LESBIAN AND GAY YOUTH
Various government departments and youth organisations have, from time to time, acknowledged the existence and needs of lesbian and gay youth. Take the following quotes as an example:
* "The Youth Service should seek to meet the needs of all young people irrespective of their sexual orientation in a sympathetic and informed manner." National Executive Council of the NAYC (National Association of Youth Clubs), 1977.
* "The individual stories of group members reveal the extreme difficulties they face in coming to terms with their own sexuality exacerbated by the hostility with which they are surrounded. They often feel cut off from the usual support groups within the youth service which they hesitate to approach for fear of being rejected or judged harshly." Department of Education and Science, H.M.I. Report on "Youth Counselling Services," 1988.
* "The Youth Service has a responsibility to provide social education for young lesbians, no less than any other group of young women, and to do so in whatever way is more appropriate, ie separate provision as a choice if required." Department of Education and Science, NACYS (National Advisory Council For The Youth Service) report "Youth Work With Girls And Young Women," 1989.
* "The needs and concerns of young gay men and women must ... be recognised and approached sympathetically." "Gay young men and women may require very sympathetic carers to enable them to accept their sexuality and to develop their self-esteem." Guidance and Regulations on Family Placements, the Children Act, 1991.
There are some lesbian and gay youth groups but these are mainly found in cities, they are usually run by voluntary organisations such as lesbian and gay helplines, and rarely receive adequate funding and support from the local authority youth service. When local authority groups exist these are usually under-resourced and are forced to keep a low profile, which often makes them inaccessible to the very young people they are supposed to service (the North London Line is a rare exception). The vast majority of these groups are mixed which, as girls workers have proven over the years, means that they are male dominated and the needs of young women - in this case young lesbian women - are either minimalised or ignored.
The introduction of section 28 of the Local Government Act in 1988, which prohibits local authorities from intentionally promoting homosexuality, or from promoting in maintained schools "teaching...of the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship," certainly slowed down - and in many cases stopped - the development of local authority lesbian and gay youth groups. This was despite Mrs Thatcher saying, in the same year, that homosexuals were entitled to receive services "on the same basis as everyone else" which was reiterated in a Department of Education and Science Circular which stressed that section 28 was not intended to "stop activities in health care and counselling..."
In 1992, the Department of Health published "Health of the Nation." Among the objectives are: the reduction of unwanted pregnancies; the reduction of HIV infection; and the reduction of suicides by 15% by the year 2,000. The report notes:
"The mental health of children and adolescents is a particularly important area as many are vulnerable to physical, intellectual, emotional, social or behavioural developmental disorders which, if not treated, may have serious implications for adult life."
It is our contention that young gay men are particularly at risk for HIV infection; that many young lesbians are vulnerable to unwanted pregnancies; and that both lesbian and gay youth are particularly vulnerable to suicide and suicidal behaviour.
U.S., Australian and English research shows that lesbian and gay youth are a high risk group for suicide, with implications that there are more lesbians than gay men who attempt suicide, that more black lesbians and gays attempt suicide and that class is also a factor, there being more working class lesbians and gays who attempt suicide.
Attempts have been made to suppress this research. In the U.S.A. some senators tried to omit the paper dealing with lesbian and gay youth in the four volume government report on youth suicide because it ran "contrary" to the aim of "advancing traditional family values" and that the paper was being used by the gay community to advance a "homosexual political agenda." In Britain the Samaritans have only recently (1993) acknowledged that lesbian and gay youth are a high risk for suicide.
It is crucial we acknowledge that lesbian and gay youth are vulnerable, to ask why, and to do something about it. Otherwise, the issue will continue to be swept under the carpet and the situation will never change.
Why Are Lesbian and Gay Youth Vulnerable?
Adolescence is a vulnerable time: young people are breaking away from their parents/guardians and becoming independent; they are trying out new things and falling in love at a time when there is great pressure from the media, family and peers to be dating the opposite sex, to be beautiful/handsome, to be feminine/masculine, to be slim and wear the latest fashions. Adolescents generally have low self-esteem and are vulnerable to these pressures. Add to this the extremely stressful and complicated process experienced by those lesbians and gays who are aware of their sexuality from an early age - especially those who do not conform to the feminine/masculine stereotypes - and it is hardly surprising lesbian and gay youth are at risk.
