Coming out in support of your child
Our young people are coming out in much more significant numbers and at a much earlier age, which is a real sign of progress
Ger Rowe (centre), youth worker BeLonGTo, with the Ladybirds group. Back row: Eileen, Donna, Alison and Stacy Lee. Front: Rachel and Sarah. Photograph: Dave Meehan
Sarah was just 12 and a half years old and still in sixth class in primary school when she “came out” to her mother, Mandy.
“I was really scared. I don’t know why, I shouldn’t have been,” she recalls, sitting with her legs tucked under her on a sofa, across from her mother in the front room of their Dublin home.
It wasn’t a complete shock to Mandy. “She was pretty tom-boyish. She liked all sports; she would not wear dresses, or anything frilly or pink.
“At the same time I was thinking, is she a bit confused? But that was probably the wrong thing to say to you,” she says looking over at Sarah, now aged 14, who laughs in agreement.
Although an astonishingly self-assured and articulate teenager, she is not unusual in knowing her sexual orientation so early. Twelve years old was identified as the most common age (although 14 was the average) at which young people become aware of their lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgender (LGBT) identity in research conducted by the Children’s Research Centre in Trinity College Dublin.
However, the 2009 study, Supporting LGBT Lives: A Study of the Mental Health and Wellbeing of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender People, found that, typically, there was a five-year time lag until they told anybody. Seventeen was the most common age for starting to come out, with 21 being the average.
But if similar research is commissioned in the coming year, as BeLonG To, a support group for young LGBT people, hopes to do, it is expected to show a lowering of the age of coming out.
“This is the first generation of young people who are allowed to be LGBT,” says the director of BeLonG To, David Carroll. “We know from groups that are springing up around the country, not only are they coming out younger, they are coming out in much more significant numbers than before. That is a real sign of the progress and change that is occurring.”
When BeLongG To was founded 10 years ago, it started a Sunday afternoon group in Dublin for young LGBT people. It very soon became apparent that some of the participants were travelling long distances to be there and that many of them were being subjected to homophobic bullying.
A decade later, Ireland is a changed society in many ways, with same-sex civil partnerships recognised and same-sex marriage only a referendum away.
There are LGBT youth groups in at least 15 centres around the country and an annual awareness week to counter homophobic bullying has become “embedded in the secondary school calendar”, says Carroll.
He describes the Stand Up! campaign as a “call to arms for all young people to show their support for LGBT issues”.
There is a level of normality and acceptance in secondary schools around LGBT issues that wasn’t there before, says Betty McLaughlin, a spokeswoman for the Institute of Guidance Counsellors. “It is definitely spoken about now and it wouldn’t have been in the past.”
She believes this awareness has been helped by the curriculum for Social Personal and Health Education (SPHE), which she teaches to first years at CBS Secondary School in Mullingar, Co Westmeath.
“We are all different and we embrace that difference” is the message she is delivering.
While there is still homophobic bullying in schools, “it is not of the same nature”, she says. “I think students are encouraged to be true to themselves – only when they are true to themselves can they be happy.”
Her experience is that LGBT pupils will often talk to a guidance counsellor before they say anything to their parents. “They are agonising about how they are going to tell them and when they are going to tell them.”
Although Stand Up! has helped to address problems at secondary school level, it has become clear that homophobic attitudes and language start to be formed at primary school age.
As a result, BeLonG To is looking at extending the awareness programme into primary schools in 2014.
It will be a pilot project in normalising diversity, in an age-appropriate way, Carroll stresses, “not being explicit”.
Young people use homophobic language without necessarily meaning to be derogatory and he puts this down to lack of awareness. Take for instance the current, ubiquitous phrase “you’re so gay”, used by children and teens alike.