WHY AN ELECTORAL COLLEGE FOR ORGANISATIONS WORKING WITH LESBIAN AND GAY YOUTH?
"The purpose of youth work is to redress all forms of inequality and to ensure equality of opportunity for all young people to fulfil their potential as empowered individuals and members of groups and communities and to support young people during the transition to adulthood...Youth work offers young people opportunities which are...designed to promote equality of opportunity - through the challenging of oppressions such as racism and sexism and all those which spring from differences of culture, race, language, sexual identity, gender, disability, age, religion and class; and - through the celebration of diversity and strengths which arise from those differences." National Youth Agency Statement of Purpose.
1. There are already electoral colleges for organisations who work with black young people, disabled young people and girls and young women. Their existance acknowledges the need for electoral colleges which represent the needs of groups of young people who are usually marginalised in mainstream youth work and for whom special provision and outreach work is necessary. Whatever the reasons were for establishing these colleges will apply to the establishment of a college to represent lesbian and gay youth who, currently, are not represented at the National Youth Agency.
2. Lesbian and gay youth are an extremely vulnerable group. They are isolated from society, family, friends and other homosexuals, especially lesbian and gay peers; they experience family rejection, isolation and problems at school (including the homophobia of teachers and pupils); verbal, physical and mental violence and harassment; as well as the terrible emotional stresses caused by the internalisation of a stigmatised identity. On top of this, support from traditional agencies such as the youth, health, social, probation and education services, is lacking.
Because of this lesbian and gay youth are disproportionately found among youth who attempt and complete suicide, misuse alcohol and drugs, are at risk for promiscuity and unsafe sex leading to HIV infection and pregnancies, runaway behaviour, homelessness and school drop-out.
This need not happen. With appropriate peer and adult support, positive role models, access to accurate information, and programmes developed by trained staff to meet their needs, harmful behaviours can either be prevented or adapted.
3. Whilst a survey needs to be conducted, current mainstream provision does not, in general, cater for lesbian and gay youth. Most lesbian and gay youth groups are run by voluntary organisations, e.g. Helplines, although with more and more young lesbians and gays coming out, greater demand for support is being made, in particular to information and advice projects.
Lesbian and gay youth groups often only exist in cities and are rarely adequately staffed with specially trained workers who know how to deal with the issues (most groups are run on a part time basis and of those that do exist, most are mixed groups with young, white, able-bodied, gay men dominating, which means young lesbians and young gays who are multi-oppressed rarely get any support).
As far as I am aware there are no training courses (basic or in-service) which adequately cover issues facing lesbian and gay youth.
4. Support for work with lesbian and gay youth has been acknowledged for many years (see, for example, NAYC Council Minutes, 1/5/77; DES HMI Report "Youth Counselling Services", 1987-88; DES NACYS Report "Youth Work With Girls and Young Women," 1989). However, this support has not materialised, apart from a handful of local authority projects in cities.
The situation seemed to be improving until the introduction of section 28 of the Local Government Act (1988). This amendment, along with other - very old - legislation, aided the rampant heterosexist views and policies of the youth service, with many individuals and services using the law as an excuse not to make provision for lesbian and gay youth. This is despite government statements which stressed that support should be available, see, for example, DES Circular dated 22/4/88 signed by J.R. Goodwin, Schools Branch, the sentiments of which were more recently reiterated in a Home Office letter of 3/11/93 signed by J.C. Barnes:
"The provisions in section 28 make it unlawful for local authorities to incur expenditure with the intention of promoting homosexuality, where 'promote' would generally be taken to mean the encouragement or favour of one thing in preference to others.
Section 28 does not prevent local authorities from offering the full range of their services, including counselling and health services, to homosexuls on the same basis as to all their inhabitants. It does not lead to a censorship of the arts; prevent local authorities from granting entertainment licences; or affect books stocked in public libraries as part of the usual library functions."
Since the introduction of section 28 in 1988 there have been several other government publications which acknowledge the need for support for lesbian and gay youth. For example, the Children Act (see Guidance & Regulations, Vol 3, 9.50 and 9.53). Health of the Nation, which calls for co-operation between services, not only acknowledges that lesbians and gays have reduced access to services, which should be improved, but includes reduction of suicide, HIV, and unwanted pregnancies amongst its priorities. Many of the targets are being improved with the exception of suicides which are increasing.
(I forecast - as do U.S. academics - that lesbian and gay youth suicide will continue to increase. Already it is estimated that 30% of youth suicides are by lesbian and gay young people. With the greater visibility of lesbian and gay issues more and more lesbian and gay youth are identifying and coming out earlier but do not have support. This has been acknowledged as a major factor in lesbian and gay youth suicide; it is also a major factor in young gay men acquiring HIV infection.)
These government policies suggest, along with the legal reduction in the age of consent for gay men from 21 years to 18 years which seems likely to be equalised with heterosexuals under European law, that governmental support for homosexuals is improving.
To some extent these changes have been reflected at the National Youth Agency. For example, the Statement of Purpose, increased visibility of lesbian and gay issues in "Young People Now" and other publications, and the inclusion of work with lesbian and gay youth and anti-oppressive thinking and practice within the first priority for the 1995-1996 work programme.
Whilst these efforts are to be applauded, several important factual errors have been made (see, e.g. my letter to Janet Paraskeva dated 26/4/94) and the sentiments of including work with lesbian and gay youth have not permeated every aspect of NYA's work (see, e.g. minutes of Electoral College for Organisations Working With Girls and Young Women, 11/3/94).
5. The youth service could do much to alleviate the isolation of young homosexuals and support the government policy of reducing suicide and HIV rates (as well as other, harmful, effects of homophobia). The National Youth Agency has an important role in supporting the youth service to meet the real needs of young homosexuals by encouraging appropriate provision with trained workers and by providing accurate information, resources, publications, training and policy recommendations. It is towards this end that an electoral college for organisations who work with lesbian and gay youth would be of tremendous value.
Lesbian Youth Support Information Service
P.O. Box 8
25th August 1994