Lesbian and gay youth are brought up as heterosexuals in a world where everyone - including their parents/guardians and themselves - is taught to hate and fear homosexuals (homophobia). The vast majority of lesbian and gay youth grow up in complete isolation with no access to accurate information about homosexuality or positive role models or peer support. On the contrary, they are subjected to negative images of homosexuality which, like everyone else, they internalise. They often hear negative comments from friends, teachers, family members. Their feelings of guilt are usually made worse if they come from a religious family who make it known that they believe homosexuality is a sin.
Unlike other teenagers, lesbian and gay youth do not (or rarely) have the support of youth workers, teachers, parents or friends. Indeed, they live in great dread of these people finding out about their true identity and rejection by them. Schools and youth groups promote homophobia by a) not challenging discriminatory remarks b) not including issues of homosexuality in the curricula and c) not providing any support. In other words, institutions intentionally keep lesbian and gay youth isolated and vulnerable.
Until the time that they decide to come out, lesbian and gay youth constantly live a lie; this creates terrible emotional strain which can come out in depression, alcohol and drug misuse, promiscuity (for young gay men this is often with older gay men, leaving them open to abuse and HIV infection, for young lesbians with older lesbians but also boys/men, leaving them open to abuse and unwanted pregnancies), running away from home and living on the streets with the further risks of drug and alcohol abuse, prostitution, STD and HIV infection, all of which are extra risks for suicidal behaviour. Of course, many young people experience sexual abuse in the family - especially girls - which adds yet another risk factor.
The coming out process is an extremely vulnerable time for all lesbians and gays but especially for those who are young, because of the potential for abuse by all adults - including 'professionals.' Lesbian and gay youth risk being thrown out of home; if they are in the care of the local authority then they usually experience homophobia from both staff and other residents. On coming out to 'professional' workers, such as teachers, social workers, youth workers, young lesbians and gays are often greeted with: "It's only a phase," or "Come back when you're twenty-one!" They do not receive the support and accurate information they so desperately need.
Isolation is the main cause of depression and suicide attempts among lesbian and gay youth. This is especially acute for those who have not yet come out; those who live in small towns and rural areas; those who belong to other minority groups, for example, black lesbians and gays, minority ethnic lesbians and gays, working class lesbians and gays, and disabled lesbians and gays; and especially those who are female. Because of the triple oppressions of ageism, sexism and homophobia, young lesbians are especially isolated, invisible and unsupported. There is evidence to suggest that suicide is increasing among young gay men because of the AIDS crisis.
The system which oppresses homosexuals through institutional homophobia in the media, law, family, church, education (and which we internalise) uses the same devices to oppress other minority groups. Thus, a working class young lesbian/gay will not only have reduced access to accurate information about homosexuality and support but they will also have internalised negative images of being poor and working class - as well as experiencing discrimination because of their class - which will add to their already low self-esteem. The same is true for black lesbians and gays, minority ethnic lesbians and gays, disabled lesbians and gays. It is not surprising, therefore, that lesbians and gays who are multi-oppressed are more vulnerable to depression/suicide, alcohol/drug misuse.
U.S. research has shown that people who belong to minority groups go through a similar process of acquiring a minority identity:
Stage 1: Conformity: we are aware that we are different from the majority but, because we have internalised all the negative images and beliefs about our minority status communicated by the dominant society, we prefer the dominant culture. In other words, we want to be heterosexual (or white, or English, or able-bodied/minded, or middle class). Conforming to something we are not makes us incomplete and fractured people; it creates depression and deep conflict.
Stage 2: Split-Identity: We become aware that we share similar experiences with other members of our minority group but we are still influenced by the dominant culture. This creates feelings of pride and at the same time shame. We experience conflict and confusion over our values and beliefs. We want to reach out to other homosexuals but are frightened of meeting them (or of being seen going into a gay venue).
