The Schoolboy School of Thought
By James Tapp | Illustration by Yi Jong
Homophobia is always going to be a tricky thing, to say the least. My earliest memories of it were being bullied, being shunned from a friend group and having to try and hide my inner ‘femboy’ from the mockery I received on a regular basis. In some ways, I’m glad I can’t pick out a particular moment where the abuse stung the most, but at the same time it hurts to say it followed me all the way through my adolescence. I wish I could say my school tried to help combat homophobia, but if you’ve met a group of Auckland Grammar lads, you’d know the school culture only cultivates homophobia as a toxic, masculine undertone. I have no shame in saying that one of the top boys schools in this country is a breeding ground for casual homophobia.
Auckland Grammar School is an all-boys school located in Newmarket, with a population of 1,500 boys between the ages of 12 and 18. And before you ask, no, there was never enough deodorant. Despite being bullied from the end of primary school, I can wholeheartedly say Grammar is a whole different beast. There’s nothing that will keep a questioning teenager quiet quite like the use of ‘gay’ in almost every negative situation. Mix that with some toxic masculinity, and you get a school where the height of your socks is valued more than your mental health. I still remember having to make sure I stayed at the counsellors office until after the bell went so no one knew I had been there in the first place. I’m not the first one to speak out about this either. In 2016, a blog called GrammarPride was started, specifically for former and current students to talk about homophobia within the school.
If there is one thing you should know about Auckland Grammar, it would be ‘The Grammar Way.’ There’s a whole page on it online, but in short, ‘The Grammar Way’ can be best defined into a few values: integrity, excellence, respect, courage, pride, commitment and humility. You would have to be delusional to think these standards are upheld by each and every student. So, in 2018, when the school became rainbow tick certified, it took many by shock, especially for those who were part of the community. Despite this move being a step in the right direction, it still felt like it had underlying currents of a marketing ploy. That same year, the rainbow youth group was started up by then head prefect, Felix Marcon-Swadel, and student, Croi O’Sullivan. The point of the rainbow tick is to show that the workplace is inclusive and accepting of diversity, however I have a sneaky feeling, that for some teachers this would have meant internalising their own homophobia. To try and make this acceptance extend to the student body, the school also went to the media with their gender-neutral toilets. And while this is a step in the right direction, it goes without saying that more still needs to be done. You have to wonder, did the school really feel that their issues with homophobia had been solved? Furthermore, Rainbow Youth were told that they couldn’t comment on the school’s culture, and the same goes for Wesley Van der Linde, the Auckland Grammar teacher I interviewed for this piece.
We never learnt anything relating to the LGBTQI+ community as part of our sexual education. And even if we did, it obviously didn’t have the impact it should have. If Auckland Grammar wants to display some real acceptance, proper education is the place to start.
To give a broader view of how all of this has impacted students of Grammar, I talked to Croi O’Sullivan, a former student from my year. Croi is openly bisexual, as well as a part time drag queen at Wellington’s gay bar, Ivy. I also talked to Felix Marcon-Swadel, who was the head prefect in my last year of high school. He is openly gay, and was so for part of his time at Grammar. For myself, I just say I’m part of the community as someone who is ‘not straight.’ All three of us identify differently, but for all of us, the struggle has been real. For Croi, doing subjects such as art, being part of production or being leader of the improv group all came with their fair share of criticisms. For Croi though, the issues were with acceptance, which only manifested itself in the idea that sleeping around was the answer. So, as you, might expect, a 16-year old boy sleeping around with men twice his age doesn’t quite help in the journey towards acceptance. For both Croi and I the struggle also existed externally, with our peers using slurs daily, that created "a bunch of microaggressions which become really problematic later in life” as Croi puts it. While both Croi and I didn’t come to any definite conclusions on how we defined our sexuality, Felix had. For Felix, there was also the constant bullying through the first few years, however as he grew this became his strength. Rather than allowing the experience to break him down, Felix chose to actively dismiss those who couldn’t accept him for who he was.
For all of us though, the struggle was also in the lack of education. We were never given the right tools to understand how to navigate a healthy relationship. We never learnt anything relating to the LGBTQI+ community as part of our sexual education. And even if we did, it obviously didn’t have the impact it should have. If Auckland Grammar wants to display some real acceptance, proper education is the place to start.
Now we all know high school mandated education isn’t the perfect form of education by any means, especially on topics such as sex where there is still a lack of agreement of how it should be taught. Which further raises the question on what should modern sex education look like? Amongst the three of us, there is a mutual understanding that education via the schooling system needs to start being more inclusive. Sure, the current system caters for most, but it definitely did not cater for those questioning whether they were straight or not. Instead, looking back on it, it was an education on how not to get people pregnant or get an STI, and a brief summary on consent.. To understand more about what needs to be done, I talked to Wesley Van der Linde, an English teacher at Auckland Grammar.
There will always be ongoing debate about how sex education should be taught, or even if it should be taught at all. Mr Van der Linde is openly gay, and when the rainbow youth group was started, he was there to help. During my time at Auckland Grammar the student body was told numerous times that “if you don’t like it here, then leave.” This phrase was often spoken as a response to misdemeanours or an issue with how the school was run. As a public school, there is a certain expectation that Auckland Grammar should be accommodating to all groups. So as Van der Linde puts it, “when the school is predominantly straight males, minorities still need to be heard and put at the forefront, and this starts with education.” Education on sexual identity though is not just something you can tick off. That would be like throwing a ball once and saying you can play basketball. When in reality, the differences needed to be talked about, because yes, basketball and rugby involve throwing a ball, but no, they are not the same game. So, while education is needed at school, it is also needed among our peers, our parents and any other situation where it is appropriate.
All of this only feels like it has only scratched the surface. I also want to acknowledge Auckland Grammar is only one school. The one school which I happened to go to, but also happens to be in the media more than many other schools. So, all I ask from Auckland Grammar is for them to be proactive instead of reactive. Acknowledge the problem may go deeper than you would like to think it does, and instead of saying you do not tolerate it, educate your students on what acceptance can look like. This goes for all schools. Just because it may seem like one comment here or there, those comments may be having a huge impact on a student’s life. And even if the impact may not be sudden, there is the potential for it to hold lifelong significance. And to the students, hold those around you accountable. You do not have to be part of the community to understand homophobia is a problem. We have a long way to go as a society, but even then, everyone I talked to about this issue was hopeful for change. Not to the point where homophobia is completely eradicated, but instead to a point where there is a wider understanding of how we can make sure people can be who they want to be.