EFFECTS OF MULTI-OPPRESSION ON LESBIAN AND GAY YOUTH
The effects of internal and external oppression on lesbian and gay youth include:
low self-esteem, self hate, depression, anxiety, suicide and other emotional health issues - lesbian and gay youth are 2 to 6 times more likely to attempt suicide than heterosexual youth and may comprise up to 30% of completed youth suicides (Barbeler, 1992; Bell & Weinberg, 1978; Bradford & Ryan, 1988; Carmen & Blaine, 1970; D'Augelli & Hershberger, 1993; Gibson, 1989; Hammelman, 1993; Harry, 1989; Hunter, 1990; Jay & Young, 1979; Kourany, 1987; Kremer & Rifkin, 1969; Kruks, 1991; Maltsberger, 1993; Martin & Lyon, 1972; Remafedi, Farrow & Deisher, 1991; Roesler & Deisher, 1972; Saghir & Robins, 1973; Saghir, Robins Walbran & Gentry, 1970; Savin-Williams, 1994; Schneider, Farberow & Kruks, 1989; Uribe & Harbeck, 1991);
alcohol and drug misuse - a third of lesbians and gays seriously misuse alcohol, this usually begins in adolescence (Diamond & Wilsnack, 1978; Grossman, 1994; Hammelman, 1993; Remafedi, 1991; Rich et al, 1986; Rofes, 1983; Saghir & Robins, 1973; Saunders & Valente, 1987; Sears, 1987; Uribe & Harbeck, 1991);
isolation from society, family, friends and other homosexuals, especially peers (Gibson, 1989; Kourany, 1987; Morrow, 1993; Uribe & Harbeck, 1992);
pressure to conform, rejection from family and friends (D'Augelli & Hershberger, 1993; Hunter, 1990; Hunter & Schaecher, 1987; Kourany, 1987; Rotheram-Borus, Rosario & Koopman, 1991; Savin-Williams, 1994; Schneider et al 1989);
difficulties in coming to terms with sexual orientation (Gibson, 1989; D'Augelli & Hershberger, 1993; Kourany, 1987; Remafedi, 1987a; Remafedi et al, 1991; Roesler & Deisher, 1972);
violence and harassment - victimisation rates are four times greater for homosexual than for other youth (Boxer et al, 1992; D'Augelli, 1992; Hunter, 1990; Martin & Hetrick, 1988; Savin-Williams, 1994);
isolation and problems at school, truancy and drop out from school (Berrill, 1990, Comstock, 1991; D'Augelli, 1991; Gibson, 1989; Hunter & Schaecher, 1987; Remafedi, 1987b; Remafedi et al, 1991; Savin-Williams, 1994; Sears, 1991; Uribe & Harbeck, 1992);
homelessness and the risk of prostitution (Gibson, 1989; Remafedi, 1987; Remafedi et al, 1991; Rofes, 1989);
promiscuity, unwanted pregnancies and S.T.D./HIV infection (Erwin, 1993; Gibson, 1989; Harry, 1989; Rofes, 1989);
relationship problems (Bell & Weinberg, 1978; D'Augelli & Hershberger, 1993; Kourany, 1987; Rich et al, 1986);
lack of support/inappropriate support from professionals (Hetrick & Martin, 1987; Gibson, 1989).
Not all young lesbians and gays experience all of these problems but the majority experience some. It is lesbian and gay youth who are more isolated who are most at risk. These include:
* those who have not yet come out and made contact with lesbian and gay groups;
* those who are aware of their 'difference' at an early age (D'Augelli & Hershberbger, 1993);
* those who do not conform to gender stereotypes (Harry, 1983, 1986; Remafedi, et al, 1991);
* those who grow up in rural areas and small towns where there is no lesbian or gay visibility and support (Gibson, 1989; Rothblum, 1990);
* those who belong to other minority groups, for example black and minority ethnic lesbians and gays, working class lesbians and gays, and, probably, disabled lesbians and gays (Bradford & Ryan, 1989; Hunter, 1990; Schneider, Farberow, Kruks, 1989); and
* young lesbians of all minority groups (most of whom will be non-feminist) who are more invisible and isolated.
Lesbian and gay youth who also hold conservative religious views and those who have been sexually abused - the effects of sexual abuse are similar to the effects of homophobia (see Hendessi, 1992), are also highly vulnerable.
