I was fortunate enough to be invited back to my old high school, Carey Baptist Grammar School, to talk about my story of growing up gay in the schoolyard and to announce Carey’s induction into the Safe School’s Coalition.
Facing the three great fears that have haunted me at different time throughout my life; my fear of public speaking, my fear of the school community knowing I was gay, and my fear of going back.
In the presence of my past teachers, in a school environment that scared me ‘straight’, I was finally able to be the Michael Winn that I used to keep hidden as a student.
Good Afternoon everyone, my name is Michael Winn and six years ago I was sitting in this same hall in my final year of being a Carey student.
But I’m not here today to tell the Year 12’s how to get the best out of themselves in their exams. I’m not here to talk about how to be the perfect student, or how to get the perfect career when you leave here. I’m here to tell you my story about my time as a Carey student, it’s not a cookie-cutter perfect story of strength and success – in fact my own fears almost kept me from coming to school every day, but today I am here to let you know that we all hold the power to fight our demons, to stand up to them, and to make our lives and the lives of others, so much better – no matter what tries to hold us back.
Back when I was at Carey I was both very different and very similar to the person I am today.
Different because every day, walking through the back gates from Thomas Street into the school I was scared. Scared that I was different. Scared that people might notice I was different. And scared that I might be treated like crap for being different.
But I was also the same. I was the same because halfway through my first year at Carey in Year 7, I knew that I was gay. And I was the same back then as I am now, because I wanted the experience of growing up gay to be so different for a school student.
Honestly, back then I hated being gay. I hated being me. And so – I hated having to go to school every day.
Every day – looking at everyone enjoying the prime years of their teenage life while my fear of the unknown kept me hidden in the shadows, making sure no one would know my secret.
I was scared that if people knew that I was gay, they would hate me because of it. And being in an environment where you see the same people every day – I didn’t know if I could handle being bullied for it every day.
It makes me sad to think that when everyone was soaking up the friends they had, and all the opportunities that this school offered every single one of us, I had only one objective – keep your head down, and make it out of here alive.
Being closeted throughout my teenage years meant that I missed out on many opportunities and experiences because I didn’t want to be seen. And so, I missed out on being me.
This however changed when I realised that being different didn’t mean I would be victimised, and that when you hide yourself in life, you miss out on everything.
Through my own power and through choosing to believe that the good will always triumph over the bad, I found the strength within myself to be truly happy with who I was – and proud of the life I had been given.
I came out just before my 20th birthday – too late for me to change my experiences as a school student, but early enough to start living the life I had held myself back from for so long.
When I came out, I started to share my story, and through this I was able to reconnect with the classmates I had separated myself from for so long. If I had known how supportive and accepting my class really was when I was back in high school – I would have led an extremely different life.
Your own fears don’t always turn out to be true, and once you get to know people; your preconceptions of them can change drastically. Everyone really isn’t as big and as bad as you may think they are. People have the ability to surprise you in the most beautiful ways.
So now, today, I am able to walk back into my old high school – which I haven’t done since I finished my last Year 12 exam. I always thought coming back to a place where I was once so different and so scared; that it might bring back those feelings and those fears.
But this time, I can be me. I can be happy, and I can pass on my experiences in the hopes that no one else has to feel like I did back then.
Today I get to come and let you all know that whoever you are and however you may be feeling right now, your school cares about you and your well-being, and I can tell you that today Carey has signed up for the Safe School’s coalition.
The Safe School’s Coalition is an organisation dedicated to helping schools become safer and more inclusive for same sex attracted, intersex and gender diverse students, teachers and families. They work through educating students in order to discourage and eliminate prejudice and discrimination on the basis of a person’s actual, or perceived, sexual orientation or gender identity– as well as educating about the damage that casual homophobic language and discrimination can do to someone’s mental state.
With Carey becoming a part of the Coalition, the power is now in both the staff and students hands. I think that the best thing about being a part of the coalition is that anyone can be involved in whichever way they want. Students can put their hand up and ask to learn about how to be more inclusive towards someone they may know, or someone they may not. We can learn how to be a more supportive friend or teacher. We can get any information and support we need, no matter what our sexuality and we can get a helping hand to stand up proudly and with strength to say that no matter what others say – we are not here to discriminate, but that we are here to support any and every Carey school student.
With Carey already taking part in events like the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia BBQ organised in May this year, it is clear that Carey is already ready and willing to help show it’s support wherever possible. I am so proud to see this happening, and I hope that this continues well into the future – and that every student can see how open-minded, supportive and caring their teachers and classmates are all around them.
By being a part of the Safe Schools Coalition, Carey is both taking a stand in showing the world that they are a progressive and accepting school – and also ensuring that their students are protected and nurtured with the most up-to-date and wide-ranging support for anyone that feels that they need it.
What Carey has shown by signing up to Safe Schools is that they are determined to get the best out of every single student they have in their gates. Gender, Sexuality, Race, Religion shouldn’t segregate any of us when it comes to our journey through the ranks of high school – there’s no point having students pretend to be something they’re not at the risk of their creativity, gifts and happiness.
I am prouder than I could ever be to be back in this hall, standing here with my shoulders pushed back just that little bit further, to say in front of the school community, in front of my family, and in front of my partner that I am proud of who I am, and that there is no reason why anyone, ever should feel otherwise.
We all have the right to be proud of the people that we are. We all have the right to be at school every day, confident within ourselves, and ready and willing to learn, take risks, and excel. It is the people that may choose to have a problem with you, or choose to bully someone for any reason that need to take a long hard look at themselves. We can’t escape who we are, and we shouldn’t ever try to. Because once we accept who we are, that is when we find happiness.
Once I was honest with my friends, our friendships grew. When I was honest with my family, we became closer and more loving. And when I was honest with myself, that’s when I could find love. And believe me, when you are dating the captain of the football team, you don’t want to hide anymore.
Life is too short to pretend to be something you’re not, or to hide yourself away for fear of the unknown. Being a student especially, this is the time where you decide who you really want to be in life, and what you want to do. School shapes you, but is doesn’t define you. Only you can define who you are, and it’s never too late to choose how you wish to be defined.
Outside of these walls, wider society may have a long way to go, but Carey Grammar has already propelled itself to the front of the pack through their initiatives to welcome and support every single one of their students under their care.
So today I say thank you. Thank you to Carey’s Principal, Mr Grutzner, for being the leader of a school that listens to, and cares for their students. Thank you to the teachers I had back in my time at Carey, and to the staff here today, for making a safer environment for all of us. A special thank you to my new best friend, your School Captain Carina Blythe, for being the commanding voice of change in the school community. And thank you to Carey Grammar for having me back, and for fighting for all your students, past and present.