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.
“Lots of young people use it and they don’t mean to be homophobic but we would argue it is no coincidence that it is the term ‘gay’ that is synonymous with ‘uncool’ or ‘crap’,” he says. “In our experience when you sit down and explain why it is an offensive term, they will respond positively.”
Sarah is delighted to hear that Stand Up! is going to be piloted in primary schools and recalls when she was in fifth class some girls saying things to her about her boyish appearance.
That was an issue too on her orientation day at secondary school but, after her classmates got to know her, there were no problems.
When Sarah came out, Mandy’s big concern was that she was about to start secondary school.
“At that age kids can be spiteful and they can pass comment,” she points out. “That was a huge thing for me. Would she be bullied? Would she hate school? Would she refuse to go and that could lead to loads of different problems. But she was okay.”
Mandy didn’t talk to any of the teachers at the co-ed school in advance; Sarah didn’t want her to.
However, she did meet BeLongG To youth worker Gerard Rowe before Sarah started attending one of its support groups the preceding summer. He was “absolutely brilliant” she says and she would recommend the organisation to any parent of an LGBT child.
While a parents’ peer-to-peer support group, Loving Our Out Kids, meets once a month in BeLonG To’s offices on Parliament Street, Mandy didn’t feel the need to get in touch with it.
Her only concern was that the youngest of her three daughters would get the support she needed.
At that stage, Sarah was still a bit young to be going into the city centre on her own, so her parents insisted on bringing her in at first. “She used to go mad,” smiles Mandy.
“Imagine your ma and da dropping you off at a gay and lesbian group meeting,” Sarah retorts. But she does acknowledge how lucky she has been in having supportive parents.
“Friends have different stories,” she remarks. “One who came out to her dad, he didn’t talk to her for five years.”
When Sarah told her father, a couple of months after coming out to Mandy, his first response was: “No, you’re not,” she says. “But I think he only said that because it was shock.” And soon he was absolutely fine with it.
Carroll says there has been a noticeable shift in parents’ attitudes; there is less talk about the shock it has caused them and the worry about what other people might say and more concern for their son or daughter’s future happiness.
“That is not to say some parents don’t find it extremely difficult, but most want to be supportive.”
Sarah found the BeLonG To group to be a huge help. “I had just come out and I didn’t have much confidence. Look at me now,” she grins. “I have much more confidence than I used to have. If I didn’t go, I would probably be awkward still.”
She attends The Ladybirds, aimed at LBT women aged 14-23, every Thursday and sometimes goes to the broader LGBT group on Sundays.
It is a really good place for young people who are even just wondering about their sexual identity, she says. “Nobody is going to label you there. They always say don’t ask somebody what their sexuality or gender is.”
Every week there is a workshop, sometimes dealing with mental health issues such as self-harm or suicide.
“It is a group of people getting together who are in the same situation and they are comfortable,” says Mandy
Sarah thinks it is much harder for her male peers because, she says, boys are so “horrible” about homosexuality. “Gay” is one of the biggest things they slag you over, she points out, adding that there are probably boys in her year at school who are afraid to say they are gay.
As a parent, Mandy believes it is a good thing that young people are coming out earlier. “At least,” she adds, “they are not bottling up all these feelings – ‘this is wrong’, ‘I’m bad’ – inside.”
For more information about BeLonG To, see belongto.org or tel 01 670 6223. To contact Loving Our Out Kids, see lovingouroutkids.org or tel 087 253 7699.
A ‘safe space’ for those who are questioning their sexual identity
Working with LGBT youngsters who are under 18 and have not yet come out to their parents can be tricky for youth services.
The shOUT! group, run by Youth Work Ireland, Galway Youth Project, has two sections: one for those aged 14-17 and one for the 18-23 age group.
It requires the under-18s to have consent forms signed by a parent to attend the youth centre but the exact nature of the group is not specified.
“At the end of the day, the policy of Youth Work Ireland Galway is that the child would be the primary concern – if the young person gets a benefit out of coming to the group,” explains project worker Annemarie Hession.
It is a group for young people who identify as LGBT, or who are questioning their sexual or gender identity.
The weekly social meetings provide a “safe space”, she says, where young people can come together with peers and not mind what they say, nor have to explain themselves.
Some will have come out, others won’t have – not that coming out is a one-off event, it is a process, Hession stresses.
“The young people are at different stages. Some might be out to nobody, some might be out to closest friends.”
She is not in the business of asking the youngsters what they identify as.
“When you come in that door, young people might assume – but it doesn’t go outside the door.
“We have a rule that you don’t acknowledge somebody else on the street unless they want you to.”
It is so important, she points out, for a teenager who is out to nobody, to have a place where at least he or she can talk about it. One-to-one support can be provided face-to-face, or through phone or email.
Hession, who has been involved in awareness training with teachers, says there is still a lot of homophobia that is not being addressed.
“Some schools are amazing and very open and in some other schools it is just chronic. Some teachers just don’t want to touch the subject. Some have no idea how to respond to homophobic bullying.”
It doesn’t help, she adds, that LGBT teachers are not allowed to identify themselves because they could lose their jobs. “That is sending out a message to young people as well.”
For more information on shOUT!, see lgbtyouthgalway.com or tel 087 773 8529.
Your sexuality is only one part of who you are’
There’s no rush for teenagers to declare their sexual orientation, says clinical psychologist Sarah O’Doherty.
“It can be a time where it is a little bit blurred and uncertain, and where feelings of admiration can get muddled up and confused with feelings of fancying and loving.” It is a time of experimentation, she says.
Sexual orientation is on a continuum and O’Doherty, who is the agony aunt for the teens’ magazine Kiss, believes that while some young people will be certain about their sexuality from an early age, some aren’t and “some never will be sure”.
In her experience, BeLonG To staff are very supportive of people who might be a bit ambiguous.
“They help them wonder; they help them question; they are not forcing them down any road,” she stresses. “I find them really excellent.”
Another thing she also says to teenagers is “that your sexuality is only one part of who you are and, as long as it’s legal, it’s nobody’s business”.
“It is not something you decide, although you hear uninformed people saying you can change your sexuality.”
O’Doherty’s advice about taking time is echoed by Betty McLaughlin of the Institute of Guidance Counsellors. Of the secondary school pupils who come to her about LGBT issues, some are surer than others about their own sexual orientation.
She recommends to those who are unsure to “sit with it – let life unfold and don’t be immobilised by it”. And whatever orientation is there for them, “that’s okay”.