Toxic School Culture: Up in Flames

Words by: Emma Sudano 
Art by: Gabrielle Poh 

I remember clearly when the Year 12s of a nearby all-boys school sprawled sexist comments across their school uniforms. Or when boys in my year created a ‘Holy Trinity’ of the ugliest girls at my school. Or nicknamed girls a ‘bike’ based on their weight or looks. I remember when boys I was forced to go to school events with proudly shared a video titled “Jordan Peterson destroys triggered feminist” on social media. For so long, there has been denial of a clear cultural problem in all-boys schools that is obvious from every angle. 

Thank fuck these institutions have come under the microscope in recent years, finally accused of fostering an environment of heteronormativity and hyper-masculinity. Last November, Melbourne photographer James Robinson (@james.pdf) — former student of Melbourne’s single-sex private school, St Kevin’s College — set alight his school blazer in protest, kissing his male partner on the school oval where this very culture was perpetuated during his schooling years. As a catalyst for change, Robinson’s post was a powerful work of artistic prowess, and by far the best thing I’d seen all year. 

I spoke to Thomas, a current student at an all-boys school, who shared his own experiences with this toxic culture. He told me how it has affected his queer identity, and that he believes “the burning blazer” will be a catalyst for systematic change. 

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Are you an ‘out’ member of the LGBTQ+ community at your school? Was this a choice you made yourself, or were you outed by someone else? 

I realised I was gay when I was in Year 8 (2018), and now I’m in Year 12. For quite some time before realising it, I was in denial — queer people generally didn’t “exist” at my school, and I suppressed my thoughts for months and months. I am now out as gay at school. Back during Year 8, I was outed by a close female friend and some of the guys at my school. I went to school camp and had asked that girl to continue my Snapchat streaks, but I must’ve had things on the app that indicated I was attracted to guys. I remember coming back from camp, and people asked me if it was true that I was gay. I denied it with all my effort, I was so ashamed and embarrassed of myself. At the time, I had only told a few females, and this experience of being outed really ruined my chance to tell my close guy friends on my own terms. After a few weeks, I told a few friends that the rumour was true, after all. The feeling that people knew something that I didn’t even want to be true was honestly awful. For me, it felt like falling in an elevator. I couldn’t do anything but wait for my fate — my personal story was in the hands of other people.

Do you feel able to be your true, authentic self at school? 

I would say that I am generally my authentic self at school. Over time, I’ve learnt to play down my personality with certain guys, because it proves too much for them. However, I do think things are improving. I sense myself feeling more and more confident and authentic at school as time goes on. Usually this is well-received, but sometimes I hear people saying that I have a “girl’s personality” and act girly, which always makes me inclined to tone down my personality again. So in a way, although I am my true self at school, it is a refined, calculated version of myself. 

Do you believe that your school supports the LGBTQ+ community? 

You see, at school, my group is dubbed the ‘gay group’. It’s a title which we all embrace and love. I will say, though, that I believe that the reason the only out LGBTQ+ students in our year level are all in one specific friendship group is due to lack of acceptance from other people — that’s what compels us to form one main group. There is some warm acceptance from cisgender, hetero guys, but I don’t believe that any of my friends, including myself, would be anywhere near as vocal and authentic at school if we weren’t in the safe space of this so-called ‘gay group’. It is a shame that for some, there’s a stigma to being friends with people in our group, because all of a sudden the spotlight is thrown on them and they’re seen as “bi-curious” or “a bit suss” — even if the guy’s just trying to be nice! 

From a school perspective, I think my school has definitely taken things on board. An allyship focus group is in the works, involving both LGBTQ+ and hetero students. The good thing about this is there are no sides or teams, nobody needs to come out and state their sexuality. The focus group’s goal is to make the school community a more accepting place for everyone. If you asked me a year ago whether the school supports the community, I would’ve said no. But in the past few months there has been avid interest in improving the school environment, which makes me very optimistic.

How did you feel when the @james.pdf “burning blazer” Instagram went viral?

When I saw the burning blazer, I thought, “wow”. Change is going to come from this — this will spark conversations. I was excited, and my friends were, too. And as I read James’ post, everything felt so true. He accurately portrayed the underlying dread and disdain that was directed towards queer students, and the culture that taught boys to act that way. I think James showed that it isn’t any one student’s fault — more so the educators’, who should be trailblazers for students to follow — which is so important. If the blame was placed on specific students, I fear that James’ post wouldn’t have been as well-received as it was. And even the day after James’ post, I felt that more people were saying hi to me at school and asking me what class I had next, and those small things really made me notice the impact of James’ post. It was probably a wake-up call to people who are bystanders or are ’neutral’ to the queer community. 

In essence, I feel that the burning of the blazer was pivotal to the culture in all-boys schools, helping it progress into the future as a more unified, accepting place. I can only hope that the people starting Year 7 this year and in the years to come will experience this acceptance in abundance.

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Thomas’ words are exactly why @james.pdf’s post was so important in starting a conversation between queer and hetero students. It’s about fucking time for change. Students are sent to these schools to get an education and better themselves, but many are met with a culture of toxic masculinity, homophobia and misogyny, resulting in fear and isolation.

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