LESBIAN INFORMATION SERVICE
ANNUAL REPORT 1990-1991
The format of this Report has been designed for several reasons:
Lesbian Information Service
By placing the L.I.S. Annual Report and Stage I of the Research Project together we hope to emphasise that the Research Project developed out of our experience and knowledge gained through running L.I.S. Because of this we have certain advantages that most research projects lack (the Hetrick Martin Institute being one of the exceptions), that is that we already had four years full-time experience of working with lesbians, including young lesbians, as well as amassing information and building up networks. This all helped with the initial formulation of the Research Project and the design of the questionnaire.
Having a solid base of knowledge and experience, and having completed Stage I of the Research, we began to access (through databases) research produced primarily from the U.S.A. Whilst the majority of this research is mixed and emphasises the experiences of young gay men (the little lesbian research that exists is dominated by white, middle class, well-educated lesbians who are not isolated), nevertheless a comparison between our findings and previous research is extremely helpful. We are still acquiring relevant articles but so far the most outstanding and useful papers have been "The National Lesbian Health Care Survey Final Report," Judith Bradford and Caitlin Ryan; Paul Gibson's "Gay Male and Lesbian Youth Suicide," and various articles by Emery S. Hetrick and A. Damien Martin. Despite our general criticisms of U.S. research we have been able to find plenty of evidence to substantiate our findings. Stage I of the Research Project is set in the context of there being no other comprehensive research specifically about isolated young lesbians.
As the first part of a three-stage Project, Stage I stands out for its uniqueness: it is the most difficult stage to conduct because the task was to find young lesbians who were isolated and living in a small town where there were no obvious contact points. This is unlike the majority of previous research wherein participants have been contacted mainly through lesbian or lesbian and gay organisations, bookshops, feminist networks, etc. It is because of the isolation of the participants that the findings of this Study are so shocking. Stage I only consisted of thirteen lesbians, but we believe that the results reflect the position of thousands of isolated young lesbians throughout Britain.
Experiences of Young Lesbians
In order to help the reader understand the experiences of isolated young lesbians, the findings should be understood within the following context:-
1. Most young lesbians know at an early age that they are lesbian.
2. Most young lesbians grow up:
a. with no positive information about Lesbianism and no positive role models;
b. with negative information (myths) about Lesbianism from a variety of sources: school, parents, religion, peers and the media;
c. with a tremendous pressure to conform to heterosexuality, from the same sources which perpetuate negative information about Lesbianism;
d. with often negative reactions to coming out as lesbian from both parents, friends, family, and work colleagues;
e. with no contact with lesbian/gay organisations apart from local gay pubs and clubs, which are often a negative environment - alcohol, smoking, drugs, 'picking up' places.
This has a terrible effect on young lesbians, which is worsened by the lack of appropriate support. Young lesbians are particularly vulnerable because of their age (the younger they are aware of their sexuality the more vulnerable they are), their sexuality, and their sex. When young lesbians reject femininity they are more likely to suffer direct discrimination and greater pressure to conform to heterosexuality.
Young lesbians who suffer multi-oppressions, i.e. those who are working class, black, minority ethnic or disabled are even more vulnerable, while any young lesbian who is 'different' from the 'norm', including non-Christian, fat, or who has learning difficulties, is clearly a further target for bullying and oppression.
Young Lesbian Group
The findings of the research are discussed followed by an outline of the Young Lesbian Group which was set up as part of Stage I. Young Lesbian Groups, which provide an alternative, safe, space for young lesbians to meet, share problems, acquire support, have access to positive information and role models, are essential in helping young lesbians increase their self-esteem and reduce the effects of isolation and discrimination.
LESBIAN INFORMATION SERVICE
The aim of the organisation is to facilitate communication between lesbians and promote understanding of lesbian experience in order to combat discrimination.
Our objectives are:-
* to generate discussion about lesbian experience;
* to generate positive activities to combat oppression;
* to increase the visibility of lesbians - our struggles and successes;
* to identify and expose anti-Lesbianism; and
* to encourage an awareness of the needs of working class lesbians, blesbians, minority ethnic lesbians - including Irish lesbians, young lesbians, disabled lesbians, old lesbians, Jewish lesbians, fat lesbians, and lesbians everywhere, in particular those who are isolated.
We will achieve our aim and objectives by various methods, including:
- providing an enquiry and referral service;
- developing a national newsletter and network;
- producing training materials for work with lesbians;
- setting up a library of lesbian books and periodicals;
- production of book lists;
- providing training courses for lesbians and heterosexism courses for heterosexuals;
- work with young lesbians;
- conducting research.
Lesbian Information Service was established in July 1987 by Jan Foster, with the help of the government's Enterprise Allowance Scheme. Later that year, Sandra Lucille joined as a volunteer. L.I.S. is jointly organised, on a voluntary basis, by Jan Bridget (ex Foster) and Sandra Lucille; other lesbian volunteers are involved with L.I.S. projects from time-to-time.
In the first year of operation L.I.S. concentrated on local activities in Leicester. We received a grant of £1,551.43 from Leicester City Council which helped towards setting up and running a Lesbian Line, Young Lesbian Group and Lesbians and Phobias Group. We also ran a Lesbian Coffee Bar, established a local campaign against Clause 28 of the Local Government Bill, as well as expanding a local lesbian newsletter into a national publication. An article was published about the Young Lesbian Group in a local play-leaders newsletter. We conducted research and produced a 45-page report, "Lesbians and Housing in Leicester" which has since been sold to over 70 housing agencies throughout Britain. Details of our activities are contained within our first Annual Report which also outlines many of the problems we encountered running a local service for lesbians.
By July 1988, with the introduction of Section 28 of the Local Government Act, support for our activities by Leicester City Council stopped. Without funding we could not continue our local work. We decided to stop these activities (but, of course, continued to support individual lesbians) and concentrate on developing the national newsletter (lesbian Information Service Newsletter - "LISN"). We applied for several grants, in particular to the Equal Opportunities Commission and Account 28 (a specific funding body for lesbian and gay organisations) but were unsuccessful. We ran a lesbian Studies Course at Nottingham lesbian Centre (unfunded - because of Section 28) and published a short book list, a lesbian health booklist, and a draft lesbian Studies Pack. We also ran a lesbians and Health Workshop in Stoke. Articles were published in the "Leicester Rights Bulletin" and "Lesbian and Gay Socialist". "LISN" became our major source of funding during this period. Further information is available in our second Annual Report.
Due to the pressure of producing a monthly newsletter we decided to make "LISN" bi-monthly but at the same time almost doubled the content. We also changed the title to "Lesbian International," to reflect the contents and our growing international contacts. During this period we moved to Todmorden, West Yorkshire and took L.I.S. with us - at great expense as we still received no funding. "LISN" was still our main source of income for this period. We produced our last issue of "Lesbian International"in June/July 1990, after publishing for three-and-a-half years. We had produced twenty-seven issues of "LISN"/"Lesbian International" and a further six issues of the local newsletter.
We continued to provide an Enquiry and Referral Service.
The direction of L.I.S. changed during this period. We began a new research project into the needs of young lesbians. Throughout our existence we have been aware of the needs of young lesbians, not only through the work with the Young Lesbian Group, and on-going support of individual members, but also from the numerous desperate letters we receive from isolated young lesbians up and down the country. We acquired written support for the Project from various national youth agencies, including the following extract from a letter written by the General Secretary of the National Association of Young People's Counselling and Advisory Services:
"The research project you are planning to undertake into the needs
of young lesbians is urgently required. Despite the abundance of
material referring to the behaviour of young prople from many standpoints, there is very little evidence on young lesbians and an almost total absence of any policy and provision to support them."
