LESBIANS, GAYS AND EMOTIONAL WELL-BEING, WITHIN THE CONTEXT OF MULTI-OPPRESSIONS AND WITH SPECIAL REFERENCE TO YOUNG LESBIANS, JAN BRIDGET

This paper is an expanded version of a lecture given at the National MIND Conference in Bournemouth on 25th November 1992 and a workshop given at the Fourth National Lesbian and Gay Health Conference at Oxford on November 28th.

MULTI-OPPRESSIONS

INTRODUCTION

It is important to place this paper within the context of multi-oppressions to try and breakdown the barriers between different groups and - whilst acknowledging that each oppression is distinct - to demonstrate the similar ways in which oppression works and the similar effects.

We cannot talk about one oppression without talking about all oppressions. Indeed, the MIND conference organisers say they "expect all workshop leaders to address equal opportunities issues such as race, gender, age, disability and sexuality in their working presentation." This means addressing the issue of multi-oppression.

I want to explore how people who are multi-oppressed will generally be more vulnerable to depression, suicide, to alcohol and drug misuse.

By multi-oppression I mean the experiences of living in this country with a number of oppressions which include:

* RACISM. Racism is the belief in the superiority of white people over people of colour. We are also Racist against Jewish people and gypsies.

* ETHNICISM: is the belief that English people are superior to Irish, Scottish and Welsh people, Asian people, African people, Italian people, etc.

* SEXISM: The belief in the superiority of men over women.

* CLASSISM: The belief that middle and upper class people are superior to working class people.

* ABLEISM: Believing that people who are able-bodied and able-minded are superior to people who are physically or mentally disabled.

* HETEROSEXISM: The belief that heterosexuality is superior to homosexuality.

* AGEISM: The belief that younger people are superior to old people;

* ADULTISM: The belief that older people are superior children and adolescents.

* There is also the belief in Britain that Christianity is superior to other religions such as Jewish religion, Muslim religion and so on.

The more aware we become about oppressions the more we realise that other groups of people are oppressed, for example, there is also the belief that slim people are superior to fat people.

HOW DOES ALL THIS WORK?

The superiority of certain groups over others is manifest in various ways, for example,

* in the MEDIA:

Oppressed people are either made invisible or a negative stereotype is portrayed in newspapers, television, films, books, magazines, comics, advertisements, and on the radio.

At the same time, it is those people who are considered superior, who are most visible, i.e. young people (not children or adolescents or old people), white people, middle class people, slim people, English people, heterosexual people and able-bodied and able-minded people.

On the rare occasions when minority groups are visible it is usually men, e.g. gay men, black men, working class men, young men, old men, disabled men and so on.

* EDUCATION is another method of teaching us who is superior and who inferior.

Again, oppressed people are either made invisible or negative stereotypes are portrayed. Just think about subjects like history:

How many famous women, compared to men do you know?

How many famous lesbians compared to gay men do you know?

How many famous black people do you know?

How many famous disabled people do you know?

How many famous working class people do you know? and so on.

Did your history lessons tell you that white, European men invaded the Americas, Aotearoa (New Zealand), Australia (and many other, smaller, places), virtually wiped out the indigenous population of Native Americans, Maorie people and Aborigine people?

What about literature? What books or poetry did you read by black or minority ethnic people? By working class people? By lesbians? By old people? and so on.

What did you learn about homosexuality at school?

Feminists have produced research showing how boys are treated better than girls in schools; psychologists have shown how teachers respond differently to working class children and middle class children. The same principle is applicable to race, ethnicity, sexuality, and disability. In other words, not only are children who belong to minority groups not given any positive role models (from the teachers themselves as well as from the subject matter) but teachers also discriminate against them, encouraging pupils who are most privileged. Young people are made to attend school for TEN YEARS, during which time the 'system' is thoroughly ingrained.

These are just a few of the ways in which we are taught that certain groups of people are superior to others. Other methods include:

a) The Family: For example, parents teach children their own beliefs which they themselves have been taught from the same system.

b) Peers put pressure on members of their groups to conform to their acceptable behaviours and attitudes.

c) Most religions perpetuate - and in many instances have initiated - oppressions.

d) The law, and other institutions, are geared towards privileged people.

WHAT ARE THE EFFECTS OF ALL THIS?

1. One of the effects is that everyone is taught to be racist, ethnicist, sexist, heterosexist, disablist, classist, adultist and ageist.

Unless you have had specific training and are committed to challenging your beliefs, you will not have changed. It is very much an on-going process to unlearn what you have been taught since birth.

2. A second effect is that the system creates a division between people who have power and those who don't, or the have's and the have-nots.

The fewer oppressions a person experiences, the more advantages, privileges and power they receive. People with more oppressions experience fewer advantages, privileges and, are less powerful.

