LESBIAN YOUTH SUPPORT INFORMATION SERVICE
Lesbian Information Service was established in July 1987 by Jan Bridget and Sandra Lucille. Young Lesbians have always featured in our work, from running a young lesbian group in Leicester in 1987-1988; running a young lesbian group in Blackburn in 1990-1991; conducting research into the needs of young lesbians (1990-1993); and setting up LYSIS in 1991/92.
We discovered early on that young lesbians are a particularly vulnerable group when, during a residential with the young lesbian group in Leicester, one of the participants was very upset. During an exercise we discovered that she felt the only way out of her current situation (living at home with very homophobic parents) was to kill herself.
Our work with lesbians in Leicester included running a Lesbian Coffee Bar, a Lesbian Helpline and a Lesbians with Phobias Group, as well as the Young Lesbian Group. (See Annual Report 1987-1988). These activities enabled us to identify some of the issues facing the lesbians who participated, many of whom were working class, these included:
- physical and sexual abuse;
- alcohol related problems;
- 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 experienced by lesbians with disabilities;
- poor services provided by the local authority, agencies, institutions, G.P.'s.
Homelessness was identified as a serious problem for many lesbians, especially young lesbians, and in 1988 we conduced a pilot study concerning the housing needs of lesbians in Leicester (see Lesbians and Housing in Leicester Report, LIS, 1988) and found that, of the 14 participants,
* 86% had suffered from depression;
* 43% had attempted suicide;
* 43% had experienced alcohol-related problems;
* 36% had experienced drug-related problems;
* 71% had experienced harassment in relation to their housing because of their sexual orientation;
* 64% had been homeless;
* whilst hostels existed for other minority women, there was no hostel provision for lesbians in Leicester.
The participants were asked to list the type of housing they had lived in since leaving their parents' home. Two types of housing were identified: 'secure' which included owner/occupier, local authority and housing association; and 'insecure' which included private rented, staying with friends, caravans, and temporary accommodation. The responses suggest that lesbians tend to live in 'insecure' type housing: there were 110 responses to this type of housing, compared with only 20 responses for 'secure' housing. It is worth noting that of the four participants who were owner-occupiers, three had been married and the fourth had lived with her parents in a council house all of her life.
Due to media attacks (see Appendix A) and after the introduction of section 28 of the Local Government Act, Leicester City Council refused to give us any further funding.
At the end of 1989 we moved to West Yorkshire and, with some funding from Lancashire County Council, began to conduct research into the needs of young lesbians.
We were again attacked in the media (see Appendix B) and proposed funding to extend the research was withdrawn. We were unable to obtain further funding. Nevertheless, we continued the research until we had conducted depth interviews with 20 lesbians. (See Annual Report 1990-1991). Whilst we expected to find levels of stress, alcohol misuse and homelessness, the findings were, nevertheless, shocking and 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.
* all but three used alcohol and 50% had serious alcohol problems e.g.
passing out under the influence of alcohol,
getting arrested for drunkeness;
* 50% had used illegal drugs;
* 65% smoked;
* 55% had been homeless;
* 50% had been sexually abused or raped;
* 45% had experienced heterosexual sex (apart from abuse and rape);
* 55% felt lonely and isolated at school;
* 30% had experience personal prejudice at school because of their lesbianism;
* 80% left school at 16/15, one was still at school, only two (10%) had a degree;
* 50% were unemployed, several worked in factories, only two (10%) had a professional qualification;
* 40% had been badly treated by an older lesbian/woman;
* 30% had been in trouble with the police, one had been in prison;
* one (5%) had been a prostitute.
Most research about lesbians and lesbian and gay youth is conducted with participants who live in cities and have access to some level of support (see, for example, Trenchard & Warren, 1984; Bradford & Ryan, 1988; Barbeler, 1992; Woods, 1992). The participants in the LIS survey are different for various reasons:-
- most lived or came from places in North West England where there was no support for lesbians;
- all identified as lesbian from an early age, many as young as 11 years;
- most were multi-oppressed, i.e. 14 are working class, 3 black, 6 had disabilities.
It is likely that our findings will be repeated in other, similar, areas of Britain where there is no support for young lesbians. This means virtually everywhere outside of cities!