After months of negotiating, Lancashire County Council agreed to fund Stage I of the Project (to be conducted in a small, Lancashire, town) with the probability of partial-funding for Stage II, to cover the whole of Lancashire. This took the form of employing Jan Bridget as a part-time youth worker on a temporary contract. Information regarding
the research was publicised in a number of relevant journals and an article was published in "Young People Now." We approached Telethon to part-fund Stage II. More details of our activities for this period are to be found in our third Annual Report.
ANNUAL REPORT: JULY 1990 - JULY 1991
ENQUIRY AND REFERRAL SERVICE
As an Information Service we receive lots of requests - by telephone and letter - for information. Enquiries always increase when we manage to obtain publicity. As well as general requests for information about the Service we provide, other requests fall into four main categories, which reflects the type of work we are currently pursuing:
We have general enquiries for information about lesbians and housing as well as requests for copies of our "Lesbians and Housing in Leicester" report and copies of our "Lesbian Housing Pack" which is still in draft form. We are also contacted by individual lesbians who are homeless, or are about to become homeless, requesting information and contacts for accommodation. We have on-going correspondence with housing agencies and negotiate with them in respect of individual young lesbians.
Letters and telphone calls are regularly received from isolated lesbians, in particular young lesbians, from all over Britain; not only from rural areas, for example, Cumbria, Cornwall, Worcestershire, West Yorkshire, but also from towns and cities including Merseyside, Blackpool, Lincoln, Dudley, Loughborough and London. As a way of responding to these requests we are in the process of publishing a Young Lesbian Pack and a booklet: "i think i might be a lesbian ... now what do i do?" (see Publications).
Information regarding the needs of young lesbians is regularly sent to statutory youth services and voluntary Young Lesbian Groups. As a means of responding to these requests we have developed a "Work With Young Lesbians Resource List" (see Publications).
We regularly receive requests for information by students conducting research on lesbians. These have included Old lesbians, Housing, Youth Work, Social Services, as well as requests for more general information.
We held talks with Domino Productions concerning a programme specifically about lesbians and gays for BBC2. Initially we agreed to take part. However, after a trip to London to meet the producer and to find out more about the series, we decided to withdraw our involvement.
Alleycat Productions contacted us for information regarding lesbians and Bereavement for the Channel 4 series "Out." We did a search and provided information for them. They were interested in our findings about young lesbians and suicide. Jan Bridget was interviewed but there was only a brief reference in the programme.
We are in contact with various organisations who have said that they will include an article/information about our work in their publications. These include: the Leaving Home Project, Social Work Today, National Association of Young People's Counselling and Advisory Services, and CHARNEWS.
As an organisation, L.I.S. is listed in the National Council for Voluntary Organisations Directory, the Women's Directory, and in the National Association of Citizens' Advice Bureaux Information Files.
Details about the research was included in various publications, such as "Young People Now', "CHARNEWS", "The Pink Paper", and the newsletters of lesbian organisations: Gemma, Kenric and the International lesbian Information Service.
Press releases have been distributed to various media, including "The Guardian", and "Spare Rib." These publications are just a few who have consistently ignored our work and who continue to make lesbians invisible.
The local media in East Lancashire published negative articles about the Research Project after being sent details by a voluntary youth organisation. As a result of complaints about the Homophobic reporting, a young journalist wrote a full-page 'spread' about lesbians and gay men in East Lancashire. She had problems finding lesbians who were willing to be interviewed. Jan Bridget agreed to discuss what it was like growing up in East Lancashire in the late 1950's early 1960's and her work with L.I.S. When the article appeared, however, lesbians were not included.
We publish Resource Lists and Information Packs, both as a way of distributing information and to make some money to pay for the Research Project. We have acquired a new computer (at our own expense) but we need funds for a good printer (laser or bubble jet). We are currently publishing:
Lesbians and Housing Pack (draft)
Apart from Sandra Anlin's "Out But Not Down", our "Lesbians and Housing in Leicester", and a few articles - notably from CHAR - there has been little published regarding lesbians and Housing. In response to requests for information about housing from individuals, lesbian housing organisations, housing agencies and students, we have put together a pack of previously published articles, together with book lists and useful addresses.
Young Lesbians: Life at `Home', Leaving Home, and Homelessness
We are compiling a book about the experiences of young lesbians living at `home', leaving home, and homelessness. Much of this document is about young lesbians speaking for themselves.
Young Lesbian Pack (draft)
In response to requests for information from isolated young lesbians who are trying to come to terms with their sexuality and come out to their parents/guardians, we have put together various articles about being a young lesbian. The Pack also includes a booklist and useful addresses.
"i think i might be a lesbian ... now what do i do?"
This booklet is included in the Young Lesbian Pack. It is also available, free, to young lesbians and young women questioning their sexuality. It was written by a Young Lesbian Group in the U.S.A. who have given us permission to adapt and publish it in Britain to raise funds for the Research Project (there is a charge for organisations). It also includes a booklist and useful addresses.
Work With Young Lesbians Resource List
The List gives details of some of the more important research papers from the U.S.A. regarding young lesbians. It also includes examples of projects, both in the U.S.A. and Britain, a book list, and useful addresses.
Work With Young Lesbians
We were invited by Lancashire Youth & Community Service (before they introduced constraints on work with young lesbians and gays), to run a session on the need for working with young lesbians as part of a training weekend for female youth workers.
As part of our involvement with Blackburn and District Well Women Centre we ran two sessions for Volunteers on Racism Awareness.
National Organisation for Lesbian and Gay Youth Workers
An input about the Research was given to a meeting of the above group.
Funding has always been a problem. We have applied to numerous organisations in the past, including the Baring Foundation, William A. Cadbury, Equal Opportunities Commission, Shardlow Trust, Account 28, and the Workers Education Association, but to no avail. Initially, we received funding from Leicester City Council but this stopped after Section 28 of the Local Government Act had been introduced.
We had approached various organisations to write letters of support, publicise the Project, help fund the Project or to put us in contact with possible funding bodies, these included the National Youth Bureau, National Association of Young People's Counselling and Advice Service, National Council for Voluntary Youth Services, British Youth Council,
CHAR (Campaign for Homeless and Rootless), British Association of Social Workers, National Association of Citizens Advice Bureaux, Samaritans, National Association of Young People in Care, National Association of Probation Officers (NAPO), Youth Clubs UK, National Association of Youth Community and Education Officers (NAYCEO), National Union of Public Employees (NUPE), National Union of Students (NUS), Womens Health and Reproductive Rights Information Centre (WHRRIC), National Council for Civil Liberties (NCCL, now Liberty), National Association of Local Government Officers (NALGO), Equal Opportunities Commission (EOC), and the Community and Youth Workers Union (CYWU). None of them could offer any financial assistance. The first nine wrote letters of support and some published information about the Project in their newsletters. However, there was no response from NAPO, Youth Clubs UK, NAYCEO, NUPE, NUS, WHRRIC, NCCL, NALGO, EOC, and the CYWU.