We only need to examine the corridors of power, from the Houses of Parliament to local government to management and management committees of private, voluntary and statutory bodies, to workers in well-paid and powerful jobs, to the unemployed and those people employed in part-time and menial work, to reveal what I mean.

3. A third effect is that people who consider themselves superior discriminate against those they consider inferior. This happens not only in the job market but also in the services provided by the voluntary and statutory sectors. Another way of describing this is to say that it is those people who are most visible and most powerful (i.e. those with fewer oppressions) who are better catered for.

4. A fourth effect is that those people who belong to oppressed groups internalise the negative images portrayed by the media and society. Thus, if you are working class, female, and lesbian, you will not only experience discrimination in employment and services (housing, health, education, etc), in the form of classism, sexism and heterosexism, but you will also have internalised all the negative images associated with your oppression, unless you have done a lot of work in understanding, and expelling, your internalised oppressions.

*        Internalisation of oppressions means that you are less sure of your identity (have lower self-esteem).

*        Belonging to an oppressed group means, as well as experiencing discrimination, that you are more likely to feel isolated.

The combined effects of discrimination, isolation and internalisation of oppressions means that you are more vulnerable to depression, alcohol, drug misuse, and suicide.

For example,

* women, working class people, black people, homosexuals and minority ethnic people are disproportionately found in psychiatric hospitals and wards;

* suicide attempts are more prevalent among young women, younghHomosexuals - especially young lesbians - and young Asian women;

* suicide completions are more prevalent among old people;

* with some cultural differences, alcohol and drug misuse is more prevalent among oppressed groups;

* oppressed groups have more health complaints.

Similarly, most people in prison are working class; black people are over-represented in prisons; women receive harsher sentences. By the same token, the majority of homeless people are young, working class, black and minority ethnic.

In general the more oppressions you experience, the more vulnerable you will be.

WHAT HELP IS AVAILABLE?

As mentioned, one effect of oppression is to make oppressed groups generally invisible and uncatered for. More specifically, when it comes to dealing with the effects of oppression, the needs of groups of multi-oppressed people are especially invisible and uncatered for. For example, alcohol treatment centres are traditionally geared towards serving a white, heterosexual, male clientel.

Take, another example, the situation of a young lesbian who is in hospital because she has attempted suicide. The reason for the suicide attempt will be primarily because of internalised homophobia which is exacerbated by her youth and sex. There may also be other factors such as incest (committed in her youth).

Because of heterosexism, her youth and sex, it is unlikely, in the first place, that she will be out about her sexuality; it is also unlikely that her sexuality will be discussed by any of the 'support' staff be they psychiatrists, psychologists, doctors, nurses, volunteers, or youth workers, teachers, or parents. If sexuality was raised then it would be from an ignorant position which would further oppress the young lesbian.

The historical oppression of homosexuals through the mental health system means that many people, including lesbians and gays, are loathe to discuss these matters.

BRIEF HISTORY OF OPPRESSION OF LESBIANS AND GAYS THROUGH THE LAW AND MENTAL HEALTH SYSTEMS

LEGAL

From the beginning of the Judeo-Christian civilisation until the 19th Century, homosexuality was regarded as a sin, on occasions punishable by death! However, whenever homosexuality is discussed in this context lesbians are usually invisible, giving the impression that lesbianism has not been criminalised. This is not true. Louis Crompton tells us, in his article "The Myth of Lesbian Impunity - Capital Laws from 1270-1791":

"The standard history of antihomosexual legislation states that lesbian acts were not punished by medieval or later laws. This essay challenges this view by documenting capital laws since 1270 in Europe and America. A major influence was Paul's condemnation in Romans I.26. By 1400, the lex foedissimam, an edict of the Emperas Diocletian and Maximianus, issued in 287, was interpreted to justify the death penalty. Executions took place in Germany, France, Italy, Switzerland and Spain."

Many of the witches burned during the Middle Ages would have been lesbian but, of course, they remain invisible. The same can be said of Hitler's condemnation of homosexuality during World War II: most people know about the pink triangle which gay men were forced to wear but few know that lesbians were also put in concentration camps, classed as 'anti-socials' (along with prostitutes) and had to wear a black triangle!

Only last year (1991!) a young, working class, lesbian who lived in a small Yorkshire town was imprisoned for six years for "indecent assault" - she had had a relationship when she was 16 with another girl who was 15!

MEDICAL

In the 19th Century medical authorities decided that homosexuality was a disease which could be cured.

Freud influenced most of the writers of the 1950's: lesbianism was explained in terms of relationships with parents, i.e. too close a relationship with mother or having a weak father. Other explanations were sometimes put forward, such as

"Various environmental traumatic influences during childhood and adolescence (broken homes, sexually maladjusted parents, a sadistic feeling toward the opposite sex, death of a parent, predisposition to masculinity and precocious sexuality." (Anticlimax, 1990, Sheila Jeffreys).