A brief overview of the different experiences of lesbian and gay youth suggests that young lesbians are likely to be a higher risk for suicide than young gay men. For example, young lesbians are more isolated (Gibson, 1989), more closetted (Bell & Weinberg, 1978), have fewer role models (D'Augelli, 1989b), experience greater pressure to conform to heterosexuality (Muller, 1988; Trenchard & Warren, 1984; Uribe & Harbeck, 1992), have less support (Trenchard & Warren, 1984), are more likely to abuse alcohol (Saghir & Robins, 1973), are more likely to be sexually abused (Brand, Rothblum & Solomon, 1992) although a significant number of young gay men have also been sexually abused (Hickson, et al, 1994), are more likely to be suppressing their sexual orientation (Bell & Weinberg, 1978, Trenchard & Warren, 1984) and, because of the greater dependence on their partners combined with isolation, are likely to have greater problems when a relationship ends (Bell & Weinberg, 1978; Tuller, 1978).
All other things being equal, i.e. class, race, ethnicity, age, disability, young lesbians internalise two lots of messages that tell them they are inferior - as homosexuals and as females. Young gay men will only internalise one layer of inferiority as a homosexual alongside the messages of superiority as a male, as well as gaining external privileges for being a man. Having said this, sissies will gain less benefit from masculine superiority both internally and externally (although the media - through portrayal of sympathetic 'camp' gay characters and 'feminine' lesbian characters - will be creating greater acceptance for camp gays than for butch lesbians).
There are more young gay men, on the other hand, who are aware of their sexual orientation at an earlier age (Camden, 1991; Bell & Weinberg, 1978, Trenchard & Warren, 1984) which has been identified as a high risk for suicide (D'Augelli & Hershberger, 1993), young gay men are highly vulnerable to HIV/AIDs and experience greater violence and harassment (Rivers, 1995; Trenchard & Warren, 1984). There is evidence to suggest that the AIDS epidemic has increased suicide among young gay men, including young gay men who, because of low self-esteem, do not practice safe sex, contract HIV and die as a result of AIDS (Francis, Wikstrom, Alcena, 1985; Glass, 1988; Kelleer, Schliefer, Bartlett, Johnson, 1988; Mazurk, Tierney, Tadriff, 1988; Rotheram-Borus, Rosario, Koopman, 1995).
The AIDS epidemic is a more recent issue which is further affecting the invisibility of young lesbians, i.e. greater emphasis is being placed on the needs of young gay men; there has been a significant rise in research about young gay men and HIV and there has been an accompanying rise in levels of support through HIV projects and health promotion work.
It could be that the real level of attempted suicide and other mental health problems among lesbians is much higher than research suggests. Bell & Weinberg (1978) found that 38% of homosexual males compared with 5% of heterosexual males had attempted suicide while 42% of the lesbian women compared with 26% of the heterosexual women had attempted suicide. These findings are not surprising given that rates of depression are generally twice as high for women (Rothblum, 1990). It is likely that a significant number of women who attempt suicide will be lesbians who are hiding or suppressing their sexuality. The different rates of out gay men to out lesbians (approximately 3:1) supports this hypothesis, as does the fact that more lesbians get married (Bell & Weinberg, 1978; Camden, 1991; Trenchard & Warren, 1984). This, combined with the greater visibility of lesbianism in the last twenty to thirty years, could explain the rise in older women coming out as lesbian later in life (Hite, 1987) and the phenomenon of feminist-lesbianism when there is nothing similar for men.
The snowball method of contacting participants was used. A small, northern, town where there was no lesbian/women's 'community' or visible support for lesbians was selected and a working class lesbian, who was supportive of the research, was identified. She made some initial enquiries with individual lesbians and facilitated contact; in turn they made further suggestions. Initially only six lesbians were interviewed (although contact was made with many more) because of which the search was extended to the next town which, whilst being a large town, did not have any Lesbian or Gay Switchboards or other support services for lesbians; the only 'visible' lesbians were those found in the gay pubs. Flyers were also distributed around gay pubs in nearby towns as well as through statutory and voluntary agencies. A further seven lesbians were contacted and interviewed as a result. To bring the total up to 20, four young lesbians who contacted L.I.S. for support agreed to be interviewed and a Young Lesbian Youth Group in a nearby city was approached which resulted in a further three participants.
