Lynley Bilby is a reporter for the Herald on Sunday.

Former students talk of fear of being outed as gay at Auckland Grammar

Auckland Grammar School needs to address serious shortcomings in its treatment of rainbow youth, say two former students. Photo / Richard Robinson
Auckland Grammar School needs to address serious shortcomings in its treatment of rainbow youth, say two former students. Photo / Richard Robinson

Two top former Auckland Grammar students are calling for the prestigious boys school to change how it deals with gay and transgender students after the pair revealed they had to keep their sexuality secret during high school.

Former school dux Henry Yuen and head boy Joel Bateman have set up a GrammarPride blog to highlight concerns of boys who don't identify as heterosexual, and are appealing for a support network to be established at the school.

The pair, who are both studying at top universities in the United States, have spoken candidly of their struggle to conform to "heteronormative Grammar way".

They believe the school, which propelled them to outstanding academic and sporting success, needs to address serious shortcomings in its treatment of rainbow youth.

The men, who finished their schooling in 2012, came out independently in the year after they left high school.

The high-achieving pair said while they outwardly gave the appearance of motivated, successful students they were losing sleep every night, fearing the consequences of being outed as gay.

Mr Bateman said the school proved a hostile environment to anyone who strayed from "normal" sexuality where the word "gay" was constantly used in a derogatory manner and "faggot" or "homo" were socially acceptable teases.

Joel Bateman. Photo / grammarpride.wordpress.com
Joel Bateman. Photo / grammarpride.wordpress.com

But both men say they could not be openly gay at Auckland Grammar as it would have resulted in bullying and social isolation within the homophobic Grammar culture.

Mr Yuen, now studying engineering and computer science at Duke University, said, as a prefect, he felt conflicted because he could not uphold his sexual orientation and Grammar identity simultaneously.

Henry Yuen. Photo / grammarpride.wordpress.com
Henry Yuen. Photo / grammarpride.wordpress.com

"Every day, I would dread going to class for being targeted and made fun of. Getting out of bed is already difficult enough for most people, but for me it was almost impossible because, at Grammar, I could not be myself. I was afraid, traumatised and had nobody to confide in."

He said he was bullied since middle school and for a few years at Grammar for often "acting gay".

Mr Bateman, who is at Harvard University studying human developmental and regenerative biology, said being gay, closeted and unsupported throughout his time at the school, meant learning was much more difficult than it should have been.

"I would struggle to even focus during school hours, especially during my final two years, as I stressed about the homophobic comments that were constantly being thrown about, and worried about how differently I'd be treated if I was ever found out," he said.

"The same fears would see me arriving home and lying in my bed for hours on end before I finally managed to start my work, usually around 10pm. I averaged three or four hours of sleep a night as I struggled to achieve the results I did."

The former rowing captain said, in contrast, he was sleeping well at university and found himself able to relax and focus in class, without fear of discrimination.

"I wish I could have been out and felt the same way while I was at Grammar," he said.

"But the reality is that being openly gay at Grammar in 2012 would have been even more difficult than being closeted, dealing with the bullying and social isolation that openly gay students combatted within the homophobic Grammar culture."

He said the school fostered a culture of bullying and discrimination and said it was an embarrassment the Grammar leadership had not set up a support network to directly address the problems faced by BGLTQ students.

He called for Grammar to take serious action to support its BGLTQ community as plenty of students were likely silently struggling with the issues on their own.

Rainbow Youth general manager Duncan Matthews said it was troubling schools remained a minefield for teenagers who did not identify as heterosexual.

"School is the key place for every young person in their formative years where they're exploring and growing up and ideally exploring issues of sexuality and gender as well."

However, it was commonplace in schoolyards for homophobic slurs to be bandied about.

"There's a lot of 'that's gay' or 'you're gay' used as a put-down in schools which would make people fearful of saying 'I'm actually gay'."

Rainbow Youth went into about a third of Auckland's high schools with specialist resources and supported student groups.

But there were still some schools that actively resisted approaches by the organisation.

Auckland Grammar's board of trustees chairman Jeff Blackburn was approached for comment but was still to respond.

- NZ Herald

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