The emphasis in this literature was on what caused lesbianism and how to cure it. In "Lesbians Under the Medical Gaze: Scientists Search for Remarkable Differences," 1990, Jennifer Terry informs us that in New York in the 1930's a committee of psychiatrists, gynaecologists, obstetricians, surgeons, radiologists, neurologists, clinical psychologists, an urban sociologist, a criminal anthropologist and a former commissioner of the New York City Department of Correction set up a 'Study of Sex Varients' i.e. male and female homosexuals. They assumed there would be marks of differences between lesbians and heterosexual women, either on the body or in the mind. They made x-rays, inspected genitals (and sketched them), and conducted psychological interviews looking for indicators of masculinity. The purpose of the enquiry was to establish ways to identify, treat and prevent homosexuality. Recommendations for prevention identified the family as the major site for establishing and reinforcing proper gender behaviour, i.e. girls should be girls (wives and mothers) and boys should be boys. One of the findings included:

"due to 'an immature level of sexual adjustment,' the sex variant evaded the cultural requirements of contributing to proper biological and social reporoduction."

A doctor analysed the graphic sketches of breasts and vulvas and noted several differences, such as "larger than average vulvas," "longer labia minoras," etc.

Sheila Jeffreys tells us that one sexologist, Frank Caprio, in his book "The Sexually Adequate Female," 1953, said that Lesbians were likely to commit serious crimes; that when crimes by females were investigated, they often revealed:

"the women were either confirmed lesbians who killed because of jealousy or were latent homosexuals, with a strong aggressive masculine drive ... (some Lesbians) manifest pronounced sadistic and psychopathic trends ... (the vast majority were) emotionally unstable and neurotic (yet) many often became quite disturbed at the thought that psychiatrists regard them as 'sick individuals' in need of treatment."

When Kinsey and his colleagues (1948 and 1953) showed that millions of Americans had experienced homosexual behaviour they paved the way to a change in attitudes.

In the 1960's and 1970's psychologists developed a new approach to sexuality: The pathological model of homosexuality gave way to the model of homosexuality being a normal, natural and healthy sexual preference or lifestyle.

Some researchers have gone out of their way to prove that homosexuality is no more pathological than heterosexuality. Of course, this is true, especially for those lesbians who have not internalised the negative messages of society, who live in areas where there is support and who, because of their social class and colour, have access to better paid employment, housing, etc. This is not, however, the case for those lesbians who are multi-oppressed, in particular those who knew about their sexuality from an early age and those who live in isolated areas. Because of our fear of being labelled 'sick' we are ignoring the effects of discrimination on multi-oppressed lesbians.

In 1974 homosexuality was removed from the American Psychiatric Associations list of diseases. More recently it has been removed from the World Health Organisation's list of psychiatric disorders.

Even so, many lesbians and gays were subjected to various forms of treatment to try and make them heterosexual, from operations on the brain and aversion therapy to counselling. Some lesbians and gays are still subjected to treatment. For example, in 1989 a young lesbian who lived on the Isle of Man told her parents she thought she was lesbian. They responded by having her sectioned and placed in a mental hospital. This young lesbian, who was interviewed for the lesbian and gay television series "OUT" said:

"I felt like a freak, I felt a failure. I felt a failure to my parents and to my friends and I felt suicidal. There was no point in going on. I was abnormal. The treatment consisted of counselling, which went into deep-seated reasons as to why I was gay. I underwent hormonal treatment to try and alter and decrease the percentage of male hormone that was supposedly in my body. They put slides and pictures of naked men on the wall and I was hypnotised and told that this is what I wanted - sexual intercourse."

After three months of treatment Kate announed that she was 'cured, got out of hospital and went south to live as a lesbian.

Several religious groups have recently set themselves up saying that they can cure homosexuality.

It is, therefore, not surprising that many people, especially lesbians and gays, do not want to address, or admit to, the effects of discrimination.

It is only in the recent past researchers have begun to realise that, as a result of discrimination and internalised homophobia, many homosexuals do, in fact, suffer from depression, suicide ideation, alcohol and drug misuse and other psycho-social problems, especially young lesbians and gays.

LESBIANS, GAYS AND EMOTIONAL WELL-BEING

I'd like to make a few points about modern research:

* there is little research in Britain about the effects of discrimination on lesbians and gays (and, indeed, little interest!)

* there has been much research in the U.S.A. (show data search print outs and point out that out of 299 papers only about half a dozen from Britain.)

* much of the U.S. research is conducted by white, middle-class, men (from a white, middle class, perspective).

INTRODUCTION

Not all lesbians and gays have attempted suicide or misuse alcohol or drugs, but most have experienced depression, a lot have tried to kill themselves (some succeeding) and a lot do misuse alcohol and drugs.