An extensive questionnaire was developed utilising other questionnaires and the experiences of running Lesbian Information Service. For example, a pilot study concerning the housing needs of lesbians in Leicester (Bridget, 1988) revealed: 86% of the participants had suffered from depression; 43% had attempted suicide; 43% had experienced alcohol-related problems; 36% had experienced drug-related problems; lesbians experienced particular housing problems in relation to their sexual orientation, including harassment, homelessness and leaving home early; whilst hostels existed for other minority women, there was no non-discriminatory hostel provision for lesbians in Leicester. Observation revealed some of the issues facing those lesbians who were involved with the LIS groups, who were mainly young, working class and non-feminist lesbians; these included:- loneliness; isolation; physical and sexual abuse; alcohol related problems; homelessness; depression; suicide attempts; harassment from neighbours; anxiety about being a 'deviant'; tension and fear in relation to family and work i.e. the constant need to tell people about one's sexuality whilst fearing rejection; attitudes of colleagues at work; ableism and abuse which disabled lesbians are subjected to; poor services provided by the local authority, agencies, institutions, G.P.'s.
Other, relevant, surveys were utilised, for example, the U.S. Lesbian Health Care Survey (Bradford & Ryan, 1988). To ensure that a multi-oppression approach was followed questions on ageism, racism, classism, ableism, sizeism as well as homophobia were included. Using the questionniare semi-structured, in-depth, interviews were conducted by myself and Sandra Lucille. The interviews lasted between two and eight hours, depending on the participants; some took place over a few days. Most of the interviews were conducted in the homes of the participants or in my own home; one was conducted at a youth centre, another at a gay centre and a third at a lesbian centre. However, it was felt that these latter interviews were not as successful as those conducted in more congenial surroundings.
The majority of the participants (16) lived and grew up in towns and rural areas of Lancashire, Cumbria, and Yorkshire where there was no support for lesbians.
Seventeen of the participants were aged 25 years and below, the remaining three having identified as lesbian since their youth (13 knew about their sexual orientation at the age of 13 or below). Eleven thought that lesbianism was innate, four disagreed and four said they didn't know. Thirteen are working class, three are black, six have disabilities and twelve are, or have been, fat; four are mothers; 13 did not conform to gender stereotypes of femininity, i.e. were tomboys. The majority left school at 16, one was still at school, two had a degree. Ten of the participants were unemployed, several worked in factories; two held a professional qualification.
The findings included:-
* high levels of depression (85%);
* periods of anxiety (45%);
* 70% attempted suicide, of the remainder, 3 had contemplated suicide;
this included a total of 41 attempts;
at least 3 have made further, serious, attempts.
* 55% abused themselves in other ways, e.g.
cutting up with razor blades,
banging fist against the wall,
putting fist through window,
biting chunks out of self,
throwing self against wall/down stairs.
* 55% had bad eating patterns or disorders - over-eating, under-deating, anorexia, bulimia.
* all but three used alcohol and 50% had serious alcohol problems e.g.
passing out under the influence of alcohol,
hospitalisation for drink problem,
suicide attempts under the influence of alcohol and drugs,
getting arrested for drunkeness;
* 50% had used illegal drugs;
* 65% smoked cigarettes;
* 55% had been homeless;
* 50% had been sexually abused or raped.
* 45% had experienced heterosexual sex (apart from sexual abuse and rape)
* 55% felt lonely and isolated at school; 30% having experienced personal prejudice at school because of their lesbianism.
* 40% had been badly treated by an older lesbian/woman.
* 30% had been in trouble with the police, one had been in prison.
* 90% had been brought up with a religion.
* One had been a prostitute.
These were VERY ISOLATED, MULTI-OPPRESSED, young lesbians, who usually slip through the research net. But experience of running LYSIS for over four years suggests that this situation is repeated elsewhere in Britain where there is no support.
Alongside the initial stage of the qualitative study a survey of what support, if any, was available to young lesbians in that part of Lancashire was conducted. Over 40 voluntary and statutory agencies were contacted, none of which offered support specific to the needs of young lesbians.
© Jan Bridget 1996