This interview with Queer Avengers spokesman and Workers Party member Jason Froch was first printed on GayNZ.
“Queer our Schools” is the first campaign to be born from Wellington-based group The Queer Avengers, which emerged from the Queer the Night march in the capital. We find out more about the group and what changes it wants in the nation’s schools.
In June a vibrant collection of people hit the headlines with a march through the Wellington streets where they made it clear they were sick of violence and abuse being hurled against gay, lesbian, trans, bisexual … (or as they prefer to simply do, drop the lists of identities and simply say “queer”) … people in the central city.
After the rousing chants and speeches the marchers have not fallen silent or just wandered back to their day to day lives, in fact a solid group has been meeting every Thursday to discuss the issues the community faces and ways to fight for change. Under the moniker The Queer Avengers they now are planning a three-pronged campaign, the first part which will focus on youth.
On 6 October a march will be held from the Ministry of Education at 45-47 Pipitea St in Thorndon, through to Midland Park on Lambton Quay, where there will be speeches and entertainment.
The Queer Avengers have four clear demands for the Ministry of Education:
1. Government resourcing for the formation of student-led, community supported queer-straight alliances in every secondary school in the country.
2. Incorporating sexuality and gender variance diversity into all relevant subjects, including history, health, science and English.
3. Making schools accessible and safe for gender variant students
A. Gender neutral bathrooms/private changing facilities
B. Non-gendered dress codes
C. Resources and education which fits the needs of gender variant students
D. Trans affirming spaces and role models
4. Zero-tolerance of homophobic & transphobic bullying and requiring professional development of staff to model queer positive spaces.
Queer Avengers spokesman Jason Froch tells GayNZ.com the group also wants the Ministry of Education to meet with it and explain why it has not provided a safe physical and mental space for students and why it is not providing programmes which enable students to recognise their full potential as individuals.
“Looking at the history of the issue, our demands shouldn’t actually come as a surprise, because the Ministry has consistently failed year after year in its legal care of duty, at least since the Youth ’07 report that Auckland University put out – we’ve known that schools are unsafe places for queers and that 33 per cent face bullying,” Froch says. “And that schools are generally not an affirming space of queer people’s identities. If they were we wouldn’t have 20 per cent of queer youth making attempts at suicide and 39 per cent considering it as an option, which we know is five times higher than the heterosexual students.”
Froch says schools are particularly unacceptable places for trans youth, who are likely to leave rather than face the ‘Herculean battle’ to actually have their identities affirmed, or simply be able to go to school in the appropriate uniform or use a bathroom.
“These were all issues that were brought to life in the 2008 Human Rights Commission report To Be Who I Am, and despite the fact that the Ministry has known of these situations going on there has been no organised response to them. And it’s been an absolute failure to provide their legal duty of care. And our first goal for this march is to call them up on that.”
Froch says The Queer Avengers will continue to agitate on the issue until the Ministry of Education does something about it. “What we need to do as a community is continue to organise, if we are serious about society valuing our identities. And we need to organise to demand respect.” Froch says. “It’s only by having more people involved that we can continue to call up the Ministry of Education, for instance, in this campaign, until it actually happens.”
He points out groups like Safety in Schools 4 Queers (SS4Q) have been operating for years, internally and bureaucratically, but nothing has happened because there is no driving force behind them pushing a social movement. “And if you look at the Homosexual Law Reform Bill, it wouldn’t have passed through Parliament of it wasn’t for the social movement behind it, that was agitating, and also educating heterosexuals and also queer people about the situation that queer people faced.”
Froch says that point largely explains The Queer Avengers, which is aiming to be that political action group and to organise the community to educate society about queer oppression and what it is to be queer.
Many of the members of The Queer Avengers are young and Froch is bemused at the attitude of some that younger members of the community suffer from apathy. “I’ve been associated over the last few years with quite a lot of people associated with the Homosexual Law Reform movement, and from them it’s not something I’ve heard – that young people are generally quite apathetic. It seems to be something that everyone thinks about the previous generation, but in actual fact I don’t think that youth have ever really had a social movement that they’ve seen be successful.”
Froch points out that youth also see gay people in high places, such as MPs, which he says is good in itself but also draws people down a different path and stops them from seeing that taking action in their own life is an option.
“That was something that was broken down quite strongly with the Queer The Night demonstration,” he explains. “Six hundred of us took to the streets and were very loud in affirming who we were. And it was a quite a massive eye-opening for a number of the youth who were involved. And there were a massive amount of youth involved, school-aged students as well, who saw it as a first real public expression of their queerness. It was a very powerful thing for them.”
When it comes to the use of the term queer, Froch explains it’s about being inclusive without ‘the alphabet soup’. “Also for political reasons in that our primary goal is really to challenge the concept that certain relationships are normal and natural. We want to educate people about there being no such thing as a natural identity and they’re all created by society – no one is no more born straight than one is born a rocket scientist.” He says the group wants to fight ‘queer’ oppression and not leave anyone out.
As The Queer Avengers are pushing for change another Wellington-born group, Legalise Love, is doing the same, but in a different manner. “The difference is we’re not fixated on Parliamentary reform,” Froch explains. “It has its place but what we’re actually trying to do is change social values, which won’t be passed by a vote at Parliament. We need to create a space for public debate.”
However agrees that the more groups there are putting pressure on in different places, the better, saying The Queer Avengers fully support the Legalise Love campaign.
*The Queer Avengers are looking for school-aged people or those who left school less than five years ago to get in contact, if they would like to share their stories about their school experiences.
If you want to get involved, email email@example.com