As Judith Saunders and S.M. Valente say, in their 1987 article "Suicide Risk among Gay men and Lesbians: A Review":

"Three large, well designed studies found that gay men and lesbians attempt suicide two to seven times more often than heterosexual comparison groups. Gay men and lesbians have significantly high rates of risk factors that increase suicide risk such as suicide attempts, alcohol abuse, drug abuse and interrupted social ties."

Youth suicide, and parasuicide (attempts), is increasing in Britain and the U.S. Young women account for eighty to ninety percent of youth parasuicides, but this is being ignored because 80% of actual youth suicides are supposedly by men. It is because of the increased youth suicides in the U.S.A. that the government there called for a series of conferences and specialist papers which were published in a four volume report. The Report includes an excellent article on gay male and lesbian youth suicide by Paul Gibson, who notes:

"Gay and lesbian youth belong to two groups at high risk of suicide; youth and homosexuals. A majority of suicide attempts by homosexuals occur during their youth, and gay youth are 2 to 3 times more likely to attempt suicide than other young people. They may comprise up to 30 percent of completed youth suicides annually."

The high risk of suicide and parasuicide by lesbian and gay youth is being ignored in Britain. The Samaritans, in their recent publication of May this year entitled "Reach Out We'll Be There" highlight those groups at high risk but leave out lesbian and gay youth.

LESBIAN AND GAY YOUTH

Most of the suicide attempts by lesbians and gay men (and some completions) are done before the age of 26. Gibson states:

"The earlier youth are aware of their orientation and identify themselves as gay, the greater the conflicts they have. Gay youth face problems in accepting themselves due to internalization of a negative self image and the lack of accurate information about homosexuality during adolescence. Gay youth face extreme physical and verbal abuse, rejection and isolation from family and peers. They often feel totally alone and socially withdrawn out of fear of adverse consequences. As a result of these pressures, lesbian and gay youth are more vulnerable than other youth to psychosocial problems including substance abuse, chronic depression, school failure, early relationship conflicts, being forced to leave their families, and having to survive on their own prematurely. Each of these problems presents a risk factor for suicidal feelings and behaviour among gay, lesbian, bisexual and transsexual youth.

The root of the problem of gay youth suicide is a society that discriminates against and stigmatizes homosexuals while failing to recognize that a substantial number of its youth has a gay or lesbian orientation. ..."

Youth are especially vulnerable because, as Dr. Gary Remafedi notes in his 1990 article, "Fundamental Issues in the Care of Homosexual Youth":

"The youngest adolescents who are grappling with the possibility of homosexuality appear to be especially vulnerable to stigma and isolation because of emotional and physical immaturity, inexperience, the need to belong to a peer group, and dependence on families, schools, and communities for help during the transition to adulthood."

Those young lesbians who are butch and those young gay men who are 'sissies' are especially at risk of abuse from their peers. As one young lesbian I interviewed said:

"I've always known I was different. I hadn't heard the word lesbian until I was 13 or 14. .. I took an overdose when I was 14. .. Between 14 and 16 I often thought about suicide. All of my mates were off enjoying themselves at discos and things. My step-mother used to drag my jeans off my back and make me wear skirts, do my hair up. I was dead depressed."

Dr. Remafedi continues:

"Abusive treatment in schools often results in declining academic performance, absenteeism, or dropping out for gay and lesbian students. Internalized homophobia may act in concert with external abuse to heighten the victim's sense of differentness, helplessness, guilt, and shame. Severe anxiety, depression, and self-destructive acts may ensue. Alcohol and drugs may be used to nullify the pain of isolation and derision or to self-medicate depression. Running away from home is yet another self-protective and self-defeating response to disapproval and rejection by family members. Without adequate educational and vocational skills, homeless lesbians and gay adolescents have few options other than prostitution for survival."

There are many young working class lesbians and gays who end up on the streets homeless, some are put into 'care' of the local authority simply because their parents cannot cope with their sexuality.

In her article, "Providing Sensitive Health Care to Gay and Lesbian Youth" Nancy D. Sanford expands on suicide and lack of support:

"This deep concern about the relationship between homosexuality and suicide is slowly being recognized, yet homophobia makes it difficult to deal with this problem directly and quickly.

Many times the young people who attempt suicide have not even had sexual experiences with the same sex or even admitted to themselves that they are gay or lesbian. The stigma of homosexuality, the absence of 'safe' adults to confide in and the denial of sexual problems in youth have led many to feelings of desperation and intense loneliness without anywhere to turn.

Even when these young people seek out teachers, couselors or health professionals, they often subsequently turn away because of the traditional anti-gay attitudes they encounter. Many times they are told that they are 'in an experimental time' or 'in a phase' or they are 'acting out.' Furthermore, they may be told that they are 'being rebellious' or 'trying to hurt their parents.' Such denial of feelings leads the adolescent to feel all the more rejected and enhances thoughts of suicide. Rofes tells how one of the major factors leading to suicide in gay and lesbian youth is our denial of support systems to them. Families often throw these children out of the home, churches condemn, and schools offer no safe retreat."

