HIDDEN BUT NOT FORGOTTEN:
LESBIAN AND GAY YOUTH
LESBIAN AND GAY YOUTH AND MENTAL HEALTH
The last decade has seen a significant increase in research concerning lesbian and gay youth in the U.S.A., much of which has identified lesbian and gay youth as being vulnerable to mental health problems including depression, anxiety, suicide (attempts and completions), self-harming behaviours, alcohol and drug misuse.(1) It is estimated that lesbian and gay youth are between 2 and 6 times more likely than heterosexual youth to attempt suicide and may comprise up to 30% of completed youth suicides. (Gibson, 1989; Harry, 1989)
There has been no comparable research in Britain. However, what little research has been conducted suggests that the situation is likely to be the same if not worse here.(2)
In my qualitative study of twenty lesbians (1993) I found that 85% had experienced long periods of depression and 40% periods of anxiety; 70% had attempted suicide, in all there were 41 attempts; 55% self-harmed in other ways including cutting up, banging head/fist against the wall, biting chunks out of self, throwing self down stairs; 50% had serious alcohol problems and 50% had used illegal drugs. Fifty-five percent had experienced being homeless, ranging from having to sleep on a friends floor to being thrown out by their parents.(3)
It is not homosexuality per se that makes lesbian and gay youth vulnerable to mental health problems but homophobia - the recognised or unrecognised fear or hatred of homosexuals or homosexuality that is present in both heterosexuals and homosexuals (Slater, 1988). Everyone is taught to be homophobic.
Having a positive self-esteem is crucial for good mental health; if self-esteem is damaged then a person is vulnerable to many things, not least to poor mental health.
It is during childhood, especially adolescence, when self-esteem develops. Most minority youth develop a damaged self-esteem as a result of internalising society's negative messages about their minority status, which they pick up from peers, school and the media.
For some, for example minority ethnic youth, the effects of these messages can be offset by parents and other family members who act as positive role models. Lesbian and gay youth, however, are usually brought up in a completely heterosexual environment; it is those people who are nearest and dearest to them, i.e. parents, siblings and other family members, who do the most damage. Rather than challenging the messages of society that homosexuals are perverted, sick and sinful, family members often cruelly emphasise these messages, especially if they suspect their child might be gay.
It is those gay and lesbian youngsters who do not fit the stereotype image of masculinity/femininity (sissies and tomboys) who are more easily identifiable as 'potential' homosexuals. At the same time, it is usually sissies and tomboys who become aware of their sexual orientation at an early age (on average around the age of eleven); research indicates that a same-sex preference is typically present at a primitive level as early as age 5 with recognition becoming clear by adolescence (Slater, 1988).
Those young people who become aware of their sexuality at an early age are most vulnerable to attempting suicide. This is hardly surprising because they have longer periods when they are totally alone, without support, without accurate information to challenge the harmful messages about 'being queer' which surrounds them. A friend of mine recently told me about an 11 year old boy who killed himself. He was being bullied at school because of his 'gentle' appearance. In the few weeks before he killed himself he had been asking his mother questions about being gay. Rivers (4) found that 40% of the lesbians and gay men who completed his bullying questionnaire had attempted suicide; he also discovered (Rivers, 1995) that 49% remembered being openly victimized by teachers because of their perceived homosexuality.
Young lesbians are especially isolated and without support which means that they are more vulnerable to mental health problems: several surveys have found higher levels of attempted suicide among lesbians (Saghir, Robins, Walbran & Gentry, 1970; Saghir & Robins, 1973; Bell & Weinberg, 1978; Hunter, 1990; Herdt & Boxer, 1993).
Almost all lesbian and gay youth feel they are the only one when they first realise their homosexuality. Until they 'come out' to themselves and to others and take steps to find other homosexuals they remain isolated. Rarely do they know of any other young lesbians or gays and, if they do, they are usually aware of the name-calling first, such as 'faggot,' 'poofter,' 'queer,' 'battyman,' 'dyke,' 'lezzie,' and so on.
Some begin to search for information about homosexuality only to find old books (and some not so old) that still describe homosexuality as a disease. Homosexuality is seldom discussed in a positive fashion in school and accurate information is rarely available in school libraries.