Lancashire County Council - Youth & Community Service - agreed to fund Stage I of the Research Project, in the form of employing Jan Bridget as a part-time youth worker on a temporary contract; they also said that they would fund Stage II, if we could find another
sponsor. We approached Lancashire County Council Social Services Department, who never actually came back to us. We also applied to Telethon but were unsuccessful. After the local media attacked the Project we were told that Lancashire would no longer be interested in funding Stage II and restrictions were placed on Stage I.
Once we realised that Lancashire would not be funding Stage II we began to make other enquiries. We approached Manchester City Council. Whilst they have shown an interest it took them months before they got back to us and even now it seems unlikely that any progress will be made before the next general election.
After a thorough search of the "Directory of Grant-Making Trusts," using specific areas of interest, such as young people, women, research, health, mental health, homelessness, disadvantaged youth, alcohol and drug misuse, equal opportunities, etc, we identified several Trusts who, at least on paper, seemed likely to be supportive of the Research.
These included the following:-
Barrow & Geraldine S. Cadbury Trust; Sir Halley Stewart Trust; The Mental Health Foundation; The London Law Trust; The Roland Harris Educational Trust; The Eleanor Rathbone Charitable Trust (Formerly Miss E.F. Rathbone Charitable Trust); The Lord Ashdown Charitable Trust 1968; The Good Neighbours Trust; Abbey National Charitable Trust; The Allen Lane Foundation; The John S. Cohen Foundation; Charles Henry Foyle Trust; Cecil Rosen Foundation; and the Esmee Fairbairn Trust.
We received rejections from them all (and experienced a lot of lesbian-hatred in the process). We also approached Martina Navratilova, but never received a reply to our letter. We were more successful with lesbian friends, of whom two donated £130 towards the acquisition of a pocket memo tape recorder (for interviews). We continue to seek funding for our work.
SUPPORT FOR PROJECT
Letters of support had been received from several national agencies (see Funding) as well as lesbian and lesbian and gay organisations. The following are selected extracts:
"I think that a project of this type is long overdue. We have very
little information and know that the personal suffering, isolation
and lack of support for this group is widespread..." Jalna Hanmer,
"We would therefore see tremendous value from the L.I.S. setting up a research project that would enable work to be set up or identified, shared, monitored and evaluated. This is by far an area of work that is under-resourced and marginalised, the project that L.I.S. are intending to establish will go some way to affecting change in the way work is perceived and acknowledged both locally and nationally." National Organisation for Work with Girls and Young Women.
"I am afraid the Catholic lesbians has no money, and so we cannot provide you with any financial support. We do, however, wish your work well, and are certainly aware of difficulties that young Catholic lesbians face." Catholic Lesbian Sisterhood.
"We also wholeheartedly support the research you propose, so that needs identified can be met and monitored and evaluated, as this is an under researched area and needs to be done so that work can be initiated in the future." Greenwich Lesbian and Gay Centre.
"I am writing on behalf of Gemma in support of your proposed research into the needs of young lesbians.
As a group concerned with lessening the isolation of disabled lesbians we are particularly concerned with the discrimination and oppression experienced by young lesbians, both those with and without disability.
Many do not have access to the information they need, and do not receive appropriate support at home, in school or at college. There still seems to be enormous pressure to conform and to disregard their own identity, something we had hoped was begining to diminish. The consequent feelings of isolation and hopelessness are exacerbated by the hostility and misinformation currently rife in the tabloid press, and by minimal coverage given to lesbian issues on TV and radio.
Young disabled lesbians have additional pressures and we welcome research which will include their perspectives.
We wish you every success with your research and shall look forward to the results." Gemma.
"CHAR would be very happy to confirm that there is a need for such research. Through our work we are well aware that homelessness is a serious problem for young lesbians - exacerbated by other people's attitudes to their sexuality. For some young lesbians, coming out at home led directly to homelessness as parents were unwilling to accept their daughter's sexuality. For others it is hostility from landlords or other residents/staff in hostels.'" CHAR.
Objective 8 of the Research Project states: "To identify what research has been completed into the needs of young lesbians - both in Britain and abroad." A comprehensive search has been conducted:
L.I.S. already had a library and network which we used to bring together relevant papers, articles and books. We also wrote to national youth and related organisations as well as to lesbian and lesbian and gay organisations, but did not come up with anything that we did not already know about.
We used our international network to find out what research had been conducted abroad, and also wrote to lesbian and lesbian and gay archives.
We discovered that there was research being conducted specifically about young lesbians in Australia (identity formation); New Zealand (schools) and The Netherlands (general).
The apparent sparsity of research in this country was confirmed when we searched the Women's Studies Abstracts - which are not on computer - and arranged to have searches made on six databases at the John Rylands University Library of Manchester and the J.B. Priestley Library at Bradford University. On the DHSS-DATA database, the on-line index
to the British Department of Health and Social Security library which covers topics including the health services, social welfare and social security including books, pamphlets, reports, journals and government publications, only one reference came up and that was Lorraine Trenchard's "Talking about Young Lesbians." From the other databases (E.R.I.C.; A.S.S.I.A.; Psychology Abstracts; Sociology Abstracts; and Medline) of the 108 responses, to the key words: lesbian, young, youth, adolescent, child, schoolchild, teenager: 49 dealt with lesbian and gay adolescents; but of these only seven related specifically to young lesbians; one dealt with growing up gay and lesbian in a multicultural context.
As far as I can ascertain, only one of these 49 articles originated from Britain (Ken Plummer's "Lesbian and Gay Youth in England"); the vast majority were from the U.S.A.
There are two possible reasons for the lack of material from Britain: first, there has been little research in Britain and second, as the Head of Information Services at the John Rylands Library suggested, we tend not to computerise our research information to the same extent in this country as in the U.S. No doubt this latter reason has some bearing but other methods of research, i.e. contacting various organisations in Britain and examining the research which has been conducted, also point to a complete lack of research here.
Ken Plummer tells us that there have only been three research projects in England concerning young lesbians and young gay men: the London Gay Teenage Project; the Joint Council for Gay Teenagers (1979) project which included information about eight young lesbians and 26 young gay men; and an unpublished undergraduate sociology project by Sharon Bye who acquired 95 life history letters from 40 young lesbians and 55 young gay men who lived in isolated areas (it is impossible to access this).
London Gay Teenage Project
There has been no research specifically into the needs of young lesbians in Britain. The London gay Teenage Project published the findings of their research, which only covered London and which was predominantly gay (67%), in 1984.
The London gay Teenage Group also published a series of booklets, emanating from the research project, entitled: "Talking about Youth Work"; Talking About School" and "Talking About Young Lesbians." The London gay Teenage Project, reveals several differences between the experiences of young lesbians and young gay men, including:
Because young gay men are more visible and more powerful than young lesbians any research project which deals with both of them will automatically have a male bias and the needs of young lesbians will, if not entirely then to a large extent, be hidden; unless, of course, it is a comparative study and conducted by both a lesbian and a gay man.
As mentioned, not all research is put on databases, neither in this country nor elsewhere. For example, Paul Gibson's "Gay Male and Lesbian Youth Suicide," contained in volume III of the Report of the Secretary's Task Force on Youth Suicide, published in January 1989 by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, did not appear on any of the searches. This is an important paper which, at 34 pages, is the most in-depth article yet written concerning suicide amongst young lesbians and gay men.