I cannot emphasise enough the difference between the understanding and support there is for lesbian and gay youth in the U.S.A. compared to Britain. We have few support facilities and what exists is usually in large cities.

The majority of young lesbians and gays are isolated and lack accurate information and positive role models until, that is, they get the courage to challenge their fears, come out and make contact with homosexual orgnisations. Those young lesbians and gays who are black or minority ethnic or disabled or working class are likely to be even more isolated. Those who live in rural areas or small towns, are not only less likely to be aware of their sexuality - because of the invisibility of homosexuality in these areas - but they will also have problems contacting lesbian and gay organisations because most are found in cities. Furthermore, U.S. research has suggested that homophobia is more rife in rural areas and small towns. Similarly, homophobia is more rife among working class people. If you are working class and live in a small town or rural area you are even less likely to gain access to support and are likely to be subjected to more discrimination. Indeed, only last year a young, working class lesbian from a village in Yorkshire was imprisoned because of the homophobia of those involved with the case. After spending nine months in prison she was released earlier this year by the Appeal Courts.

COMING OUT/IDENTITY STAGES

Several American academics have come up with identity stage theories that is, the stages homosexuals go through in reaching a homosexual identity. This is more commonly known as 'coming out.' In her excellent article "Essential Issues in Working With Lesbian and Gay Male Youths," 1988, Dr. Barbara Slater refers to several theories and notes:

"Although they differ somewhat, partly because of attention to either women or men, all three theories address a progression from confusion or uncertainty, through exploration, to resolution or integration."

It is often before (and sometimes during) adolescence that the first stage, one of confusion or uncertainty, is experienced. Emphasising this point, Nancy Sanford notes:

"Because of the stigma and their own inner turmoil and fear, gay and lesbian youth find it very difficult to discuss the issue of homosexuality. Troiden has found that they typically respond to the identity confusion by denying their feelings, striving to 'repair' themselves, avoiding all situations that might increase their homosexual desires and fantasies, assuming heterosexual immersion even to the point of pregnancy, escaping through drugs and alcohol, or rationalizing their behavior, such as stating that it's 'only a phase.' Some, however, because of lack of a sense of support or acceptance, remain stuck in lack of acceptance for months, years or forever."

Or, putting it another way, Paul Gibson notes:

"These conflicts must be resolved before the youth can develop a positive identity as a gay male or lesbian."

After the exploration stage, during which time young lesbians and gays have sexual contact with same-sex partners, which usually confirms their sexuality, many young lesbians and gays make contact with homosexual organisations. This can give access to accurate information about homosexuality, positive role models and support, which in turn can lead onto the final stage of resolution or integration. Dr Slater notes:

"In a well-functioning person, a gay male or lesbian orientation encompasses sexuality, self-estimate, commitment to others, leisure time, friendship patterns, community involvement, and so on. One might consider homosexuality as 'a life-spanning developmental process that eventually leads to personal acceptance of a positive gay self-image and a coherent personal identity.'"

i.e. like it is for heterosexuals!

However, not all lesbian women and gay men achieve a fully integrated homosexual identity; neither do all lesbian women and gay men follow exactly the same route. The process is often more complicated for young lesbians and gays who are disabled (because, of course, disabled people are not supposed to have any sexuality let alone be homosexual). Furthermore, if and when lesbians and gays who are disabled do make contact with the lesbian and gay community, most venues are inaccessible.

Similarly, black and minority ethnic young lesbians and gays not only have the extra problem of racism within the lesbian and gay community, but, as Edward S. Morales says in his paper "Ethnic Minority Families and Minority Gays and Lesbians, 1990:

"For ethnic minority gays and lesbians the 'coming out' process presents challenges in their identity formation processes and in their loyalties to one community over another. Ethnic gay men and lesbians need to live within three rigidly defined and strongly independent communities: the gay and lesbian community, the ethnic minority community, and the society at large. While each community provides fundmental needs, serious consequences emerge if such communities were to be visibly integrated and merged. It requires a constant effort to maintain oneself in three different worlds, each of which fails to support significant aspects of a person's life. The complications that arise may inhibit one's ability to adapt and to maximise personal potentials."

I know several young blacklLesbians who have a black father and white mother and who have been brought up by either their white mother or have been adopted by white people. These young lesbians not only have the problems of developing a positive lesbian identity but also a positive black identity.

As young lesbians are usually brought up by heterosexual parents in a totally heterosexual environment, they are given no support for their sexuality, indeed, they are discriminated against by their parents; neither are they given any help or coping methods to deal with discrimination. Similarly, young black lesbians brought up in a white environment which is racist are often denied access to their black heritage and support/coping methods to deal with racism. For one young black lesbian I know, this resulted in several suicide attempts and in particular one attempt after experiencing dreadful racism, from pupils and teachers, as the only black child in a white school and not having the support and understanding of her white, middle class parents; and in another case when a young black lesbian, in her childhood, tried to change the colour of her skin by having a bath in bleach, she was also racist against Asian girls in her school (having been taught to be racist by her white mother) and is now having to deal with the reality of this.