LESBIAN AND GAY YOUTH AND HOMELESSNESS
Some lesbian and gay youth are thrown out of home when they come out to, or are found out by, their parents:
"I was thrown out of home. My mum rang the police and said they wanted me out of the house." (Quinn, 1991)
Eleven percent of the London Gay Teenage Project (1984) had been thrown out of their home; of the 327 enquiries received by Stonewall Housing Association, a London-based scheme for lesbian and gay youth, between October 1989 and January 1990, 18% had been thrown out while the Leeds Accommodation Forum found that 25% of the respondents in their survey had similarly been expelled (Lemos & Crane, 1993).
Many young homosexuals do not wait to be thrown out but, being painfully aware of the attitudes of their parents towards homosexuality, they either run away (Durby, 1994; Mercier & Berger, 1989,; Remafedi, 1987; Savin-Williams, 1994) or leave home at the earliest possible moment, often when they are unprepared for independence and without support.
"I lived at my parent's home when I came out. There were lots of family arguments. I never told my mum but she knew, she kept pressurising me about the friends I went around with. We rowed a lot. She kept asking me if I was lesbian. I said I didn't know. I didn't want to leave home but felt I had to. I left home and moved in with my partner." (Bridget, 1993)
"I left home when I was 17 cause of my parents and my brother really - they guessed I might be gay, and my dad used to beat me about and stuff. My brother did as well, he used to get heavy with me until things got real bad, so I had to go. You know, they didn't want no fag in their house - they thought I as mad and stuff." (Quinn, 1991)
There are large clusters of homeless lesbian and gay teenagers in cities where there is a sizeable lesbian and gay population (Durby, 1994).
Forty-five per cent of the lesbian and gay applicants to Stonewall Housing Association said that harassment by landlords/neighbours was a factor in their homelessness (Dibblin, 1991). The Leeds Accommodation Forum survey found that over 50% of their respondents had experienced harassment including verbal abuse, dirty looks, damage to property, threats, threats to children, graffiti, eviction, physical attacks. Few felt able to report the harassment (Lemos & Crane, 1993). All of the participants in a pilot study concerning lesbians and housing in Leicester (Bridget, 1988) had experienced harassment from landords and neighbours:
"Hassle from my present landlord includes shit on my doorstep, banging on my door late at night, verbal abuse. His total anti-lesbian sentiment came out in things that he said such as 'lowering the tone of the neighbourhood,' 'perverts having strip shows.'"
Whilst there are insufficient hostel places for homeless young people in general, those that do exist are usually unsuitable for lesbian and gay youth (Bridget, 1988; Greeley, 1994; Mallon, 1992a, 1992b; Taylor, 1994; Vergara, 1984). Some young lesbians and gays will not even approach hostels for fear of further harassment whilst for those who do, many experience abuse and are forced to leave.
"I think what they really should do in Coventry is open up a lesbian hostel. Because everywhere we go girls don't like it, they go mad about it and men look as if 'oh aren't we good enough for you?' The last hostel I was in was the only sound one, where they were OK about the way I am. One of the workers is a lesbian; we get on with her like a house on fire. But we also get on with the other one as well. It's a really good atmosphere. You walk in and there's someone saying hey Claire you want a fag? You go to any of the other hostels, it's oh god those two dirty dogs."
"I was brought up in a childrens home in Leeds, and I went to live in a hostel when I was 16 - it was mixed men and women and I was the only gay person there and it was pretty difficult. I got a lot of abuse and stuff. So I left there and went to London cause I was homeless in Leeds and I thought I'd go down there cause there was prospects. I couldn't get anywhere so I just ended back up on the streets." (Quinn, 1991)
It is hardly surprising, therefore, that U.S. sources, cited in Durby (1994), suggest that between one-third and a half of all homeless youth identify as lesbian, gay or bisexual. In Britain we are about 20 years behind the U.S.A. with regard to research and provision. Nevertheless, the situation here is likely to be similar.
In 1989 the London Lesbian and Gay Switchboard received 10,800 calls concerning housing; they estimated 60% of the callers were homeless. The Camden Research Project (1991) discovered that 51% of the 98 lesbian and gay participants had been homeless. Quinn (1991) found that 47% of 100 lesbian and gay youth who took part in a survey in Leeds had been or were currently homeless.
It is important to point out that Trenchard & Warren (1984) and the Camden Research Project (1991) found there were higher levels of homelessness among lesbians than among gay men, the latter also finding that more lesbians had suffered harassment in or around their homes and that lesbians were more dependent on public housing.