Being able to 'pass' as heterosexual means that homosexuals can get stuck in this stage for the rest of their lives and never fully develop their self-esteem. A similar option of 'passing' is open to people with hidden disabilities, minority ethnic people with light coloured skin, and upwardly mobile working class people.
Stage 3: Separatism: We reject the dominant society and culture and positively identify with our minority culture. We have access to accurate information (realising that it is society which is wrong, not us), positive role models and support. The separatism stage is extremely important in helping to eliminate internalised negative images and beliefs, making us complete persons and developing our self-esteem.
There is also a danger of getting stuck in this stage, however, when we become arrogant and argue that we are the 'most oppressed.' We ignore or minimalise other oppressions. In consequence we are, in turn, guilty of oppressing not only other minority groups but also members of our minority group who are multi-oppressed.
Stage 4: Constraints: We begin to realise that being separate from the rest of society means that we are limited in what we can do, what we can achieve. We realise we must go outside of the minority group to fulfill all of our needs and to challenge the system.
Stage 5: Multi-Awareness: We become aware that oppression follows a similar pattern for all minority groups. We make links between oppressions and want to eliminate all forms of oppression.
For some minority groups, developing our own self-worth can come naturally through the support of our families and communities but for others, especially homosexuals, we are brought up in an environment which not only devalues and oppresses us but also keeps us isolated.
One does not, automatically, pass through each stage. Because of isolation many lesbians and gays - but especially lesbians - never get beyond Stage One or Two, and therefore do not deal with their internalised oppression, which means that we remain vulnerable to depression and suicide. Some of us have developed negative methods of dealing with our conflict and oppression, such as alcohol and drug misuse, whilst for others, permanent inner conflict has resulted in emotional problems; this makes us more vulnerable to suicidal behaviour. Having a low self-opinion leaves us open to other self-destructive behaviours and a weak lesbian/gay identity.
Those who remain in Stage One are most vulnerable. Lesbians and gays need special support when they are coming out and coming to terms with their sexuality - and there can be no doubt that being 'out' has a demonstrably positive effect on one's emotional well-being. Getting stuck in Stage Two also makes us vulnerable, especially if we are isolated. When we find ourselves a partner, tremendous strain can be put on that relationship if we have not developed relationship skills or ways of dealing with discrimination and do not have contact with other homosexuals. This can result in suicidal feelings when our relationships end, especially our first relationship.
What We Can Do
This all sounds very gloomy. In fact, it isn't. Now that we know why lesbian and gay youth are vulnerable, something can be done about it. For example:
1. Adult lesbians and gays should come out to give our youth positive role models. An added bonus is that we will also develop our own self-esteem in the process! But we must make sure that we have adequate support to do this.
2. Support groups (separate ones to acknowledge our different experiences and needs) should be set up:-
a. for adult lesbians and adult gays to help us to eliminate our internalised homophobia and other oppressions and, where necessary, to come off drugs and alcohol or stop other negative and harmful habits from forming and to develop positive ways of dealing with oppression. This will help us to develop positive identities and, in turn, become positive role models which will enable us to support lesbian and gay youth; and
b. for young lesbians and gays to help them either get rid of, or to stop the development of, self hatred and misuse of alcohol and drugs or other harmful 'coping' methods; to help them develop more effective ways of coping with oppression; to help them develop relationship skills; to acquire peer support; to give them access to accurate information and support during their coming out period; to help them develop a positive self-esteem.
3. At the same time, youth services can help this process by acknowledging their responsibilities and the roles they play in perpetuating the oppression of lesbian and gay youth; introducing comprehensive policies, procedures, programmes and on-going training which is committed to eradicating homophobia within the youth service, and by integrating support groups for lesbian and gay youth within their services.
4. Basic training agencies must also take the issues on board and provide special courses for those youth workers who wish to work with lesbian and gay youth. Merely being lesbian or gay and a youth worker is not enough. We need to understand the complicated processes young lesbians and gays go through and a prerequisite is to deal with our own internalised homophobia first.
© Jan Bridget 1993