Author Matthew Todd and members of Irish support agencies talk to Sharon Ní Chonchúir about the need for ongoing progress.
BIG steps have been taken towards equality in recent years, but a worrying number of LGBT people suffer from anxiety, depression, addiction and other mental health problems.
“How can this be,” asks Matthew Todd, the author of a new book Straight Jacket: How to be Gay and Happy.
“Everywhere you turn there is progress. There are huge numbers of contented, successful gay people.
"More and more straight people are friends and allies, sexuality is becoming less and less important, and the rights of transgender people are coming into the spotlight… Yet is becoming increasingly clear that a disproportionate number of us are not thriving as we should.”
This includes well-known gay men and women who have struggled to accept their sexuality.
Todd — a former editor of Attitude, the UK’s biggest-selling gay magazine — points to Westlife pop star Mark Feehily, sports stars Gareth Thomas and Donal Óg Cusack, and Scottish politician, Ruth Davidson among others.
Drawing on his own life experience and on expert research, he arrives at the conclusion that growing up gay can leave a person with a deep sense of shame and low self-worth.
“What’s wrong is not our sexuality but our experience of growing up in a society that still does not fully accept people can be anything other than heterosexual and cisgendered,” he says.
He grew up in England during the AIDS epidemic.
Even though homosexuality had been legalised in 1967, homophobia was still rife. (It was decriminalised in Ireland in 1993.)
At a time when he was coming to terms with being gay, he heard lots of messages about how bad that was.
He reacted by trying to escape his self-hatred through porn, alcohol and lots of casual sex.
It has taken him years to arrive at this conclusion and to work his way through his problems.
This book is his attempt to share practical advice on how others can follow suit.
Does Todd’s experience hold true in Ireland?
What messages are young LGBT people growing up hearing here?
Is homophobia still present or in the aftermath of the same-sex marriage referendum, has Irish society become more accepting of its LGBT community?
David Roche of the Cork Gay Project thinks there is still cause for concern.
“In a historical context, it’s probably the best it’s ever been,” he says.
“But anyone who thinks equality is a done deal would be completely wrong.”
Internalised homophobia is the biggest issue Roche has seen in his 16 years of working with Cork’s gay community.
“It makes people act out in school and act the hard man when it comes to drink and drugs,” he says.
“It’s all down to low self-esteem and it’s a problem that’s not going away.”
He thinks the general lack of representation of young people is one reason for this.
“From the books we read to the media we see, we still live in a boy/girl world,” he says.
“Everything is designed around straight couples. Take the ads you see for mortgages on TV— they never show gay couples.”
The school curriculum is designed from a straight point of view too: “No mention is made of gay people so there is no frame of reference for them.”
More role models are needed.
“When I ask young people in schools to name gay people they know, they always mention Graham Norton,” says Roche.
“It’s rarely a local policeman or dentist, rarely an ordinary person they know.
“What this means is that young people don’t see gay people around them. Because they’re not accessing positive messages about homosexuality, they can internalise negative ones.
"We need a greater variety of role models. Gay people should be as varied as people.”
John Duffy, THE national network manager with BeLonG To, a support group for young LGBT people in Ireland, agrees.
“The young people we deal with every day still have problems in many areas of their lives,” he says.
“They’re bullied in school and on the street. There’s a general sense that they’re not treated equally. There can be a sense of invisibility too.
"LGBT people are often not mentioned, or only mentioned in a negative manner. They have achieved greater equality but we’re not there yet.”
The LGBTI Ireland Report which was published in March was the largest ever study of LGBTI people in Ireland and the first with a sample of intersex people.
It had two components. The first explored the mental health and wellbeing of 2,274 LGBTI people.
The second was based on interviews with 1,008 members of the public, and explored their attitudes to LGBTI people.
As Matthew Todd might have predicted, the results were mixed.
A 70% majority reported good self-esteem, happiness and life satisfaction.
However, a significant number were not doing as well, particularly in the younger age groups.
The report found that LGBTI young people have two times the level of self-harm of their heterosexual peers, three times the level of attempted suicide, and four times the level of severe or extremely severe stress, anxiety, and depression.