Substance Abuse, Prostitution and HIV
Savin-Williams (1994) points out that if homeless lesbian and gay youth do not find support that meets their needs, within a couple of weeks of arrival on the street "drugs, prostitution, pregnancy, criminal activity, and HIV will take them."
Whilst prostitution and survival sex occur among both male and female sexual minorities, as Durby (1994) notes, most of the research has focussed on male homosexuals. This is also true of provision. For example, the Streetwise project in London is aimed at young men aged 25 years and below who sell sex; whilst it is not targetted specifically at young gay men, the majority of their users may identify as gay. There are no similar projects that target young women.
Most adolescents who engage in prostitution or survival sex are runaway and homeless youth, of whom 25% - 40% are estimated to be lesbian and gay. These youth are highly vulnerable to sexually transmitted diseases including HIV; one survey estimated that 12% - 20% of all homeless youth are HIV positive (Durby, 1994).
As Durby (1994) notes:
Drugs lessen the subjective pain of being alone and rejected, they decrease the sense of worthlessness many youth report, and they reduce inhibitions and guilt, which then enables the youth to engage in sexual activity for money despite how s/he might otherwise feel about prostitution. Finally, many drugs, particularly crack, are inexpensive, easily obtained, and both highly and quickly addicting.
In a recent British survey, Armstrong (1996) found that a quarter of the 161 homeless young peoplewho took part in her survey had attempted suicide. Clearly, homeless young people experience stresses that make them vulnerable to mental ill health, in the same way that lesbian and gay youth, without support, are also vulnerable to mental health problems, including suicide. The similarity between both groups, as the above quote points out, is the pain of loneliness, rejection and a feeling of worthlessness.
Given the estimation that between a third and a half of all homeless youth are lesbian or gay, it is likely that many of those who attempted suicide in Armstrong's survey were lesbian or gay. Unfortunately, the survey did not include a question on sexual orientation and, even if it did, not all lesbian and gay youth would have admitted to being homosexual. For example, in Hendessi's study on young women, sexual abuse and homelessness (1992) 13% of the participants identified as lesbian whilst a further 13% said they were unsure of their sexuality. This could mean that as many as a quarter of the participants were lesbian, a figure which supports the assertion that lesbian and gay youth are found in disproportionate numbers among homeless youth.
WHAT TO DO?
1. First and foremost we must acknowledge that lesbian and gay youth are particularly vulnerable to mental health problems and to homelessness and that, in both instances, this need not happen.
2. It is crucial that relevant research stops leaving out lesbian and gay youth and thereby perpetuating their invisibility. Given the high estimation of homelessness among lesbian and gay youth it begs the question 'Why has there been so little research aimed at this group?'
3. In the long term society's attitudes towards homosexuality must be changed. The most appropriate way to do this would be through the same channels which created and perpetuate homophobia, i.e. religion, law, medicine, the media, education, language and the family.
4. It will take a long time to change attitudes that have been developed over 2,000 years. Homeless projects must take on board the needs of lesbian and gay youth. Several schemes, especially in London, are already doing this. For example, Centrepoint published the booklet "The Essential Guide for Homeless Young Lesbians and Gay Men." Outside of London, however, much has yet to be achieved.
5. Projects aimed specifically at lesbian and gay youth must be developed. For example,
a) Housing projects, like the Stonewall Housing Association in London, need to be established in other parts of Britain.
b) Fostering schemes, such as the Albert Kennedy Trust (AKT), which offers accommodation and support through their big brother/big sister scheme, also need to be introduced.*
c) It is important that there are services available to support homeless lesbian and gay youth in large cities. At the same time, however, it is important to provide services where lesbian and gay youth live, which is everywhere in Britain, including small towns and rural areas!
d) Social services and family support units need to develop special teams to enable families to come to terms with - accept, understand and support - their lesbian and gay children.
e) When reconciliation is not possible, residential homes aimed specifically at lesbian and gay youth should be set up.
There are no such homes in Britain. A group of gays and lesbians in Birmingham tried to establish one such home, Pride Place, but Birmingham City Council refused to register it.
For a description of a lesbian and gay residential home in the U.S.A. see Greeley (1994); see, also, Schneider (1991).