There has been a substantial amount of research, mainly from the U.S.A. (See Appendix C) which substantiates our work and suggests that:
(1) up to 30% of youth suicide attempts and completions are by lesbian and gay youth (Gibson, 1989)
(2) lesbian and gay youth are 2 - 6 times more likely to attempt suicide than youth in general (Harry, 1989)
(3) about a third of lesbians have serious drink problems (Creith, 1993 and others).
We believe that the statistics for suicide are likely to be worse in this country because we are about 20 years behind the U.S. in regard to both knowledge and provision. For example, the Hetrick Martin Institute in New York now has 100 full-time workers and many more part-time and voluntary staff who work with lesbian and gay youth. The only full-time project in Britain is the North London Line, which has two full-time workers.
There are also lesbian and gay school projects. For example, Project 10, a school-based project in Los Angeles that supports lesbian and gay pupils and provides training for staff and parents, has been introduced in schools across many of the states whereas in Britain section 28 has effectively stopped any progress. (See, also, Working with Lesbian and Gay Youth Resource List and Lesbians, Gays and Education Resource List, Lesbian Information Service, 1995, for examples of U.S. research).
WHY ARE YOUNG LESBIANS VULNERABLE?
Isolation and Internalised Homophobia
Research suggests that it is isolation and internalised homophobia which makes young lesbians vulnerable. Being a young lesbian inevitably means being isolated (at least until you have 'come out'), isolated from
- other lesbians, especially those of a similar age;
- access to accurate information that challenges all of the negative information about homosexuality which everyone has internalised; and
- appropriate support from family and agencies who traditionally offer support to young people. The family are usually the major source of distress for young lesbians.
To this extent ALL young lesbians are vulnerable. However, some are more isolated and more at risk than others. These include:-
* young lesbians who identify as lesbian at an early age (these are often - but not always - young lesbians who reject femininity, i.e. tomboys);
* young lesbians who are multi-oppressed, i.e. those who are black, minority ethnic, working class, disabled; and
* young lesbians who live in towns, villages, rural areas and even some cities where there is no appropriate support.
Whilst social activities are available in most cities and a few towns, it usually consists of gay clubs and pubs where alcohol, drugs and sex are the staple diet. This is hardly appropriate for the young lesbian who is just coming out.
The few support groups that exist for lesbians outside of the 'scene' rarely cater for young lesbians and, in any event, members usually end up socialising in a pub. Given that alcohol misuse is more common among lesbians than heterosexual women and that this usually begins in adolescence, the need to develop alternative support for young lesbians is essential.
Problems being Young and Lesbian
The participants of the L.I.S. survey were asked what problems young lesbians faced. The following are some of their responses:
* You know your friends are different.
* Being brought up into heterosexual society.
* It is hard to find other gays to talk to.
* There are no facilities.
* It is a closed subject.
* There is nothing for young lesbians.
* No-one to speak to.
* It is hard and upsetting.
* Having to tell parents.
* People finding out.
* Being accepted.
* No information if isolated.
* Problems with families.
* Social stigma.
* Don't want to feel alone.
* Apart from pubs and clubs there's nothing else.
* No support.
* Nowhere to go.
* Can't meet other young lesbians.
* Having to live with parents.
* Pressure to conform.
* As young lesbian frightened of abuse in the street.
* No-one to go to if not got a partner; on own.
* Family don't want to know or know and don't want to accept it.
* People talk about it like a disease.
* No-one to talk to if you need anyone.
* Pressure to conform to "normality" from heterosexual peer groups, the media, makes it more difficult being young and lesbian.
* Homosexuality is not accepted.
* Get stick off other people.
* You can't be until you're about 40!
Feelings of Participants about Experiences of being Young Lesbians
The participants were asked what they felt about their experiences of being young lesbians:-
* Feel angry that heterosexuals feel that way.
* Feel guilty, especially about family.
* Frightened of accepting own feelings, of labelling self, and
* In the past I didn't know many people to talk to, so I
kept my feelings to myself.
* Makes me mad.
* Felt frustrated when 13/14 when first realised sexual feelings. I was also depressed.
* I'd always known from being little, but not said lesbian, didn't
know what it meant, didn't find men attractive in any way.
* Didn't talk to anyone when young.
* I was bewildered and scared to know that I was different.