“It’s not good enough,” says Duffy.
“We’ve made such progress but these figures show that there is still a real problem.”
Homophobic bullying remains an issue with young people.
“It’s the last big endemic form of bullying that needs to be tackled,” says Roche.
“So many people use the word ‘gay’ to describe something that is uncool.
"Hearing someone say ‘that song is gay’ is hearing your identity being associated with something negative. That can be damaging.”
One in two respondents in the LGBTI Ireland Report had personally experienced anti-LGBTI bullying at school.
One in four had even skipped school to avoid the bullying.
Not enough is being done to tackle this problem, says Duffy.
“Although the previous Government brought out an action plan on bullying which included homophobic and trans bullying and although groups like BeLonG To send out anti-bullying packs to all schools and youth services in the country, not all schools do anything about it,” he says.
“As a result, young people are still suffering.”
Sex education also needs to improve if LGBTI young people are to flourish.
It’s not just John Duffy and David Roche who think this.
Almost eight in 10 of those interviewed in the LGBTI Ireland Report stated that LGBT issues should be addressed in sex and relationships education in Irish schools.
“This needs to start at an early age,” says Duffy.
“The LGBTI Ireland Report revealed that the most common age for young people to realise they are LGBT is 12. They need to receive positive messages about what that means before then.
“Today, the most common age for people to come out is 16, which means they keep their sexual identity secret for four years.
"This can have a negative impact on their mental health and education can play a role in countering this.”
Roche agrees: “LGBT teens need help if they’re to develop in positive ways,” he says.
“If they’re forced to smother their sexuality at this early stage, it will only come out in negative ways later.”
Progress has been made but there is still a long way to go before real equality is achieved for the LGBT community.
However, there is hope for the future.
“We’re the largest minority in the country,” says Roche.
“Statistically, there is an LGBT person in every family.
"All social change has to be culturally appropriate to its time and, as we saw in people’s reaction to the same-sex marriage referendum, it’s now finally appropriate for us to fulfil our duty of care to the LGBT community of Ireland.”
Fear stems from ignorance
Jesse Sleator has experienced the positive and negative sides of growing up LGBT in Ireland.
Aged 17 and from Dublin, she identifies as pansexual.
She didn’t think there was anything unusual about that until she got a negative reaction from a group of males when she was in her early teens.
“They were looking at a girl, saying she was hot,” remembers Jesse.
“When I agreed, they were shocked. They said I wasn’t supposed to look at her in that way..”
The experience didn’t bother her too much.
“I thought they were stupid,” she says.
“I had lots of gay friends at the time and went on to have my first girlfriend at 14. They weren’t going to stop me.”
Her family reacted in a more accepting fashion.
“My mam just said: ‘OK, now what do you want for dinner?’” says Jesse.
However, things got worse when Jesse realised she was also gender-fluid.
This meant she cut her hair and started to occasionally dress as a man.
“I’m not as confident about that part of my identity,” she admits.
“It’s a lot less accepted than being attracted to people of the opposite sex. It’s where being gay was years and years ago.”
There have been some problems with other students at her secondary school.
“Most people in the older years have their heads on straight and don’t care but there is ignorance in the younger years,” she says.
“It doesn’t bother me but I know a younger trans person who is being bullied and they’re finding it hard.”
She believes her teachers don’t know how to help.
“They don’t understand,” she says.
“Maybe they are scared or uneasy with the situation.”
LGBT sex education at school was virtually non-existent.
“I asked some questions about LGBT issues but got no answers.”
Things are getting better but Jesse thinks Ireland has a long way to go.
“The same-sex marriage result was wonderful but it would be dangerous for us to take our foot off the pedal now,” she says.
On the streets she has been a target.
She has had a bottle thrown at her, been spat at and had rocks thrown at her.
“Not to mention the countless times I’ve been called a dyke or a faggot,” she adds.
She believes most of these problems could be solved by education.
“Fear stems from ignorance and if people understood, they wouldn’t be afraid,” she says.
“Even small things like proper sex education at school could make a real difference.”
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