LESBIAN YOUTH SUPPORT INFORMATION SERVICE
OBSERVATIONS OF WIDER SIGNIFICANCE
Work with LIS/LYSIS over the past two years strongly suggests:
* More and more young lesbians are coming out at younger ages: many are highly vulnerable to mental health problems and in desperate need of support.
* More older lesbians are coming out. Their experiences confirm that there are enormous emotional consequences of suppressing lesbianism.
* There appears to be general acknowledgement of the needs of, and support for, young gay men (emanating from HIV prevention work); there is no understanding of the needs of young lesbians especially around mental health issues and alcohol misuse, nor support.
* Section 28 of the Local Government Act is stopping appropriate support being made available/publicised by local authorities.
Young lesbians have featured in the work of LIS since it was established in July 1987. Working with young lesbians revealed that they were a vulnerable group in need of support but that little support was available through mainstream services (health, social, youth, education).
In 1990 LIS began research into the needs and experiences of young lesbians. The findings indicate that being an isolated young lesbian is strongly associated with psychological vulnerability, self-damaging behaviour and social rejection, as the following data underlines:-
14 of the 20 had attempted suicide, this included 45 attempts
17 of the 20 experienced long periods of depression
10 of the 20 abused themselves in other ways, e.g. cutting up
17 of the 20 used alcohol, 10 having serious drink problems
11 of the 20 had eating problems including anorexia and bulimia
11 of the 20 had been homeless.
U.S. research and provision, which has been going on for over 20 years, suggests that lesbian and gay youth are 2-6 times more likely to attempt suicide than heterosexual youth and that they may comprise up to 30% of completed youth suicides. It has also been discovered that lesbian and gay youth are most vulnerable when they are trying to come to terms with their sexual orientation and that, with access to accurate information, peer and adult support and positive role models, many of the harmful coping behaviours can be avoided or reduced.
In order to concentrate the work of LIS on young lesbians, the two volunteers, Jan Bridget and Sandra Lucille, set up the project LYSIS in 1991. Until the Mental Health Foundation (MHF) award of £30,000 over two years in 1995, LIS/LYSIS had only managed to acquire small amounts of funding.
There are no other national organisations whose work consists primarily of supporting young lesbians. Indeed, there are only a few national lesbian organisations and a handful of young lesbian groups scattered throughout Britain. This contrasts sharply with the number of projects aimed at supporting young gay men!
The aims of LYSIS are to provide appropriate support to young lesbians, make visible their experiences and establish and improve appropriate support services in order to prevent or modify the development of harmful coping behaviours.
Providing Appropriate Support
The support is directed at isolated young lesbians (mainly those living in small towns and rural areas) who are just coming to terms with their lesbianism. We have, therefore, developed long-distance methods of support which include: targetted publicity (agony aunts in magazines, directories, agencies); correspondence counselling; telephone counselling (helpline); provision of accurate information (booklet 'i think i might be a lesbian .. now what do i do?' Young Lesbian Coming Out Pack, books, videos); referrals (to local support groups where they exist - these are usually only found in cities and large towns and are often mixed (lesbian and gay) with the needs of young men dominating, to supportive counsellors where we can find them); peer support (Pen-Pal Scheme); and advocacy (with parents, doctors, social workers, counsellors).
Establishing and Improving Appropriate Support Services
We aim to establish and improve appropriate support services by publicising the issues which face young lesbians; providing information to workers/agencies; producing publications; conducting training; advocating/campaigning to get agencies to take on board the issues; conducting research; and developing theory to understand the needs of young lesbians.
There is a third, and somewhat hidden, aim: to ensure the service continues to operate. This became even more relevant after the first year of funding when one of the founders and volunteers left the project. Thank you, Sandra, for the many years of hard work and support you've given to young lesbians.
In order to achieve this the following methods are being utilised:- development of a management structure with sub groups for funding and employment; preparation of a business plan; applying for charitable trust status; developing monitoring and evaluation procedures; developing administrative procedures; acquiring funding for new staff, equipment and larger premises.