* I was frustrated. I didn't talk to anyone.
* I feel angry, frustrated.
* I felt guilty when I first realised I was lesbian.
* I used to be depressed all the time.
* I also hated myself and felt isolated.
* I didn't talk to anyone. I bottled my feelings up - I'm good at
* Feel angry and mad about it.
* Feel like I'm being judged a lot, left out, let down, alone.
* Used to be depressed before in relationship and before I came out.
* Was extremely frightened before coming out of losing family,
* Felt a lot better when came out.
* Frightened from time to time when feel insecure.
* Used to hate myself before I came out.
* I get really angry.
* I argue a lot with my parents, brothers and sister, people in general.
* I'm aggressive when people approach me.
* I walk along and scrape my hand along the wall.
The participants were asked if they had anything else to say about being a young lesbian. Responses included:-
* Young lesbians should have more help (more than we had) but that
same help should also go to older lesbians.
* More lesbians, young and old, should be out.
* Every town, big and small, should have somewhere for lesbians of
all ages to go.
* Support is the main thing I need.
* Most important thing is support; having someone to turn to for
* Helpful and positive attitude both for lesbians and supporters.
As part of the Lancashire study (1991) we surveyed over 40 local agencies and discovered that none of the agencies (including youth, health, education, and social services as well as voluntary organisations) offered support geared towards young lesbians.
During our survey of local support agencies we visited the Community Alcohol Drug Team. The head of the team told us that he would not refer a young lesbian to a lesbian youth group because she may not be lesbian and might later regret being labelled lesbian.
We conducted a survey of statutory youth service provision in North West England (1993) and discovered that only one of the services (Lancashire, and that was as a result of our research) made provision specifically for young lesbians. (See Young Lesbian Vox Pop Report, LIS, 1993).
We also conducted a survey of alcohol treatment agencies in North West England and discovered that there was no mainstream provision specifically aimed at lesbians with drink problems. Furthermore, there was little knowledge or training about why lesbians are vulnerable to alcohol misuse yet the majority of workers felt able to work with lesbians. (See Treatment of Lesbians with Alcohol Problems in Alcohol Services in North West England, LIS, 1994).
The few alternative youth groups which do exist are usually mixed, i.e. lesbian and gay, with young gay men substantially outnumbering young lesbians. It is not unusual for a young lesbian to get up the courage to go along to a youth group only to find that she is the only female or one of a handful. In any event, most youth groups are only found in cities and are run on a part-time basis (sometimes once a fortnight) with no time to give the much needed one-to-one support that the majority of young lesbians (and gays) require.
Our contact with young lesbians who attend youth groups suggests that, whilst the group offers them a much needed opportunity to socialise with peers, programmes are often superficial. For example, the group will examine 'coming out,' relationships, etc., in one session. Rarely are the real needs of young lesbians met. This is hardly surprising since training for working with lesbian and gay youth is virtually non existent and workers rarely have the time to prepare more in-depth work anyway. Research is needed to ascertain what support is available, who it caters for, what the programmes consist of and what training workers have received.
How a person reacts when a young lesbian tells them about her lesbianism is very important. Several negative responses from friends and relatives can make the coming out process longer, more difficult and more painful. It is important, therefore, that a young lesbian is given the right kind of support and understanding when she first comes out.
With the right kind of support at this crucial time many of the harmful effects of discrimination such as isolation, depression, suicide, eating disorders, alcohol, drug abuse, and homelessness can be avoided or addressed before they get out of control.
As a result of our research we set up LYSIS in 1991/92.
The aim of LYSIS is to support young lesbians and to make visible their experiences in order to establish and improve appropriate support services. The service is aimed at all young lesbians aged 25 years and below throughout Britain, especially those who are isolated.
In 1992 we were awarded a bronze certificate, signed by Her Majesty the Queen (see Appendix D) which noted:
"This certificate is awarded to LYSIS in recognition of the completion of a project of long term benefit to the nation in The Royal Anniversary Trust's Challenge."
In order to reach isolated young lesbians publicity is crucial: we are listed in many directories and publications, some specifically aimed at young people, e.g. information and advice shops, information booklets, young women's magazines. We get referrals from The Samaritans, CAB, Parents Groups, Clinical Psychologists, Social Workers, Teachers, Youth Workers, etc. However, most of the young lesbians who contact us have seen our telephone number or address publicised in the 'agony aunt' columns of magazines such as Chat or Mizz.