LESBIANS AND GAY MEN - DIFFERENCES

It is at this point that I want to explore some of the differences between lesbians and gays. Whilst a few researchers identify several differences between lesbians and gay men, these differences are seldom explored.

SUICIDE

For example, early studies show that lesbians attempt suicide more than gay men; Saghir and Robins noted in their book ""Male and Female Homosexuality: A Comprehensive Investigation," 1973, that

"Suicide attempts among the homosexual women tended to be somewhat more serious than among homosexual men."

In an earlier article published in 1970, which they co-wrote with Bonnie Walbran and Kathye Gentry, entitled "Homosexuality IV," they state:

"A substantial proportion (23 percent) of homosexual women attempt suicide. ... Furthermore, homosexual women have a high prevalence of alcohol abuse and depression. These conditions have been shown to be directly related to an increased risk of mortality from suicide. Consequently, this triad of suicide attempts, affective disorders, and alcohol abuse should be of primary consideration whenever a homosexual woman seeks out psychiatric help. Hospitalization might be the necessary initial step during an acute crisis situation."

FEWER LESBIANS?

It has been estimated that the incidence of homosexual behaviour among women is one third to one half less than that among their male peers. Having sex with someone of the same gender does not make you homosexual! However, what we can take from this is that men are sexually more active than women: men are allowed to have their own sexuality; men are allowed - and often encouraged by their peers - to masturbate. Women are usually regarded as only having a sexuality in relation to men and are less aware of their own sexuality.

An interesting study conducted by Paul Paroski in 1987 entitled "Health Care Delivery and the Concerns of Gay and Lesbian Adolescents," revealed that 95.5% of male adolescents used sexual encounters to learn more about the homosexual way of life compared to 15.7% of lesbians who used this method, 87.5% of lesbians relied on television and other media to fulfill this need.

Paroski also found that 80.9% of the young gay men compared to 31.3% of the young lesbians frequented locations which they knew to be gay.

There appears to be more gay men than there are lesbian women. I do not accept this. I am suggesting that the compounded effects of sexism and heterosexism mean that:

* some women are less likely to be aware of their homosexuality.

* women are more likely to suppress their homosexuality; and

* lesbians are more likely to be closeted.

Both suppressing one's sexuality, and being unaware of one's sexuality, could be a major reason why depression is so common among women and why some women feel 'incomplete.'

OLDER WOMEN

The fear, and internalised homophobia, is just as great among older lesbians who come out who have suppressed their sexuality as that of young lesbians coming out.

Because women are less aware of their sexuality, more women coming out as lesbian when they are older.

In February this year "New Woman" magazine published an article about lesbianism and printed the Lesbian Information Service telephone number at the end. We were inundated with telephone calls from older women who had decided to come out as lesbian after years of being married and having children; the majority had known about their sexuality during their youth but had tried to suppress it, whilst some had fallen in love for the first time and said they now knew what love was about!

Older women coming out go through similar stages as young lesbians coming out; some having described this process as a 'second adolescence.' The situation for older women coming out is, however, often complicated when divorce and children are involved. Coming out at any age, without support, is a very stressful process.

PRESSURE TO CONFORM

When a young gay man comes out to his parents he is more likely to be believed, and be supported (most of the parents' groups around the country consist primarily of mothers of gay sons). A young lesbian, on the other hand, experiences much greater pressure to conform to heterosexuality because most people believe that women are more changeable. One result of this is that more lesbians than gay men get married. In the London Gay Teenage Project of 1983, five young lesbians compared to one young gay man had been married.

PREGNANCY

Another result of the pressure to conform is that many young lesbians end up getting pregnant. Indeed, Canadian researcher Margaret Schneider has suggested that an increase in pregnancy amongst young lesbians comes from their desire to hide their lesbianism.

INCEST AND RAPE

As females lesbians are more vulnerable to incest and rape. Sandra J. Potter and Trudy E. Darty note in their article "Social work and the invisible minority: an exploration of lesbianism,":

"According to an article published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, the most common form of sexual abuse is intercourse with or molestation of a daughter by the natural father or step-father, and in almost all cases of sexual abuse of children, the victim is female and the abuser is a male relative or an individual known to the family."

The effects of internalised homophobia and discrimination against young lesbians are similar to the effects of sexual abuse. Mandana Hendessi refers to Derek Jehu's research ("Beyond Sexual Abuse" 1989) and notes:

* 92% of survivors in his research spoke about suffering from low self-esteem and confidence;

* 70% suffered from depressive episodes;

* 92% had sever mood disturbances;

* 60% of those admitted to the treatment programme had previously made suicide attempts;

* 37% had a history of alcohol misuse;

* 35% had a history of drug abuse.