Providing Appropriate Support
Publicity has increased dramatically during this period, no doubt due partly to increased visibility of lesbianism in the media. LIS/LYSIS regularly appears in the 'agony aunt' columns of magazines (Chat, Mizz, Take a Break, TV Times) and has also appeared in newspapers (The Sun, The Guardian), on television (Agony Hour, Good Sex Guide), radio (Northamptonshire Radio, Radio 5 Live, Freedom FM), BBC Helpline for television and radio, gay media (Gay Times, Pink Paper, Diva), youth service media (Young People Now, Youth Clubs UK), directories (telephone, yellow pages, Thomson, NACAB, MIND, Samaritans, Childline, Bournemouth Library Database, English Nursing and Midwifery Database, Stockport Youth Service, Camden & Islington Young Peoples' Information Booklet, the Women's Directory, to name but a few).
Support provided to young lesbians - the majority isolated - has increased significantly: 1994-1995, 444; 1995-1996, 573; 1996-1997, 775. All of the young women who contact LYSIS and who can receive post are sent a free copy of the booklet 'i think i might be a lesbian ... now what do i do?' and information about any local support, the Pen-Pal Scheme, the Helpline and the Coming Out Pack. The Pen-Pal Scheme membership rose from c.30 in 1994-1995 to 150 in 1995-1996 to 221 in 1996-1997. Many of the young lesbians write to thank LYSIS:
Thanks very much for finding me a pen-pal. We have a lot in common and its comforting to talk to people who understand how I feel. It means a lot to me to have that support.
Thanks also for the 'Coming Out' pack. I found myself agreeing to a lot of the stuff said and thinking more positively about being a lesbian.
My friends who have known I was a lesbian for a while say that since writing to LYSIS and my penpal I've become a more cheerful person - more like my old self. I'm glad.
Thanks for everything.
MHF funding has enabled LYSIS to call many young lesbians back on the telephone (most are scared their parents will see the number on their bills) as well as sending out free copies of the Coming Out Pack to those who cannot afford them and to cover the cost of postage and packing for loaning books and videos.
More recent use of the Health Promotion Unit address list for England has enabled LYSIS to access supportive counsellors for young lesbians - LYSIS is enabling service providers to meet clients!
Negative outcomes during this period include inability to conduct the survey of provision and establish a data-base due to lack of funding and staff; homophobic responses of the parents of a young lesbian and a social worker in the Midlands: the former putting pressure on their daughter to become heterosexual and threatening LYSIS, the latter telling a young lesbian we were supporting that she wasn't lesbian and should stop contacting LYSIS. Not only does this sort of behaviour not succeed but it significantly increases the mental health problems of young lesbians.
Establishing and Improving Appropriate Support Services
Issues concerning young lesbians have been publicised in articles (Lesbian Youth Support Information Service (LYSIS): Developing a Distance Support Agency for Young Lesbians, Jan Bridget & Sandra Lucille, Journal of Community & Applied Social Psychology, Vol 6, 386.1-10 (1996); Hidden but not Forgotten: Lesbian and Gay Youth, in Getting it Together, Jan Bridget, Good Practice in Mental Health, 1996); on television (Agony Hour, UK Living), on the radio (All in the Mind, Radio 4, Freedom FM), in the gay press (Pink Paper, Gay Times); at conferences/workshops/lectures (Association of Lesbian, Gay and Bisexual Psychologies - UK, Nottingham, MIND National Conference, Blackpool, Hillcroft College, Surbiton, Women & Mental Health, Leeds, Royal College of Nursing, London, Bradford University, MIND's Without Prejudice...Awareness Training in Lesbian, Gay and Bisexual Mental Health, Manchester), and at training events (Homophobia Awareness Module, Multi-Oppression Module - these have come about as a result of developing a theoretical framework based on the activities of LIS, a framework which has been transformed into a practical training course and which underpins the work of LIS/LYSIS - University of Manchester).