When a young lesbian contacts us it could be that she has taken months (and in some cases years) to pluck up the courage to call or write; she may ring several times without saying anything and puts the telephone down; some young lesbians find the thought of using a telephone too threatening and prefer writing.
We offer young lesbians various methods of support:
* A free copy of the booklet 'i think i might be a lesbian ... now what do i do?'
* The Young Lesbian Coming Out Pack (free, if she cannot afford it).
* Telephone numbers and addresses of any local helplines/support groups.
* Peer support through the pen-pal scheme.
* Telephone counselling.
* Counselling by correspondence.
* If relatively local, fact-to-face support and counselling.
Some young lesbians receive the booklet and/or join the pen-pal scheme or a local group (if one exists near them) and we never hear from them again. Others continue to ring or write for months - we are still in contact with young lesbians we began supporting in 1987!
We often support young lesbians over a period of months to come out to their parents, friends, and attend a local group where one exists. Sometimes it is easier for a young lesbian to write to a member of a group first before being introduced to the group as the fear of joining a group for the first time can be great.
It is a wonderful and rewarding experience to watch a young lesbian grow from a terrified, isolated and depressed young person when she first contacts us, into a self-confident young lesbian who has developed a positive identity.
The pen-pal scheme can offer peer-support e.g. when some young lesbians have already been through the process of coming out to their parents it is useful for them to share their experiences with others going through the same process.
We are currently developing a network of young Asian, Muslim, lesbians, who are particularly isolated.
Whilst offering young lesbians peer support through the pen-pal scheme we believe it is crucial that adult lesbians are available to offer support as well; we do this through telephone counselling and correspondence. There are few positive adult lesbian role models and young lesbians rarely get the adult support they need from parents or professionals.
Some of the young lesbians who contact us need in-depth support because of chronic mental health problems (depression, suicidal feelings, anorexia, bulimia), sexual abuse, rejection by parents, siblings, or friends. It is in these situations when we really need a good contact system of supportive agencies and workers around the country. Increasingly we find ourselves giving intense, life-saving, support from a distance due to a complete lack of expertise in the area where a young lesbian lives.
With the increased visibility of lesbian issues in the media and increased publicity of LIS/LYSIS, the number of young lesbians contacting us for support has risen dramatically.
We are now at a stage where we cannot cope with the demand and must involve other agencies and more volunteers. To do this, however, we must acquire larger, accessible, offices.
One effect of the increased visibility of lesbianism in the media is that more young lesbians are identifying and coming out earlier (the youngest to contact us so far was aged 12 years). This is a very worrying trend because, being without support for longer periods, these young lesbians are likely to be highly vulnerable to developing mental health problems. Furthermore, research suggests (Camden, 1991, D'Augelli, 1992) that harassment of lesbian and gay young people in educational establishments is increasing.
We predict (as do D'Augelli & Hershberger, 1993) that unless systems of support are set up then attempted and completed suicide rates among lesbian and gay youth will increase.
RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN LIS AND LYSIS
LYSIS is a project of Lesbian Information Service (LIS). LIS plays an important role in supporting LYSIS and young lesbians. This support includes, for example,
* Publications (producing the booklet 'i think i might be a lesbian ... now what do i do?'; the Young Lesbian Coming Out Pack; Working with Lesbian and Gay Youth Resource List; Lesbians, Gays and Education Resource List; Parents of Lesbians and Gays Resource List; as well as other publications - see Publications List).
* Campaigning to get relevant agencies to take on board the needs of young lesbians, for example, The Samaritans now acknowledge that young lesbians are a high risk group for suicide (in her recently published book "The Long Sleep, Young People and Suicide, the late Kate Hill has also acknowledged the vulnerability of lesbian and gay youth to suicide); the Trust for the Study of Adolescence have run two national conferences on the needs of lesbian and gay youth; the National Youth Agency are setting up an Electoral College for organisations who work with lesbian and gay youth.
* Homophobia Awareness Training: we have conducted training with NACRO (NW) Housing, Manchester University Community Work students, Rossendale Youth and Community Service.