Like all mixed research, Gibson's emphasis is on young gay men. Whilst many of the experiences of young lesbians are similar to young gay men, there are also differences, some of which Gibson refers to, for example,
"Young lesbians are even more isolated than young gay males in their efforts to form intimate relationships."
"There are fewer meeting places for lesbians in our society and casual sexual contacts are a less frequent part of their development."
"Because women are socialised to have and maintain relationships, sexual exploration and experimentation often takes place within the context of a relationship."
"With fewer social opportunities, however, young lesbians are often not able to form initial relationships with lovers until later adolescence or young adulthood."
"Suicidal feelings among young lesbians may be due to the extreme isolation they experience and the despair of being unable to meet others like themselves."
"Young lesbians experience greater isolation than young males. They are less likely to explore their sexuality or have relationships during adolescence..."
By concentrating specifically on young lesbians this Research Project will not ignore the different experiences of young lesbians, nor the specific effects of isolation on young lesbians. On the contrary, it will highlight them.
The Project is further unique in that research specifically about lesbians (mainly from the U.S. but also Canada) has consisted primarily of middle class, well educated, lesbians who, on the whole, have access to lesbian communities, support and culture; this is mainly because of the methods of contact, i.e. through feminist networks, bookshops, academic institutions, lesbian and lesbian and gay organisations.
National Lesbian Health Care Survey
It is rare that research includes working class, black, minority ethnic, isolated lesbians, and young lesbians, but when it does the distinctions, regarding suicide, alcohol, drug misuse, etc., have been pronounced. Take, for example, the National Lesbian Health Care Survey, Final Report, conducted by Judith Bradford and Caitlin Ryan, U.S.A., 1988, which included just under 2,000 lesbians from all over the States.
It is important to note that among the 17-24 age group (young lesbians) there was a higher percentage of black lesbians (14% compared to 9% white and 4% Latina). Furthermore, class distinctions are not always made. The following are some of the findings:
RESEARCH PROJECT, STAGE I - SMALL TOWN
It was agreed that Stage I would take place in a small town where there are no facilities whatsoever for young lesbians (Stage II would cover a wider area with some provision and Stage III would consist of a national survey including as many Young Lesbian Groups as possible).
Because a small town had been chosen, making contact with lesbians, especially young lesbians, was particularly difficult. Contact with a few lesbians was made initially which then snowballed (we asked the participants if they knew of any other young lesbians).
Posters were circulated and it was hoped these would be displayed in prominent places, such as the library, the Citizens Advice Bureau and the health centre. Whilst the latter two agreed to display it, this never happened. Indeed, only a few posters were displayed - in the youth centre and the community drugs centre, although information was circulated by a social worker. The Library had sent the poster to County Hall for approval, which was given by the Chief Librarian at the same time that the media attacked the Project. The poster was never displayed in the library. Indeed, we were told by the County Youth & Community Officer that the poster `virtually contravened Section 28 of the Local Government Act' and that we had to withdraw it from schools (it never actually went to schools) and stop distributing it.
Leaflets (a reduced version of the poster) were handed out in gay pubs in nearby towns.
Seventeen young (aged 25 or below) lesbians were identified. Eight were interviewed; five refused to be interviewed and we could not contact the other four. A further two young lesbians were later interviewed. Three of the young lesbians did not originate from Lancashire, two grew up in small towns in Cumbria, the third was born in Scotland but her mother moved to Lancashire when she was young. The young lesbians were aged: 16, 18, 20 (2), 21 (3), 23, 24 (2). Whilst seventeen older lesbians had been identified, only three were interviewed, they were aged 31, 34 and 43. A young Asian lesbian had been identified but we were unable to interview her because she had been killed - for reasons of confidentiality we agreed not to discuss this.
Of the lesbians contacted, five came via the original contact; two from the youth service; three via L.I.S.; two via posters (one Community Drugs Team, the other the Well Women Centre); and one from the outreach leafleting. After the Project had ended we were contacted by a 15 year-old lesbian via one of the nearby the Lesbian Lines, as well
as being contacted by Social Services concerning another 15 year-old lesbian who was suicidal.
A very comprehensive questionnaire was devised which falls into two main parts:
i. Background information of participant, i.e. age, race, ethnicity, class, disability, size; family; religion; education; training; employment; benefits; social services; youth service; health service; law; housing; advice and counselling services.
ii. Information; coming out; sexuality; relationships; friendships; social and community; mental health; physical and sexual abuse; self care/self abuse; general health; gynaecological health.
In the main the format of the questionnaires was kept to, although on occasions participants were allowed to expand on certain experiences. Each interview was conducted by both Jan Bridget and Sandra Lucille, after checking that the participant was happy about this. It was important for us both to take part because of the intensity of the interviews. It was also important to interview the participants as this is what the questionnaire was designed for.
Most of the interviews took place in the participants' home. The shortest interview took two hours but many took three sessions of approximately two hours duration each session. Whilst participants were willing to carry on after the two hours we found that this was the maximum time we could concentrate.
With the exception of one, all of the participants said that they had enjoyed being interviewed; that it had been painful relaying some of their experiences but that, for the first time, they were able to talk freely. One of the participants said:
"It is a good questionnaire. It's done me good. I feel better. I've enjoyed it. It's what I needed. I trust you both."
PROFILE OF PARTICIPANTS
Those lesbians who were aware of their sexuality at school - the majority of the participants - said that this caused them to feel lonely and isolated:
In his excellent article "Gay Male and Lesbian Youth Suicide," Paul Gibson refers to schools:
"The failure of schools to educate youth about homosexuality presents another risk factor to Gay and Lesbian adolescents. By ignoring the subject in all curricula, including family life classes, the schools deny access to positive information about homosexuality that could improve the self esteem of Gay Youth. They also perpetuate myths and stereotypes that condemn homosexuality and deny youth access to positive adult Lesbian and Gay role models. This silence provides tacit support for Homophobic attitudes and conduct by some students."
A number of the participants said they thought that some of their teachers were Lesbian or Gay but none were out as such. Most said that it would have helped them if these teachers had been out.
It is clear that the 'family religion' influenced a number of the participants:
"I was brought up Church of England. My grandma was strict Church
of England. She was very emotional about me being lesbian. She thought t was disgusting. I was hurt that she could think any less of me. Once I started going out with a woman I never got on well with my grandma. I regret some of the things I did because she died this year."
"I haven't experienced discrimination because of religion because I'm not a practising Christian but I do believe in religion. I used to question the bible where it says we shouldn't be homosexual. I used to worry when I was younger, when I was about fourteen. I used to think it was a sin. It confused me. I thought it couldn't be a sin to have feelings like this. I needed reassurance but didn't get it until I was much older, when I was twenty or twenty-two and I first started going to Lesbian Groups. I talked to an older lesbian who convinced me that being lesbian wasn't sinful. Since then I've ceased to think about it as being sinful.
I knew I couldn't help or stop my feelings. I thought if it is sinful then why did god give people such feelings. I knew there was nothing I could do about it. Perhaps it was in the back of my mind that I shouldn't practise it. I used to think to myself `I'd give anything to be normal.' It's a lot easier way of life, I still think it is."
"My parents are Jewish but I was brought up Catholic. Catholics say it's a sin to be lesbian. You've got to be happily married to be a good Catholic. If you're going to be a Catholic you have to obey all the commandments. They said I was a sinner so being lesbian didn't really bother me."