Requests for information from workers/agencies have also risen significantly during this period: 1994-1995, 705, 1995-1996, 987, 1996-1997, 917. This implies there is an increased interest in young lesbians. Due to lack of staff, the Resource Lists have not been up-dated this year (data searches, acquiring articles, computerising abstracts). In the period 1995-1996, however, six new lists were published (Attitudes, Religion, Butch/Fem, Discrimination & Law, Homophobia Awareness Training and Etiology) while the remaining 12 were up-dated, as was the Coming Out Pack. The Booklet 'i think i might be a lesbian ... now what do i do?' has been professionally typset and printed with help from Calderdale Health Promotion Centre and distributed to Health Promotion Units in England: the wider distribution this booklet receives the wider LYSIS is publicised. Publications are seen as a major way of disseminating information, encouraging both provision and research; they also provide much needed income! Unfortunately, there is not enough time, staff or equipment to promote them.
In the past we have challenged/encouraged relevant agencies to take on board the needs of young lesbians (e.g. National Youth Agency, Youth Clubs UK, Trust for the Study of Adolescence, MIND, Samaritans, as well as local authorities - some with more success than others). This aspect of our work has been placed on hold partly due to lack of time but also because it is very demoralising experiencing homophobia face-to-face from institutions who are supposed to be supportive.
Whilst LYSIS is in a perfect position to conduct research into the needs and experiences of isolated young lesbians, due to reduction in staff and lack of funding we have been unable to pursue this. We were instrumental in setting up Esteem: The national advisory group on self-harm and related behaviours in young lesbians and gays in 1995 but have been unable to attend any of the meetings for some time; Esteem was unsuccessful in a Lottery bid and it seems likely that the group has closed although the project has been instrumental in developing a network of interested academics and practitioners.
The multi-oppression framework which underpins the work of LIS/LYSIS has developed as a result of the combination of providing support, conducting research, developing training and publications. By multi-oppression we mean that young lesbians are made powerless and become vulnerable because of their youth, gender and sexual orientation and that many others are also minority ethnic, working class and disabled. When we support young lesbians we take on board all aspects of their identity; the more oppressed groups a young lesbian belongs to the more vulnerable she is likely to be.
A management group has been set up; members include: the leader of the local council, a local vicar, representatives from the education service, health promotion service, alcohol treatment agency, young lesbian group and the Yorkshire Rural Development Commission. Sub-groups need to be set up for funding and employment and training is being arranged. A business plan is nearing completion; this will be used as the basis for future funding applications. An application to become a charitable trust is currently being submitted. Monitoring and evaluation forms as well as other administrative procedures have been drawn up; we are waiting for more staff, larger premises and new equipment to be able to implement them.
AGENDA FOR ACTION
* There is an urgent need for a survey of support groups, networking between groups, training and conferences for those who work with lesbian/lesbian and gay youth.
* Projects/services must be given appropriate funding, support and training. One part-time session a week is totally insufficient to deal with the needs of young lesbians.
* The type of support offered to young lesbians must be developed to suit their needs. As well as support and social groups young lesbians need one-to-one counselling and the support of adults. Many young lesbians are unable to attend groups and need other types of support, such as those used by LYSIS.
* Agencies need to ensure it is easy for potential users to contact them. All too often there is only an ansaphone and lesbians who are just coming out are unlikely to leave a message on an ansaphone. Similarly, only being available one night a week puts a lot of lesbians off.
* Agencies need to set up procedures to support lesbians to attend their services/group e.g. offering to write to them first, meeting them (sometimes several times), introducing them to group members, keeping a special watch on them to ensure they are settling in and follow-up if the person doesn't come back - losing one young lesbian could mean losing a life.
* It can, and often does, take a long time to set up a support group for young lesbians - publicity and networking for referrals is crucial.
* A great amount of patience is required in supporting young lesbians, especially in the early stages of coming out.
* Lesbians often contact agencies for general information; what the caller usually needs is support in coming out/dealing with isolation.
* Supporting young lesbians is a long process: it often takes a long time to deal with internalised homophobia and develop a positive self identity.
* The model which LYSIS has developed could be utilised for similar projects, e.g. for older lesbians, parents of lesbians, ex-partners of lesbians, children of lesbians - both across the country and across counties.
Lesbian Information Service celebrates its 10th anniversary in July 1997. We have supprted 1,000's of young lesbians during this period. Success means that demand is outstripping our capacity to cope. Without major core funding in the very near future LIS/LYSIS will have to close.
For further information contact Jan Bridget, Lesbian Information Service, P.O. Box 8, Todmorden, Lancashire, OL14 5TZ, 01706.817235.