* Giving talks/lectures, for instance, on lesbian and gay youth and suicide (Trust for the Study of Adolescence), London, Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual Psychologies - UK, Brighton; Lesbians and Mental Health, Women's Committee's Working Group on Women and Health, Glasgow; Young Lesbians Suicide and Alcohol, Oxford; Lesbians and Alcohol, London and Manchester; the Needs of Lesbian and Gay Youth, Calderdale Health Promotion for Young Peoples' Clinics.
* Research: Continued research including identifying and acquiring copies of relevant research articles and books from around the world.
* Affiliation Scheme: Produce four mailings a year to groups or individuals who affiliate to support the work of LIS and our projects; we provide support to affiliates to help them support young lesbians.
Because we have been unable to acquire on-going funding we have not needed a full management committee. We have made do with a chairwoman and a small group of people ('Friends of LIS') who have been supportive of our work.
It is only in the last few years that lesbian or gay organisations have been eligible for charitable status. Because of this, and because we have been unable to obtain funding, we have not applied for charitable status.
We received a small amount of funding from Leicester City Council (£1,500) in 1987 to run local activities for lesbians.
For three-and-a-half years we published a Lesbian Newsletter which began as a local newsletter in Leicester and became first a national publication and ultimately an international newsletter. Subscriptions for the newsletter helped to finance the support work of LIS during the period 1987-1990, however, producing the newsletter was our main activity between 1988 and June 1990, when we ceased publication.
We have applied to over 60 agencies for funding since 1987, being mostly unsuccessful except for two one-off grants (£1,500 in total) from Save The Children Fund; payment of part-time youth work sessions to Jan Bridget from Lancashire County Council to pursue the research into the needs of young lesbians; £7,500 from the Alcohol Education Research Council to produce information on lesbians and alcohol (see Treatment of Lesbians with Alcohol Problems in Alcohol Services in North West England we need more funding to complete a booklet aimed at Lesbians).
We have kept the Service running through monies received from:-
* Affiliation Scheme set up in 1992;
* Sales of publications;
Lesbian Information Service, and our projects LYSIS and LAP (Lesbians and Alcohol Project) have been staffed on a voluntary basis by Jan Bridget and Sandra Lucille. There have been other volunteers from time to time but, because we have been unable to acquire on-going funding, we have run the service from our own home which has meant that development of the work to include many other volunteers has been impossible.
When we set up Lesbian Information Service in 1987, Jan was on the government's Enterprise Allowance Scheme. Since that time both Jan and Sandra have been on several schemes including Employment Action and Employment Training.
We are delighted to have been awarded £30,000 over two years from the Mental Health Foundation, to commence July 1st 1995. Although this is less than we originally applied for, nevertheless it will help us to develop our work with young lesbians considerably. The development will include:-
* Setting up an Advisory Group (Save The Children, Childline, MIND, The Samaritans and the Mental Health Foundation). These agencies have already been approached and have responded in a positive fashion.
* Setting up a Management Committee. We have already approached several local people who have said they are interested in joining the Management Committee.
We hope that this will be a two-way process: that members of the Advisory Group and Management Committee will offer support and advice to LYSIS based on their expertise and knowledge and that they will, in turn, benefit from our knowledge and expertise in regard to working with young lesbians. Ultimately we would like to see local and national voluntary and statutory services developing appropriate provision for young lesbians.
* Setting up a Users' Group.
We are in contact with hundreds of young lesbians around the country; the main problem we envisage with the Users' Group is the cost of travel expenses and regularity of meetings.
* Acquire premises and appropriate equipment.
There is no question that we must, before we can develop LYSIS in any way, acquire larger, accessible premises.
* We hope to acquire a new (486) computer and relevant soft-ware to set up a data-base of supportive agencies and individuals around the country.
* In the process of establishing the data-base we would like to conduct a survey of youth groups in Britain.
* Encourage volunteers and develop a training programme for volunteers. We expect that this would develop naturally from the Users' Group.
* We are currently applying for charitable status.
* Develop and improve our methods of supporting isolated young lesbians.
Some other possible developments for the future include:-
Developing a network for youth groups.
Development of a training course and training materials for those who work with lesbian and gay youth.
Development of training programmes for young lesbians.
Jan Bridget and Sandra Lucille
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