Culture

Prejudice And Violence Are Learned, And In 2016 They Poured Down From The Top

It's okay to be angry about Tyrone Unsworth's death. In fact, you should be.

This post discusses suicide and harassment.

This week we lost 13-year-old Tyrone Unsworth. His mother Amanda told the media that after being relentlessly bullied for being gay, the bullies “ended up getting to him” and he took his own life. A family is torn apart. A school grieves. The LGBTIQ and Aboriginal communities are in mourning. The nation is in shock and shame.

When tragedy occurs, we’re immediately told to not make it political. Advocates are scolded for being impolite, opportunistic — for grieving the wrong way. The reprimands of ‘politicising’ the largest massacre of LGBTIQ people in US history still ring in our ears as our anger over Tyrone’s death rises.

But we’re angry because the lives of LGBTIQ people are already made political. Tyrone Unsworth’s young life was already the subject of intense public scrutiny by simply existing as an LGBTIQ teenager in Australia. Now, a year where the LGBTIQ community was sensationally bullied by political leaders and sections of the media is drawing to a close with a 13-year-old being literally bullied to death for being gay.

Don’t tell me to not get angry. Don’t tell me to not to make this political.

“I know you’re pain-free now son and they can’t pick on you anymore, but this shouldn’t have had to happen.”  – Amanda Unsworth

Politicians, journalists and anti-LGBTIQ campaigners spent the final year of Tyrone’s life hysterically attacking Safe Schools.

Yes, had the teachers at Apsley State High School had access to the educational resources that the Safe Schools program offers, it’s feasible that Tyrone would have been able to receive appropriate support at school. But we will never know how that might have changed things.

What we do know is that Tyrone was just one of the many queer kids who spent 2016 with his young life thrust into the spotlight as members of parliament and the media pursued a relentless campaign against the anti-bullying program. We do know that demand for youth counselling spiked, with LGBTIQ service Drummond Street reporting a doubling of young people presenting with anxiety, self-harming behaviours and thoughts of suicide.

Why should kids in the playground stop using “gay” as a slur when Coalition backbencher George Christensen can liken Safe Schools to “paedophile grooming” without condemnation from the Prime Minister? How do we teach kids that LGBTIQ people aren’t targets for bullying when Murdoch tabloids and morning TV shows scream sensationalist headlines about transgender children? What kind of example does the public witch hunt of Safe Schools co-founder Roz Ward give to the kids wanting to step-in and stand up for the victims of bullying?

Politicians, the media and anti-LGBTI campaigners spent the final year of Tyrone’s life saying that gay people should be grateful to have our rights put to a popular vote.

Had it not been for an exhausting, emotionally laborious and ultimately successful community campaign, Australia would soon be forced to a national plebiscite on the worthiness of LGBTIQ people’s relationships.

Why should parents offer unwavering acceptance when their child comes out, when the government was about to hold a $200 million national vote on whether to accept LGBTIQ people as equal? How could a kid not feel scared and self-loathsome when the identity they’re discovering is considered so controversial that the Coalition can’t legislate for our right to marry for fear of losing government?

How can an LGBTIQ teenager feel safe in this country when someone like Lyle Shelton from the fringe group the Australian Christian Lobby is repeatedly given primetime TV slots, even though the views he holds represent a tiny minority of Australia?

Politicians, the media and anti-LGBTI campaigners spent the final year of Tyrone’s life distributing homophobic leaflets, likening us to Nazis, threatening to quit their job as an MP unless marriage discrimination was upheld, making jokes about “tr*nnies” on morning TV, depicting our existence as a rainbow noose, trying to give $7.5 million taxpayer dollars to hate groups, using parliamentary privilege to vilify us, posing for a photo at Mardi Gras two days before overhauling a program designed to help school kids who were being bullied for their sexuality.

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Teenagers aren’t attuned to the minutiae of political discourse. But homophobic and transphobic bullying in our playgrounds is given license and instruction from those in our parliament and in our media. The acceptability of behaviour we perform, we walk by, or we suffer from is learned. Prejudice is learned. Violence is learned. And in 2016 it poured from the top down.

No person wants their lives, or deaths, politicised. Tyrone wouldn’t have wanted his life politicised. And that’s the point. Members of parliament and the conservative media need to stop and think about how they used their power to torment LGBTIQ people this year. The bullying needs to stop.

On behalf of every activist I know, I promise we will keep fighting for an Australia that’s safe and inclusive for LGBTIQ people. We grieve with the Unsworth family. Rest in power, Tyrone.

If you would like to talk to someone after reading this piece you can contact Lifeline 24 hours a day on 13 11 14 or QLife 3pm-12am on 1800 184 527.

Sally Rugg is a Sydney-based LGBTIQ activist and GetUp campaigns director, focussing on the campaign for marriage equality. She’s spent the last 12 months fighting off the plebiscite and advocating for Safe Schools. Sally speaks regularly at public events and volunteers as a youth worker at youth LGBTIQ service Twenty10. You can follow her on twitter @sallyrugg.