Bullied to death: The short life of Tyrone Unsworth.

By David Lewis for Background Briefing.

In November 2016, Tyrone Unsworth killed himself after years of homophobic bullying. He was 13. His school claims it knew nothing about the bullying, but the warning signs were there.

At a massive, tree-lined park in Chermside, north Brisbane, Tanisha Blair shows me where she and her closest friend used to hang out.

It’s mid-December, only a couple of weeks after Tyrone Unsworth’s tragic suicide, but the high school student manages to crack a smile as she reflects on happier times.

The pair would come here every second weekend, she tells me, “to tell our secrets, talk about boys and girls, and share food”.

They had forged a friendship at primary school.

“He wasn’t like the other boys,” Tanisha explains. “The other boys played in the dirt and made fun of the girls whereas Tyrone played with the girls.”

From a young age, Tyrone dressed up in girls’ clothing, experimented with makeup, and idolised female pop singers.

“He liked Lady Gaga and Beyonce,” recalls Tanisha. “He liked Miley Cyrus, Ariana Grande, Rihanna: all those pop stars.”

But the same traits that endeared him to his friends also made him an easy target for bullies.

Pushed around

At book week in 2014, all the students at Tyrone’s primary school arrived wearing costumes inspired by their favourite stories. Tyrone had dressed as a fairy.

“He went to the garden at the school, he put flowers all in his hair, and I took a photo of him,” says Tanisha Blair’s mother, Renee McDonald, who noticed Tyrone’s outfit was beginning to attract unwanted attention.


“The kids were calling him gay and fairy and everything else,” she says.

The bullying escalated when the parents left the playground, and Tyrone was surrounded by a group of boys.

“I think four boys were pushing him,” Tanisha remembers. “I was like, I had better go up there and help him or I’ll get in trouble.”

Tyrone wasn’t fighting back so Tanisha charged toward the bullies.

“I just whacked them,” she says.

When Renee learned what her daughter had done, she was proud.

“She didn’t get in trouble by me because she’d done what we teach her, and that’s to stick up for what you think is right” Renee says.

The school took another view. Tanisha was punished for resorting to violence and had to spend three days in the “responsible thinking corner” near the principal’s office.

The melee brought Tyrone and Tanisha closer together. He confessed he was struggling with his sexuality, explaining that he had been in relationships with both boys and girls.

“And that’s when I knew,” Tanisha says.

Despite this admission, Tyrone’s family remains split on whether the 13-year-old was gay.

His great aunt, Catherine Jones, affectionately known as Aunty Caspa, thinks it is unlikely Tyrone was straight, and that he may have been afraid of how his family would react.


“We have a big family and there’s nobody else in our family who’s gay.” she says. “Did he think: everyone’s going to hate me if I go this way?”

His grandmother, Francis “Twiggy” Jones, feels differently.

“He was not gay,” she says emphatically. “My grandson was not gay.”

Regardless of whether Tyrone was gay or not, his interests were clearly different to other boys at school and within his family.

The teenager’s grandfather, Wayne Unsworth, worried this might cause trouble for him and tried to encourage Tyrone to take an interest in other activities, including rugby league.

“I quite often used to pick on him because the kids would be playing, say, football. He’d be chasing butterflies,” Wayne remembers.

The outsider

Things did not improve for Tyrone when he entered Year 7 at Aspley State High School, in Brisbane’s north.

He started wagging, his grades suffered, and he was often living with friends and extended family, rather than staying with his mother, Amanda, stepfather, Blake, and his four younger half-siblings.

Tyrone’s aunt, Rebecca Unsworth, says her nephew was unhappy at home because he did not like sharing a bedroom and, as the only child in the family who did not know his biological father, he felt like an outsider.

“He wanted to reach out to his real dad,” she says. “He knew that his sisters and brother had their father but he didn’t have his father.”


The 13-year-old met his biological father, Royden Pickering, only a handful of times and their relationship was difficult to maintain as Royden had spent time in prison.

“I think a lot of things went through his mind as to why he couldn’t meet his dad and spend time with him,” Rebecca says.

“He wanted to change his last name to Pickering but never got the chance to.”

Suicidal thoughts

During Year 7, in the first sign he was feeling desperate and suicidal, Tyrone began posting a series of disturbing images on Instagram.

His primary school friend Keely Geyger, who had by this time moved away from Brisbane, came across one post that was particularly alarming.

The post was accompanied by the words: “If I just killed myself, would anyone cry, would anyone care? I wonder if they’d even notice.”

“Everyone just thought he was joking around because of the person he was,” says Keely, who did not understand why Tyrone felt so unloved and alone.

“I told him to take all those things down because I knew it wasn’t true.”

Not everyone saw these cries for help. Tyrone had adjusted his privacy settings, and his family and many of his friends were oblivious to his deteriorating mental health.