Three of the interviewees had experienced specific discrimination regarding their sexuality in relation to religion. One of the participants was befriended by a Zion Pentecostal. She told her new friend she was a lesbian whereupon the friend spoke to the pastor:
"She talked to the pastor, she asked me questions. She thought god had meant us to meet. I thought they were really nice people. I didn't really have any good friends then. So I was feeling lonely at the time. Then Pastor Thomas talked to me. He was banging his fist on the table, saying I was sinful, he prayed over me. He told me to try, to wear a skirt going to church on Sunday. I thought I'd give it a try...they caught me on an all time low..."
The majority (if not all) of young lesbians grow up with only negative images of Lesbianism. Each of the participants had heard all or most of the following:-
Lesbians are not real women.
Lesbians want to be men.
Lesbians are really bisexual.
Lesbianism is a phase.
Lesbianism is a mental illness.
Lesbians are perverts.
Lesbianism is a sin against god.
Lesbians are ugly.
Lesbians are immature.
Lesbians are child molesters.
Lesbianism is not natural.
Lesbians cannot be trusted.
Lesbians are bad workers.
Lesbians can't get a man.
Lesbians are a small minority .
One of the young lesbians had strong words to say about the media portrayal of lesbians:
"I don't like the word lesbian when it is said in a bad way - people get the wrong outlook. If something happens they always have to bring up sexuality, for example, 'gay mother leaves children.' It is used as a term of abuse, to give people the wrong image. The papers always have to get it in. I feel strongly about the media using negative images of lesbians. They don't realise what harm they are doing. I don't feel that gay is as harsh, it isn't slagged off as much. I think people are prejudiced against us. Lesbianism is used in different ways in the media. We should have freedom, the right to choose who or what we want to be. No-one has the right to stop you. They say it is a sin- they also say that living together is a sin but people don't get prejudice against them for living together!"
PRESSURE TO CONFORM
The pressure to conform to heterosexuality for young lesbians is great. The findings of the London Gay Teenage Project show that this pressure is far greater for young lesbians than it is for young gay men. The pressure comes not only from friends and the media but especially from parents. Many parents know, sometimes even before the young lesbian herself, that their daughter is lesbian; especially if she rejects femininity. All but three of the participants rejected femininity when they were young. Sometimes parents try and force their daughters to be feminine:
"Between 14 and 16 I often thought about suicide; all my mates were off enjoying themselves at discos and things. The clothes my step-mother used to make me wear! She used to drag my jeans off my back and make me wear skirts; do my hair up. I was dead depressed. It was that and her attitude towards me (that made me want to kill myself)."
A less obvious, but just as effective, method is that of talking about homosexuality in a derogatory way. Usually the word `lesbian' is not used; which reflects both the hatred and invisibility of lesbians. This occurs at a time when young lesbians are extremely lonely and
isolated and in desperate need of support; when they are trying to come to terms with their sexuality and tell their parents/guardians about it, when they are most vulnerable:
"My parents do not know about my sexuality, I have not told them but I think my father definitely suspects. He told me that lesbians are strange and should be put on a desert island. He told me this a year ago."
Parents believe that, by putting pressure on their daughters, they can stop them being lesbian. Of course, this is not possible and, in fact, the effect is to delay the coming out process.
Another method is to say that lesbians are simply going through a phase. One possible consequence of this is that some young lesbians believe it and put off coming to terms with their sexuality; which can have dreadful results:
"I knew when I was dead young that something was amiss. I didn't know what lesbian was. I was 13 when I first had something with another woman. I thought it was something you did and got over it. I was dead into being catholic, going to church, the whole mystique, confession (but I didn't confess about the girl). Later I knew I was lesbian but I wasn't out because I was catholic. I thought I felt like this at the moment but that if I got a boyfriend, maybe all would come out alright in the end..."
This young lesbian became anorexic, attempted suicide a number of times, and ended up in hospital for many months. After a long and painful period, she is now positive about her sexuality:
"A long time ago I felt my Lesbianism was only a little bit of me that hadn't really sorted itself out. Occasionally I told people about it, but really it wasn't that much of a big part of me. Now what's me is that and the rest of things are little bits. I feel like I'm a lesbian ... I began to see Lesbianism as not just what I do in bed but as being strong; (I began to realise) the good things about being lesbian."
As a result of pressure to conform, particularly from parents, many young lesbians try and make themselves heterosexual, some end up either pregnant or married. Seven of the participants had had heterosexual sex. Five had had children (one by artificial insemination); of these only two still have their children: the child of one participant was adopted; the children of another are in care; the children of the third are being fostered. Three of the participants (all of whom had children) also had abortions, another (who had also had an abortion) had had a miscarriage.
The effects of enforced heterosexuality can be devastating:
"A few years earlier I did what my mother wanted me to do yet when I was in hospital she never came to see me. Once when she did visit I found out that the hospital had contacted her and told her it might buck me up. It did for a while until I found out why she'd come.
I was living with Elaine when I was 17. My mum put the relationship down to me being childish and that I'd grow out of it. When she realised that I wasn't going to grow out of it she turned around and said I had to make a decision: Elaine or my family. I called her bluff at the beginning and stayed where I was. She kept going on and making life hard work for me and Elaine so I left Elaine and went back to my mums. She wanted me to settle down, get married, raise children, which I did. I had two children, they are now fostered.
I have always drunk but not to the excesses that I started to after leaving Elaine and getting married. The marriage lasted six months. I'd left Elaine 18 months before I got married. I hated it. I didn't talk to anyone. I mentioned to my cousin that I'd made a mistake, she thought I meant marrying the wrong bloke. My mother was over the moon, especially when she found out I was pregnant... When I was 30 I left the kids with my mum and six months later I had a breakdown."
The longer a young lesbian stays in a negative environment the more likely it is that she will have greater emotional problems to deal with in coming to terms with her sexuality.
Age at which Age at which
knew was came out to
always known 13
Coming out as a lesbian, both to ourselves and to others, is a long and often torturous journey. It is, however, important to come out in order for us to be healthy, complete, persons. There has been much research carried out in the U.S.A. about the acquisition of our homosexual identities (few actually take on the different aspects of being female).
Richard Troiden is one such researcher who states:
"Identity disclosure enables the homosexual identity to be more fully realised, that is, brought into concrete existence, in a wider range of contexts. A more complete integration between homosexuals' identities and their social worlds is made possible when they can see and present themselves as homosexual and be viewed as such by others."
Troiden further suggests that if we have negative experiences coming out then we can get stuck in any one of a variety of stages of identity assumption, including denying our sexuality or postponing acceptance of it. This means that developing a positive self-identity as a lesbian is either postponed or never actually achieved.
Other U.S. research emphasises the difficulties younger homosexuals have in coming out and acquiring support. There is also evidence to suggest working class homosexuals are more likely to receive a negative reaction from their families, and that it is more difficult for black, minority ethnic and disabled homosexuals to come out. Certainly, Stage I confirms this: Ten were out to both parents, one to her father only; and three were not out to either parent, they included the black young lesbian and the disabled young lesbian. Of those who are out, only one had a positive experience and she did not come out to her parents until she was 25, she is also middle class. The following are a selection of some of the reactions:
"My step-sister first told my mum. I asked her to ask my mum what she thought of lesbians. She thought it was disgusting."
"Both my parents know, my dad disowned me. My brother said `My sister's a queer.'"