Young women who are sexually abused, like young lesbians, have been rejected by the most important people in their life: their parents!

RELATIONSHIP PROBLEMS

Because of isolation, many young lesbians have a difficult and painful time searching out and finding other lesbians to form relationships with. Emery S. Hetrick and A. Damien Martin state in their article "Developmental Issues and Their Resolution for Gay and Lesbian Adolescents," Journal of Homosexuality, Vol 17, 1987:

"Young lesbians are so isolated that when they do meet another woman they tend to become locked into fused relationships that do not allow for the development of other friendships or peer networks. While fusion is a difficulty in adult lesbian relationships, it is especially troubling for the teenage lesbian who is deprived of important social learning during a critical developmental stage."

The end of a relationship is an extremely traumatic time, a time when many young lesbians contemplate suicide. Shere Hite notes in "Women and Love, the New Hite Report," 1987:

"Since there is no institutionalized public acknowledgement of gay relationships, i.e. 'marriage,' breaking up is more of an emotional test for gay women, more of an emotional ordeal; it brings up all the questioning about the possibility of permanent or lasting relationships - and in many cases, the pain must be hidden, endured alone."

CAMDEN RESEARCH

The London Borough of Camden recently conducted research and highlighted some differences between lesbians and gay men. These included:

* Gay men were on higher income levels than lesbians;

* Lesbians were less likely to be out to their families;

* Significantly fewer lesbians knew that they were lesbians whilst they were at school than gay men knowing that they were gay;

* Both lesbians and gay men experienced hostility at school but more gay men experienced more harsh and frequent abuse and violence. (On the other hand, Trenchard and Warren tell us that lesbians were more isolated than gay men both at school and college);

* Gay men were more likely than lesbians to be out to their GPs but experienced more discrimination and hostility as a result of fears and ignorance around HIV and AIDS;

* More gay men owned their homes, lived in private rented accommodation and overall tended to also live in larger property than lesbians;

* Lesbians were more likely to live in council or housing association property;

* More lesbians than gay men had experienced homelessness and greater harassment in housing situations.

EFFECTS OF HETEROSEXISM, SEXISM AND ADULTISM

I am suggesting that the effects of multi-oppressions, that is, heterosexism, sexism and adultism, compound to result in young lesbians experiencing:

* greater isolation;

* greater invisibility;

* fewer positive role models;

* fewer support networks;

* greater pressure being put on them to conform to heterosexuality;

* greater levels of alcohol (and maybe drug) misuse; and

* greater levels of attempted suicide.

That young lesbians experience:

* less education;

* lower paid employment;

* are more likely to be homeless and dependent on public housing;

* are involved in prostitution.

That young lesbians are:

* less likely to use support agencies.

And that there is

* less acknowledgement and understanding of their problems.

RECENT RESEARCH - LESBIANS

Esther D. Rothblum in "Depression Among Lesbians: An Invisible and Unresearched Phenomenon," 1990, notes:

"There has been little research on lesbians who are not white, not young adults, and not middle class. Problems experienced by lesbians who are members of ethnic minority groups, adolescents, older women, or women in prison need to be examined more closely. The double burden of being a lesbian in this society in addition to differing demographically from the lesbian community may increase rates of depression."

1988 U.S. HEALTH CARE SURVEY

In the 1988 U.S. National Lesbian Health Care Survey, Final Report, Judith Bradford and Caitlin Ryan highlighted that mental health problems were what distinguished lesbian health from the female population as a whole, and emphasised the effects of discrimination, physical and sexual abuse, substance abuse, the impact of outness/closetedness on mental health, access to non-discriminatory and informed services, and the positive effects of acceptance and integration of lesbian identity.

The research was conducted primarily with white, middle class and middle aged (not old or young), lesbians who lived in areas where feminist and gay support services exist, suggesting that many of the participants would have been feminist.

I have come to realise the importance of making a distinction between feminist-lesbians and non feminist-lesbians, especially in relation to young lesbians who are less likely to be feminist and more likely to internalise homophobia. The coming-out process is very different for feminist-lesbians, a process which is described by Lillian Faderman, in her essay "The 'New Gay' Lesbians" 1984:

"Although the lesbian-feminist would know about the general intolerance towards homosexuality, the political group with which she is ideologically associated (either through her radical feminist reading or through actual social contact) would insulate and distance her from the prevailing homophobia. Lesbian-feminist autobiographies often depict a progression from heterosexuality, to radical feminism, and finally lesbianism with little of the internalization of the guilt, shame, and fear that society generally imposes on male homosexuals."