A violent attack

On a Thursday afternoon last October, Tyrone was seriously injured in a fight with another student from Aspley State High School.


“He had wagged school that day with a couple of other students,” says his aunt, Rebecca Unsworth.

“There was a bit of an argument between Tyrone and one of his fellow friends over a girl.

“Someone spat on the girl so Tyrone defended the girl.”

The argument erupted outside the Police Citizens Youth Club (PCYC) in the Brisbane suburb of Zillmere.

“The other fellow who was in the argument went and found a fence paling and while Tyrone had his back turned, hit him with it and it broke his jaw,” Rebecca says.

Realising he was seriously hurt, the students who witnessed the incident helped Tyrone to his feet and into the PCYC, where staff called an ambulance.

Tyrone was taken to the Lady Cilento Children’s Hospital in South Brisbane, where he had surgery to repair his jaw.

Police are still investigating the assault. So far no charges have been laid.

Living in fear

After being discharged from hospital, Tyrone escaped to a property in Upper Kedron in north-west Brisbane, where his grandfather, Wayne, and aunt, Rebecca, lived.

“He was very different when he got out of hospital,” Rebecca says.

“If he went to Taigum shopping centre, he was always looking left and right.”

“I think he was looking to see if those people that would have been there that day, looking out for them to see if he was going to run into them.”


The idea of returning to school and having to face the other boy from the fight weighed heavily on Tyrone’s mind.

“He wanted the other student to leave the school so he could go back, but I believe the student is still going to the school and didn’t get in trouble or anything.”

Whatever the circumstances of the fight, Tyrone’s injury and the bullying he had endured over the years took a huge toll on him.

After having nearly a month off school to recuperate, Wayne and Rebecca made it clear to Tyrone that he would have to go back.

On the afternoon before he was supposed to return, he went fishing with an old family friend, Gypsie-Lee Edwards Kennard, who spoke to the ABC’s 7.30.

“I thought he was okay and all of a sudden he was an absolute mess, crying his eyes out saying that everyone wants him dead,” she said.

“And I said, ‘Tyrone, what do you mean everyone wants you dead?’ And he said ‘The kids at school keep telling me to go kill myself’ and I was obviously gobsmacked.”

In the meantime, Wayne Unsworth made arrangements for Tyrone to go back to school.

But the day after he was due back, Tyrone stayed at the farm instead.

When his grandfather returned from work, around 1pm, he noticed the 13-year-old was missing.

“I thought I’d just go and have a bit of a look through the house, through the bedroom,” Wayne says.


“[I thought] he might be laying on his bed with his headphones in and his music blaring, which he always does, but no Tyrone.

“So I walked out the back and that’s when I found him.

“I cried when he was born, I cried when he died.”

Safe Schools

The national suicide rate is the highest it has been in nearly a decade.

We don’t normally hear of individual cases, but in December last year Tyrone’s suicide was widely reported.

Suddenly the issue of school bullying was back on the front pages.

Joelene Roulstone, whose son entered Year 7 at Aspley State High School this year, was reading an article about the tragedy when she first heard about Safe Schools.

As the mother of a young boy who had been bullied before, Joelene wanted to know why Aspley State High School had not adopted Safe Schools, a program aimed at helping teachers create a supportive environment for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) students.

“I just started to shake and actually started to get really angry. I was just so furious,” she said.

Last year, Joelene launched an online petition calling for Aspley State High School to work with Safe Schools to implement the program’s materials and training.

Her petition has attracted nearly 30,000 signatures but there has been no response from the school, despite repeated attempts to arrange a meeting with the principal, Jacquita Miller.


Speaking briefly to reporters last November, Ms Miller said the school had no knowledge of the bullying Tyrone experienced in Year 7.

“As a mum of a boy that age I am just so sorry that it happened and that he was in my school and we weren’t able to help him because we didn’t know,” she said.

Aspley State High School was aware of the October fight that left Tyrone in hospital with a broken jaw.

Ms Miller declined to be interviewed by Background Briefing and did not respond to requests for a written statement explaining what steps the school took to reassure Tyrone Unsworth that he would be safe to return after the incident.

Ms Miller, along with Education Queensland and the Queensland minister for education, Labor’s Kate Jones, all refused to comment on whether Aspley State High School planned to adopt Safe Schools in response to Tyrone’s death.

At a rally in Brisbane’s CBD last December hundreds gathered to demand the school, along with every other government school in the state, do just that.

“We will demand justice for Tyrone,” shouted one activist who addressed the crowd. “We will demand Safe Schools.”

Tyrone’s suicide is subject to a coronial investigation.

If you or someone you know is thinking about suicide, you can call on 13 11 14, on 1800 551 800, on 1300 789 978 or the 1300 659 467.

This post originally appeared on ABC News.

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