy for intersectional students.

“Although some states have policies in place, there is no federal policy or legislation that protects our LGBTQ+ young people – particularly our LGBTQ+ young people and First Nations – in education,” said Emerson, a First Nations man, PhD candidate, teacher, Queensland Teachers Union, activist and lecturer.

“Even in the Australian Curriculum, there is a section on student diversity and a ‘commitment to the development of a high-quality curriculum for all Australian students, which promotes excellence and equity in education’. But the very next paragraph details that, by diversity of students, they mean students with a disability, students who are gifted and talented, First Nations students and those for whom English is an additional language or dialect.

“It also clarifies that students may have two of those ‘diverse elements’ combined. But again, and this is in our national curriculum, there’s no mention of LGBTQ+ or gender or sexual diversity.”

Emerson said sexuality and gender diverse students struggle to “see themselves” in a typical classroom. He pointed to overwhelming research – “although there is very little on LGBTQ+ youth” – that shows when students aren’t represented in the classroom, particularly in curriculum resources, such as textbooks, videos and other content, their academic outcomes are worse.

“What are we telling our students when they can’t see themselves in our classrooms?” he asked the conference. “What kind of message is this sending to students who are already at a significantly higher risk of suicide and mental health issues? I’m not saying that teachers aren’t already including LGBTQ+ resources in their classrooms, but what I’m saying is by putting this in policy we can guarantee this is going to happen.”

There is little in the annals of written history that mentions gender and sexuality diverse Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. Emerson believes this isn’t because there weren’t sexually diverse First Nations people, rather an absence of recording. “Because to say otherwise would mean there was not one sexually or gender diverse person during thousands of years of existence.”

He looks to language and the Dreaming for direction on the issue, the subject of a paper he is researching. Brotherboy (brothaboy) and sistergirl (sistagirl) are terms used by the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community, thought to have originated at the end of the Stolen Generations.

“Brotherboy means someone who may be biologically female but have a masculine spirit inside,” he said. “And sistergirl is someone who may be biologically male but have a feminine spirit inside of them.

“It’s a self-adopted term by First Nations people and it’s used to distinguish … specific socio-cultural roles and identities, because being sistergirl or brotherboy is actually different to the Western term of transgender.

“Many communities also have their own words to describe transgender. In the Tiwi Islands they say, yimpininni. [Arrernte around Alice Springs and Luritja of the Western Desert have terms as well.] So, it is something that is acknowledged and accepted within the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community.”

Most Aboriginal languages also don’t have gender-based pronouns. “Typically, just one word to refer to he, she, they or it. Gendered pronouns are largely a characteristic of European and Middle Eastern languages.”

Another clue lies in the Dreamings, the stories and beliefs behind creation. One of the best-known Dreamings is the Rainbow Serpent, which, although it differs between mobs, created mountains, rivers and other landmarks as it moved through Country before time.

“Although some Dreamings explicitly label the Rainbow Serpent as female or male, most often the gender is ambiguous, which leads most to assume that the Rainbow Serpent is androgynous, bigender or even genderless,” Emerson told attendees to the conference.

“Maddock, an American researcher who has published an anthropological book on the Rainbow Serpent, also explains in some Dreamings the Rainbow Serpent is identified as bisexual as well.”

Since the marriage equality vote, subsequent changes to family law, and with the upcoming Voice referendum and other policy objectives, Emerson said current goals in the legislation sphere generally appear valid, but none explicitly mention LGBTQ+ inclusion.

“There is more that needs to be done for LGBTQ+ inclusion in Australian education,” he said. “Being both sexually and/or gender diverse in First Nations and navigating this identity is unique and complex due to the gendered roles and culture within mobs.

“Although in recent times there’s been a more accepting shift towards LGBTQ+ brotherboy and sistergirl teachers and students, there is still a lack of knowledge and discrimination occurring.

“Knowing there is such a high proportion of young people who identify as gender and sexually diverse, there needs to be some sort of policy put in place for them, particularly those who have that intersectionality of being both First Nations and LGBTQ+.”

A student member of the Queensland Teacher’s Union, Emerson’s first real interaction came early in his career with a victory in a dispute with the Department.

“It lit in me the fire of social justice and the excitement of having a good fight and winning. I’m really keen to see this in action later this year particularly with the Unions Say Yes campaign for a ‘yes’ vote for the Voice to Parliament.”

Emerson is directing his “fire” these days towards changing the appetite of policymakers for inclusive education and helping gender and sexuality diverse youth and students who are trying to navigate their culture as well as their gender identity.

“When our children, our students, come to us and disclose to us that they are gender questioning or gender diverse, there’s many layers, even more so for our First Nations youth,” he said.

“Most gender-diverse people deal with mental health in society but for First Nations people there is that extra layer of culture, and cultural implications of what can happen when you come out.

“This means sometimes giving up dances or names or ceremony that has been ingrained in you since birth. While transitioning can be liberating it can come with a sense of loss; losing friends and family but also loss of culture.”