"My parents know. June rang them up and asked them if they'd seen me. My mother asked `Why?' June told her we'd had a relationship. My mother came round to where I lived and slapped me across the face saying `You can't be one of my daughters, you bent bastard!'"
"My parents know. They are not supportive. At the beginning they went dolally. My mother was upset. My step-father didn't say much except that I hadn't to go to the house when he was in."
"My dad threw me out of my grandma's where we were when I told him. I was friendly with him before but since coming out I haven't spoken to him. His wife, not my mother, said they had known I was years ago. She said she'd never liked me."
"My parents know. Nothing happened. They've been very good. No aggravation. I told them six years ago, when I was 25. It was when Carol moved in with me. They are supportive. They treat Carol as one of the family when we go out with them. There's no problems."
One of the young lesbians, who is middle class, had a mixed response from her parents:
"I told my parents when I was 15. It was Christmas 1989. I felt I had to. I couldn't stand the pretending when I had a boyfriend (I had a boyfriend to let my parents see I was normal). It got to the point when I felt I had to tell them. I wrote a letter, which I had with me when I told them. I sat them down. I wanted my brother to be there but he wasn't. I handed them the letter. As they opened it and started reading it I said `I'm a lesbian.'
I had to psych myself up for hours before doing it. I didn't know how they'd respond. I've never been close to them, I didn't know their feelings or what they thought about lesbians, I hadn't a clue. I'd never heard them say anything about lesbians or gays.
They reacted differently. My dad couldn't handle it. He cried, put his head in his hands and said 'I don't know what you're trying to say to me.' He didn't want to know basically. My mum cried and said it didn't make any difference. She just wanted to hug me, which I rejected because we'd never been close, she'd never hugged me. I thought it was ironic that all of a sudden she was this 'caring' mother.
I didn't want her to touch me. My dad was in a complete shock for weeks... [he] said being lesbian was wrong and abnormal. Coming from my dad it really hurt me. He said he didn't think it would give me any life."
Most of the participants of Stage I had experienced negative reactions from friends or other relatives when they came out. A few had had good experiences, in particular the 16-year-old who was involved with the theatre and decided she wanted to come out to the entire cast as she was already out to some and they had responded in a supportive
"I wanted to be out to everyone. During one of the performances I wrote a note to everyone. `Hi, this is ..., I want to tell you I'm a lesbian.' I left it in their shoes. Everyone found it at the same time. They all came and hugged me and said they were really proud of me, they knew I'd been upset and depressed. It was really nice."
Of the two participants who were not positive about themselves, one considered herself to be bisexual (but this is often used by lesbians who have not yet come to terms with their sexuality), "Lesbianism? Each to their own. I don't think anything about myself. I like my life the way it is." The other participant had experienced a bad acid trip during which she had a `religious' experience and began to read the bible, in particular what it says about homosexuality. Since then she has been trying to make herself heterosexual:
"I think I'm wrong. I shouldn't be a lesbian. It's only recently I've been thinking that. I've thought `Well, Sue, it's the way you are but you shouldn't be like this. Then I thought, `I won't play football anymore on a Sunday.' Then I'd think `Are you serious about this? What are you going to do if you meet a woman?' Then I'd say `Oh, well, I just hope I don't.' I have this conversation with myself. I've been out to gay clubs in Blackpool lately so I'm still looking. But I'm always saying to myself `Are you going to carry on being like this or because of what you now believe, stop?'...Part of me really wants to carry on the way I've been and another part of me is saying `You're wrong. You're not supposed to be doing this.' I feel like I've been torn for months since I took the acid."
Most of the participants, however, said they were happy being lesbian:
"I'm proud of being lesbian. Right on. Stick together. I don't want to be het."
"I love lesbianism. I love being lesbian. The thought of being straight makes me want to puke."
"I feel good and happy about myself. I think Lesbianism is perfectly natural. I wasn't horrified when I realised. It wasn't a big surprise, it was brilliant."
"I call myself lesbian because I've never been with a man. I don't find them attractive. I find them repulsive. I've always been attracted to women.
Lesbianism is a fact of life. I can't do anything about it so I live my life as best I can...I'm happy enough with myself. Everyone gets fed up and falls out at sometime. [My partner and I are] fallen out at the moment. I've got some friends. I get depressed but I'm okay now."
"Lesbianism is alright if you want to do it. There's no law against it unless you're in the army. I feel fine about myself, though others say there's something wrong."
"I've never thought about what I think about Lesbianism. It's just something I've always done, like my mum getting married. I'm glad I'm alive now with these feelings and not 70 or 80 years ago or even 30 or 40 years ago."
"I think Lesbianism is alright. It depends on my mood and what's happened to me recently [but at the moment] I feel very positive about it. I think lesbianism suits me better than being straight. I'm a lot happier than I was. Everything that's going on is better for me now that I'm not being screwed up about being lesbian."
Whilst there is a Lesbian Line in the next town (eight miles away), Which provides a support group for Lesbians, the group tends to consist of older Lesbians who are just coming out; the same is true of another Line and support group some 15 miles away. There are no support groups specifically for young lesbians within a radius of 30 miles. Only six of the participants had ever used a Lesbian Line or Gay Switchboard (there are no Lesbian Lines or Switchboards in the local telephone directory).
Only two had attended groups in a nearby city (25 miles away) but one of them no longer lived in the same, small, town.
Altogether, only six had had access to lesbian activities, bookshops, or groups: two of the older lesbians (one did not have any access when she was young); two of the young lesbians, who had since left the areas where they grew up and had lived in a city; the fifth had relatives living in a city where there is an alternative bookshop; and the sixth had been involved in a women's group. Many of the participants commented on the difficulties of growing up in a small town where there are no facilities for lesbians:
"Everybody knows each other. Everybody knew even before I knew.t clubs and they wouldn't let me in. On the market they stare at me and talk about me. All this works on your mind, you become paranoid that everyone is talking about you."
"[Here] there's a set thing you do: school, job or A levels, get married to someone from the same town, have a baby - preferably when married - and it's better to marry someone your mum knows. If anybody does anything different they're the talk of the town."
"Lesbianism isn't as much brought out in a small place as it is in a city. In Manchester it's more free. It's okay about being gay, walking down the street holding hands. You wouldn't do that here. Oh, my god. They'd do you. You'd have some idiot somewhere saying 'Fucking lesbians over there.' They'd be like a lynch party at it. It makes it hard work as well because there aren't many places to go. I feel annoyed. It's alright for hets, all the pubs are for them. They've somewhere to meet everybody. They walk round the streets with their arms around each other yet we can't 'cos we're lesbian. It's not the done thing. It annoys me intensely."
"I come from a small, country, place, now I live in a city. The difference is so great it is unbelievable. There was no support, nothing in my town and similar places people are so narrow-minded; they don't ever have to think about the word lesbian, like they don't experience black people. It's as if they're cut off completely. It's more difficult because you're more isolated and lonely and can't get information from anywhere apart from Lesbian Lines like in London, which is really expensive to phone. If you're young and lesbian and in a city you can get hold of magazines, there's the 'scene,' lesbian groups, coffee bars, whereas there's nothing in Cumbria...It makes me angry and pissed off that there's nothing for lesbians in Cumbria, that the people in authority, the youth service, etc, just don't want to know about it; they aren't interested in young lesbians. They just don't want to know."