6. Projects aimed specifically at lesbian and gay youth also need to be introduced in schools, youth services, social services and the health service, in particular, mental health.. For descriptions of some U.S. services see DeCrescenzo (1994).
Whenever the needs of lesbian and gay youth are discussed it is usually young gay men who feature most, which is hardly surprising given that they are more visible. Young lesbians are invariably hidden and provision concentrates on the needs of young gay men. However, young lesbians are just as vulnerable and, in some instances, e.g. mental health and homelessness, are likely to be even more at risk.
In the same way that there is a need to establish separate provision for lesbian and gay youth -to concentrate on their needs and ensure accessibility - there is also a need to establish provision aimed specifically at young lesbians.
*The experience of U.S. projects (Vergara, 1984; Mallon, 1992a) and the AKT reveal problems in placing young lesbians. Specific attention must, therefore, be paid to finding appropriate foster carers for young lesbians. This issue warrants further investigation. Some possible explanations may include: a) there have always been more lesbians who are parents than gay men; this has increased significantly with the introduction of artificial insemination by donors b) it reflects the general ignorance about the needs of young lesbians and emphasis on young gay men and c) feminism has placed a greater emphasis on women's issues such as rape crisis, women's aid, violence against women, to the detriment of the specific needs of lesbians.
(1) and (2) For a list of research statistics see LYSIS Report, 1995, Lesbian Information Service. See, also, Working With Lesbian and Gay Youth Resource List, 1995, Lesbian Information Service.
(3) Of the 20 participants, 17 were aged 25 years and below; most had identified as lesbian during adolescence; the majority grew up in the places where there was no support for lesbians and many were multi-oppressed.
(4) Personal communication.
Armstrong, N. (1996) cited in Young People Now, February 1996, p4.
Bell, A.P. & Weinberg, M.S. (1978) Homosexualities, A Study of Diversity Among Men & Women, London: Mitchel Beazley.
Bridget, J. (1988) Lesbians and Housing in Leicester, Lesbian Information Service
Bridget, J. (1993) Findings of qualitative survey (see above, note (3)) unpublished.
Camden Research Project (1991) London Borough of Camden.
City of Birmingham Notice of Proposal to Refuse Registration, 6/12/94.
Durby, D.D. (1994) Gay, Lesbian, and Bisexual Youth, Helping Gay and Lesbian Youth, New Policies, New Programs, New Practice, Ed. Teresa DeCrescenzo, New York: Harrington Park Press.
Dibblin, J. (1991) Wherever I Lay My Hat, Young Women and Homelessness, London: Shelter.
Gibson, P. (1989) Gay Male and Lesbian Youth Suicide, Report of the Secretary's Task Force on Youth Suicide, U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, Vol 3: Prevention and Intervention in Youth Suicide, p110-142.
Greeley, G. (1994) Service Organizations for Gay and Lesbian Youth, Helping Gay and Lesbian Youth, New Policies, New Programs, New Practice, Ed. Teresa DeCrescenzo, New York: Harrington Park Press.
Harry, J. (1989) Sexual Identity Issues, Report of the Secretary's Task Force on Youth Suicide, U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, Vol 2 Risk Factors for Youth Suicide, p131-143.
Hendessi, M. (1992) 4 in 10 Report on young women who become homeless as a result of sexual abuse, London: CHAR.
Herdt, G.H. & Boxer, A.M. (1993) Children of Horizons: How Gay and Lesbian Teens are Leading a New Way Out of the Closet, Boston: Beacon.
Hunter, J. (1990) Violence Against Lesbian and Gay Male Youths, Journal of Interpersonal Violence, Vol 5(3), p295-300.
Kruks, G. (1991) Gay and Lesbian Homeless/Street Youth: Special Issues and Concerns, Journal of Adolescent Health, Vol 12, p515-518.
Lemos, G. & Crane, P. (1993) The Reality of Sexuality, Housing, Vol 29(4), p40-41.
Lesbians, Gay Men and Housing, Fact Sheet, London: Shelter.
Mallon, G.P. (1992a) Serving the Needs of Gay and Lesbian Youth in Residential Treatment Centers, Residential Treatment for Children & Youth, Vol 10(2), p47-61.
Mallon, G. (1992b) Gay and No Place to Go: Assessing the Needs of Gay and Lesbian Adolescents in Out-of-Home Care Settings, Child Welfare, Vol 71(6) p547-556.