The backgrounds of the participants of the U.S. health care study are reflected in the fact that only 18% of them had attempted suicide. However, there were sufficient responses from black, Latina, working class and young lesbians to show that

* the highest age group to attempt suicide were between 15 and 24;

* there were more attempts by black and Latina lesbians than by white lesbians;

* and more attempts by working class (unemployed and poorly educated) lesbians.

HILARY WOOD, JULY 1992

In July 1992, Hilary Wood, a student on the Manchester Polytechnic Youth and Community Work Diploma Course, conducted a survey in Manchester concerning "Young Lesbians and Mental Health," of the 68 questionnaires, 38 were completed by lesbians aged 25 and below.

* Sixty-three percent of the participants had suffered from extreme stress;

* 45% had periods of depression;

* 43% had hurt themselves deliberately;

* 39% had thought about killing themselves; and

* 21% had tried to kill themselves.

Wood noted:

"These are likely to be young lesbians with the resources, the ability, the self-confidence, the information and the social network to go out on the 'scene.' Therefore they are not the most isolated of young lesbians living in Manchester."

VIC BARBELER, JULY 1992

In July 1992 Vic Barbeler presented "The Young Lesbian Report, A Study of the Attitudes and Behaviours of Young Lesbians Today," at the 6th National Adolescent Health Conference in Australia. Two hundred young women, most identifying as lesbians from a "fairly representative cross-section of backgrounds" completed questionnaires made available in support groups, coffee shops and licensed venues. Of the participants,

* 63% had contemplated suicide;

* 30% had actually attempted suicide;

* 27% had experienced physical violence because of their sexuality (compared to 15% in the Lesbian Conference survey in 1991);

* For 35% of these women, physical assault took the form of rape;

* 59% smoked;

* 27% used depressants;

* 63% cannabis;

* 42.5% stimulants;

* 41.5% inhalants;

* 41.5% hallucinogens;

* 12% of 14-18 year olds misued substances;

* 25% left home because of their sexuality;

* average age at which knew sexuality 16.4 years - many felt negative about it and experienced a fear of rejection and self-loathing;

* 85% experienced a rejection from parents;

* 60% had felt very depressed because of their sexuality;

* 89.5% had experienced discrimiination (school, emloyment, police, accommodation, the church, medical services).

* only 30% knew of support services for young lesbians.

LESBIAN INFORMATION SERVICE RESEARCH, 1990-1991

My research of 1990/91 included in-depth interviews with thirteen lesbians (ten aged 25 and below, nine were working class, one of whom was black and three of whom were disabled; four were fat), most of the participants came from an area in Lancashire (or rural areas) where there is no support for lesbians.

My findings included the following:

* Nine of the participants - that is 69% the highest figure I have yet come across - had attempted suicide, three had thought about it, and only one had never thought about it. Of those who had attempted suicide, several had made 5 or 6 attempts. Methods used included: overdose by both tablets and alcohol; hanging; drowning; walking in front of moving vehicles; standing on railway lines; and mutilation of arms.

* Five had abused themselves in other ways such as banging head against wall, cutting self.

* All of the particpants had experienced long periods of depression.

* All of the participants used alcohol, nine having alcohol problems.

* Most had used drugs.

* Eight used tobacco.

* Eight had been homeless.

* Five had been raped or experienced incest.

* Four had had children, a fifth had had an abortion.

* Six were unemployed, one at school, three worked in factories, one wa a cleaner, one a youth worker and the other worked in a residential home.

* One participants said she's always known she was attracted to women; another said she knew at 8, four knew at 11, one at 12, one at 13, two at 15, one at 16, one at 18 and one at 19.

* Only two had acquired further education (one as a mature student);

* Most said that they would not use agencies such as The Samaritans or CAB because they felt their sexuality would not be accepted.

[I have since interviewed a further six young lesbians, two of whom are black, five have attempted suicide.]

CONCLUSION

I want to finish by emphasising the effects of multi-oppressions. As I said at the beginning, all people who are oppressed internalise the negative messages portrayed by society. The more oppressions you experience the more negative messages you internalise. The more you are discriminated against it is more likely that you'll lack access to the 'buffers' privileges offer (especially middle class privileges). These include, not only access to a good education, which in turn means better job opportunities and more money, but also better housing, greater independence, greater self-esteem and a better foundation with which to cope with the experiences of discrimination.

We can all learn from our experiences and share them. We know that oppressed people internalise the negative images an oppressive society portrays; we know that this internalisation, together with the other effects of discrimination, mean that some people are more vulnerable to depression, suicide, alcohol and drug misuse and other psycho-social problems. We know that young lesbians, in particular those who live in isolated areas and those who are multi-oppressed (as, indeed, all young lesbians are), are particularly vulnerable. Short-term we can stop this ridiculous waste of life by providing proper support. And we don't need to start from scratch - much research and experience already exists in America and is easily available here through the British Library. Long-term, we can challenge a system that perpetuates such abuse and thereby prevent it happening.

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© Jan Bridget 1992