EFFECTS OF DISCRIMINATION AND ISOLATION
The combined effects of isolation, discrimination, lack of access to positive information and to peer support, rejection, and lack of adequate support, contribute to the appalling situations young lesbians find themselves in:-
LOCAL SUPPORT AGENCIES
A major part of Stage I was to find out what specific support - if any - both statutory and voluntary organisations offered young lesbians in this area. Thirty-seven agencies were contacted including schools, colleges, youth service, health service, probation service, social services, minority ethnic Support Services, Citizens Advice Bureau, Samaritans, Well Women Centre, Lesbian Lines in nearby towns, community alcohol and drugs teams, and the County Youth Adviser for sex education.
A few agencies responded immediately and were supportive of the Project, others took several telephone calls, whilst eleven did not respond, including the County Youth Adviser.
Not surprisingly, none of the agencies offered specific support for young lesbians (and thereby showed their ignorance of the needs of young lesbians). We were pleasantly surprised that some agencies were willing to acknowledge their ignorance and invited suggestions as to how they could be more helpful to young lesbians. At the same time, however, this was a very painful exercise in that we experienced a great amount of lesbian-hatred.
Of the nine participants who had attempted suicide, six had been hospitalised after their attempts. Most said the help they received was not useful:
"I attempted suicide and woke up the next day in hospital...They didn't do anything for me there. They did absolutely nothing... I went to my doctor, he offered me tablets....I had a counsellor once, she never made me feel any better..."
"Some doctor woke me up at two in the morning. He's giving it `Talk to me.' I said I didn't want to talk to him. He said `Tell me why you've done it then I can go back to bed.' I told him to go back to fucking bed, I didn't want to talk to him anyway. ... The social worker came. She was alright. She was nice. I had a good talk with her and told her about the things that were bothering me... [But I didn't mention my sexuality]."
"I've had counselling with a psychiatrist, therapists and psychologists from being 29 years. I thought it was crap."
Only two of the participants are out to their doctors:
"When I was going through a bad time I went to my doctor and told him I was feeling full of anger, that I was frightened I would do something. He didn't do anything for me. I didn't tell him I was gay, I didn't feel that I could talk to him about it."
U.S. research shows that so-called `caring' agencies more often than not make the situation of young, vulnerable, lesbians even worse. Paul Gibson has some strong words to say about 'professional help':
"Perhaps no risk factor is as insidious or unique to the suicidal behaviour of gay and lesbian youth than receiving professional help. The large number of gay youth who have had contact with mental health and social work services during their turbulent adolescent years would seem to be a positive indicator for improving their stability and future outlook. This is sadly not often the case. Many helping professionals still refuse to recognise or accept a homosexual orientation in youth despite growing evidence that sexual orientation is formed by adolescence. They refuse to support a homosexual orientation in youth despite the fact that homosexuality is no longer viewed as a mental disorder. They continue to insist that homosexual feelings are just a passing 'phase', while making the goal of treatment arresting or changing those feelings and experiences."
Six of the participants had been involved with Social Services, virtually all having negative experiences:
"When I told my male social worker in hospital that I was lesbian he said that if I still feel like this when I am 21 to come back and tell him."
"I had a male social worker when I went into hospital after my breakdown. I didn't like him. I was out to him but he didn't say anything."
"In care they tried to make me a lady, they said I hadn't to do things. On my fourteenth birthday I got nothing but mak-up, skirts, high heels, and the same for Christmas. I had to sit and write about trees and football because I liked them so that I'd get fed up with them. They kept me locked up in my bedroom. ...(Years later): My social worker suggested I had this problem, that I needed some help, that I had to get some professional help. She said she'd get help about learning how to be a young lady and the things you need to know about being a young lady. Last time I saw her we were arguing about this. I left and then had the accident (I rode my bike into a car). I felt violent. I always do when I have a row with anyone. I told her to fuck off. I know about being self destructive. I felt angry and violent but I could get into trouble if I hit someone. So I hurt myself, then I won't get sued. It makes my anger go away so I don't hit someone but it doesn't make it go away."
"A male social worker tried to counsel me once but it didn't work, it was no use at all."
One young lesbian, who initially agreed to be interviewed but later changed her mind, worked with young offenders. She suggested that 80% of the young women she worked with were lesbian and that the underlying cause of their problems was living in a Heterosexist society. She had tried to discuss this with her seniors who were not willing to take any action.
Only four of the participants had attended mainstream youth service provision, a fifth had attended a voluntary youth club. None of them had ever discussed sexuality at the groups.
Two of the young lesbians had been involved with girls groups:
"I used to go to girls groups. I didn't like them. They talked about men and when you'd get older how you'd settle down, get married, have children. They never mentioned lesbianism."
"For over two years there was talk of setting up a Young Lesbian Group but it never came to anything because the workers were too busy. ... I didn't feel lonely or isolated whilst involved with the youth service. People were great but there was only me in each group. I felt comfortable as a lesbian because I knew people closely. I just didn't have any gay contact. Other members of the groups used to ask me why I was gay? How did I know I was gay? Why didn't I go out with any fellas? ... I didn't talk to anyone about my feelings. I knew quite a few youth workers but I didn't talk to them about much. I've never talked to anyone as much as I have talked to you. Gayness is taboo in the youth service. One worker said `You need to be careful.' She was telling me to keep my sexuality low."
The Homophobic attitudes of most of the youth service (voluntary and statutory) were clearly revealed by their actions during the Research Project: none of the voluntary youth organisations responded to the questionnaire and it was one of the voluntary groups who contacted the local media complaining about the Project. He was quoted in the paper as saying:
"I am concerned that poll tax payers' money is being spent on this. There is no way I'm going to put this poster up. We have girls between 12 and 18. They are at a very impressionable age, and I don't think they have made their minds up. Once you are beyond 21 or say 25 you know, but I don't think these youngsters really know."
Whilst the chair of the County Education Committee said:
"It seems the poster was the idea of an employee on a temporary contract in the youth and community service who is undertaking legitimate research with national backing into the needs of a minority group. I have now asked the chief education officer to take responsibility for ensuring this project, which is to be completed next month, is carried out under greater supervision. I believe the poster and a letter which went out were wide open to misinterpretation. The chief education officer has been instructed that there should be no further publication of the material."
We were summoned to County Hall to be told, by the County Youth & Community Officer, that he was my new supervisor; that henceforth he must see everything we distributed. He then proceeded to ask insulting questions which, he maintained, he had been told to ask by the Chief Education Officer and County Councillors:
'Should a lesbian counsel a young woman 'questioning her sexuality?'
'Young women questioning their sexualty must be counselled by professional counsellors who have been trained to counsel. What are your qualifications?'
'How do we work with the group?'
'How do we meet the young women?'
'Was there any reason why we could not put a bottom age range of 16 on the poster?'
He maintained that if a young woman was not sure of her sexuality she should not consult a lesbian but someone who was more objective, that lesbians have a vested interest in such young women becoming lesbian.
With regard to Youth Programmes, Paul Gibson states:
"There is a critical lack of programme resources for gay and lesbian youth. Many social and recreational programmes for youth make no effort to incorporate gay young people into their services. Few programmes will accept or support a gay adolescent in their sexual orientation. Agency polices tacitly or explicitly forbid the hiring of openly gay and lesbian staff, denying gay youth access to positive adult gay role models. Homophobic remarks and attitudes by youth and staff in many of these programmes go unrebutted. Consequently, gay youth do not use many of the youth service resources available to them or soon leave if they do. This increases their social isolation and alienation from their peers."