Mercier, L.R. & Berger, R.M. (1989) Social Service Needs of Lesbian and Gay Adolescents: Telling It Their Way, Journal of Social Work & Human Sexuality, Vol 8(1), p75-95.
Quinn, (1991) Out and Nowhere To Go. Unpublished.
Remafedi, G. (1987) Adolescent Homosexuality: Psychosocial and Medical Implications, Pediatrics, Vol 79(3), p331-337.
Rivers, I. (1995) Mental health issues among young lesbians and gay men bullied in school, Health and Social Care in the Comminity, Vol 3(6), p380-388.
Saghir, M.T., Robins,E., Walbran, B. & Gentry, K.A. (1970) Homosexuality. IV. Psychiatric Disorders and Disability in the Female Homosexual, American Journal of Psychiatry, Vol 17(2), p147-154.
Saghir, M.T. & Robins, E. (1973) Male and Female Homosexuality: A Comprehensive Investigation, Baltimore: Williams & Wilkins.
Savin-Williams, R.C. (1994) Verbal and Physical Abuse as Stressors in the Lives of Lesbian, Gay Male, and Bisexual Youths: Associations With School Problems, Running Away, Substance Abuse, Prostitution, and Suicide, Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, Vol 62(2), p261-269.
Schneider, M. (1991) Developing Services for Lesbian and Gay Adolescents, Canadian Journal of Community Mental Health, Vol 10(1), p133-151.
Slater, B. (1988) Essential Issues in Working With Lesbian and Gay Male Youths, Professional Psychology: Research and Practice, Vol 19(2), p226-235.
Taylor, N. (1994) Gay and Lesbian Youth: Challenging the Policy of Denial, Helping Gay and Lesbian Youth, New Policies, New Programs, New Practice, Ed. Teresa DeCrescenzo, New York: Harrington Park Press.
Trenchard, L. & Warren, H. (1984) Something To Tell You, London Gay Teenage Group.
Vergara, T.L. (1984) Meeting the Needs of Sexual Minority Youth: One Program's Response, Special Issue: Homosexuality and Social Work, Journal of Social Work and Human Sexuality, Vol 2(2/3) p19-38.
Working with Lesbian and Gay Youth Resource List, Lesbian Information Service, 1995, ú8. Includes abstracts of over 70 papers, mainly from the U.S.A. dealing with lesbian and gay youth. All papers are available in this country through local libraries.
Albert Kennedy Trust, 23 New Mount Street, Manchester, M4 4DE. 0161.953.4059.
Centrepoint, Bewlay House, 2 Swallow Place, London, W1R 7AA. 0171.629.2229.
LYSIS, Lesbian Youth Support Information Service, (and Lesbian Information Service) P.O. Box 8, Todmorden, Lancashire, OL14 5TZ. 01706.817235. Please enclose a stamped, addressed, envelope.
North London Line, Barnsbury Complex, Offord Road, London, N1. 0171.607.8346. (The only full-time, statutory lesbian and gay youth project in Britain)
Praed Street Project, c/o The Jefferiss Winge, St Mary's Hospital, Praed Street, London, WS2 1NY, 0171.725.1549. This is a detached street work project which works with women of all ages with different needs, some of whom are young lesbians, who are involved in the sex industry.
Streetwise Youth, 11 Eardley Crescent, London, SW5 9JS, 0171.370.0406.
Stonewall Housing Association, 2a Leroy Business Centre, 436 Essex Road, Islington, London, N1 3QP. 0171.359.5767.
Jan Bridget co-founded Lesbian Information Service in 1987 and LYSIS in 1991 and is currently the Development Worker for LYSIS. She also recently founded ESTEEM: The National Advisory Group on Deliberate Self-Harm and Related Issues in Lesbian, Gay and Bisexual Youth, the purpose of which is to seek funding to undertake a national research project on psychological well-being and self-harm in lesbian, gay and bisexual youth.
LYSIS - Lesbian Youth Support Information Service - is a U.K.-wide agency for young lesbians aged 25 years and below. Through a range of distance support methods, and by encouraging other agencies to make appropriate provision, we aim to challenge the isolation that young lesbians experience in order to help them develop a positive self-identity and self-esteem.
© JanBridget 1996