When asked whether they knew of any counselling or advice agencies where they could go to talk about problems, in particular about their lesbianism, eight participants said they did not know of any such agency.
Well Women Centre
Three mentioned the Well Women Centre but said that they would not go there:
"I have thought about counselling and nearly got to the Well Women Centre but I turned back. I walked up the street. I was near enough there. I don't know why but I didn't go. I just thought `I can't, I can't.'"
Citizens Advice Bureau
Nine said they would not go to the Citizens Advice Bureau but three said they would:
"I would go to the CAB. I went to get the address of the Gay Christians. They were nice. They gave me an address in London."
"I wouldn't go to the CAB, I'd rather use the telephone. It doesn't appeal to me. I don't use them for anything."
"I would use the CAB. I contacted them over the police business. I didn't say that I was lesbian but I think they could tell. They were very good. If I was discriminated against I would go to the CAB because you can see them face to face."
"I wouldn't contact the CAB. They don't do anything for you. My friend went."
Eleven said they would not contact the Samaritans whereas two said they would:
"I wouldn't contact the Samaritans. They're a waste of time. Do-gooders. When I was 16 I contacted them. I `phoned and made an appointment. I was having a rough time at home. I was there an hour and a half. I got the brush off: `Go home and think about it.' I was trying to sort out my feelings. I had no-one to talk to. I was getting hassle from my step-father because I only ever took females home, never men. He said `Bloody queer, you are.' We had a row."
"I wouldn't contact the Samaritans, you have to be really desperate, you'd need to be thinking of killing yourself and, anyway, I wouldn't ring them because I'm gay."
"I wouldn't contact the Samaritans because I don't imagine they would be supportive. If I'm really upset I don't want to be worrying about whether they'll be funny."
"I wouldn't contact the Samaritans now, but I have done in the past. I needed to talk to somebody but she didn't seem to understand about sexuality."
Lesbian Lines or Gaylines
Eight said they would not ring a Lesbian Line/Gayline (even if they knew how to get hold of their number), two said that they would contact them now but they wouldn't have done in the past; five said they would ring them.
"I wouldn't feel comfortable talking to a non-lesbian about a personal problem because they wouldn't understand, they've not been through the same situation. They'd fob you off."
Community Alcohol Team
One of the participants had experienced counselling from the Community Alcohol Team:
"I've had alcohol problems since I was 18. I was getting help, from the Community Alcohol Team, but not now. It did nothing for me. As soon as he'd been I'd go out to the pub. I never talked to him about my sexuality, it was never mentioned. I didn't talk about the situation about why I'd got into drinking, to blot everything out that was happening around me, all the troubles. I never mentioned anything about Ellen. We talked about general problems, about the mortgage. He knew I'd split up in a relationship but he didn't know what sex. I saw him for six months, he never raised sexuality."
We were not surprised at her experience because when we had visited the Co-ordinator of the Project he was particularly ignorant about the needs of young lesbians. He insisted that for a teenager being Lesbian was only a phase; that adolescents question their sexuality and that he would not want them to label themselves Lesbian and then not be able to get out of the label. He said he would be careful about referring on to other agencies, especially for young females: "It is a stage of growth they are going through, maybe later they might find that they are not Lesbian." He later admitted that sexuality was "the most hidden issue."
Ten of the participants suffered from stress-related illnesses: migraine (6), asthma (2), allergies (5), back problems (5), blood pressure (2), nervous eczema (5), ulcer/stomach problems (4).
Eleven had eating problems: over-eating (7, 3 of whom overate and then vomited), 8 under-ate (3 of whom also overate); one had anorexia.
Only two of the participants had ever had a cervical smear.
Five said they examined their breasts.
Only two of the participants are currently out to their doctors.
YOUNG LESBIAN GROUP
As part of Stage I we established a Young Lesbian Group which we ran from November 1990 to April 1991. For most of this time the Group was voluntary. After the media `disclosure' of the Research Project we were summoned to County Hall (see Youth Service). We agreed that the only way we could continue the Group was on a voluntary basis; that way we would not be subject to the constraints Lancashire Youth & Community Service were imposing. We felt that it was impossible to run a young lesbian Group under these conditions, which were:
Contacts for the Group came via the Research Project and the publicity circulated for the Research Project. The original idea was to follow-up those young lesbians who had been identified either as potential interviewees or those who had taken part in the Research but who had not attended the Group; possibly conducting one-to-one sessions until they had the confidence to attend the Group. Without funding, however, this was not possible. Three members of the Group had been interviewed for the Research Project. Two new members came via publicity previously distributed for the Research; we also had a further three enquiries regarding young lesbians as a result of this publicity. We could not,
however, follow these up.
Information for the Research Project had already been distributed. The original idea was to follow up contact with those agencies who had responded positively, i.e. schools, colleges, training agency, hospital, doctors, social worker, youth workers; distribute information about the Group and visit the agencies to give talks, etc.
With the withdrawal of support from Lancashire County Council, especially the comments made by the Chair of the Education Committee, we felt that the entire Project was undermined: All the hard work we had done contacting agencies was to no avail.
Whilst the Group continued on a voluntary basis until April, during which time we devised a leaflet, a poster; we could not develop the group without funding.
The age range of members was 15 to 25. We were not willing to place a lower age range on the Group because we are aware that the younger a lesbian is aware of her Lesbianism, and is without support, the more at risk she is of suicide.
Conducting the questionnaire made us realise the need to continue one-to-one counselling for some of the participants. To some extent this happened with the Group members but not with those other young lesbians we had interviewed who did not attend the Group. We were fully aware, however, of the need for this service. Since the end of the Project we have heard that one of the interviewees has again attempted suicide and was nearly successful. As far as we are aware, she still does not have any support.
Most of the early sessions were taken up deciding what everyone wanted from the Group and agreeing a Group Contract. We asked the Members:
What do you want to know more about? They responded:-
The Contract was based on a similar exercise, asking Members what they wanted from the group and what they didn't want:
Want: more lesbians to join, trust, enjoyment, relaxation, action, share experiences, share responsibilities for group, to understand what it's like to be a young lesbian, lesbian talk, friendship.
Don' Want: apathy, avoiding issues, put downs/insults, lesbians to not listen to each other, homework (3)!
Music: Many of the sessions included music: playing the guitar and singing, including learning lesbian songs.
Coming Out: We watched a video from the BBC1 Advice Shop on `Coming Out' then discussed it. The general feeling was that it was `crap'! The following week we shared our own coming out stories, after reading hand-outs of other young lesbian's experiences.
Some of the main problems to come up included housing, alcohol, smoking, suicide, relationships, children, isolation, transport and, of course, discrimination, particularly given the response of the media to the Research Project.
After a lot of ground work established whilst conducting Stage I of the Research Project: contacting young lesbians and local agencies; finding an appropriate venue; and establishing a Young Lesbian Group, things were ready to take off. There was great potential for building on the work we had already done. Ultimately, however, we had to stop running the Group because we had no support and we could not afford the costs involved.
Due to lack of funding we were unable to pursue Stages II and III. However, the research did result in us establishing LYSIS (Lesbian Youth Support Information Service) which was to run for the next seven years and supported thousands of isolated young lesbians around Britain.
© Lesbian Information Service/Jan Bridget 1991