It’s up to society now to put a stop to LGBTI bullying
Report is insightful but it sounds an alarm
Former president Dr Mary McAleese at the launch of the LGBT Ireland report with Daniel Zagorski and Ciara Sheehan, both from BelongTo. Photograph: Dave Meehan/The Irish Times
As a gay person, the feel-good halo effect of the positive outcome in the marriage referendum is wonderful and empowering. The knowledge that most of the electorate was on the side of LGBT equality became simultaneously a weight off our shoulders, and a comfort blanket.
LGBT people speak of increased visibility around the country, of seeing more gay couples holding hands, of benefitting from the open conversations that were had at kitchen tables, of feeling bolstered by the solidarity straight people offered to their LGBT family members, friends, coworkers, teammates, and people they didn’t even know.
The march of social change can very often be staccato, two steps forward and one step back. This week, with the release of the LGBTIreland Report, a national study of the mental health and wellbeing of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex people in Ireland, the halo effect was dimmed with the findings of how LGBTI youth suffer in our country. LGBTI young people have twice the level of self-harm, three times the level of attempted suicide, and four times the level of severe or extremely severe stress, anxiety and depression of a comparative group of young people.
There have been other reports over the years on the mental health of LGBT adults and young people, and they all make for tough reading, but in the context of such a huge step towards a more tolerant and accepting society, this one felt even more urgent. We need reminding that opening the institution of marriage to same sex couples is just one aspect of creating a better society for LGBT people, that we’re still in the process of undoing centuries of discrimination.
What’s also important to remember is that LGBTI young people are not a homogenous group. The experiences of young people across a spectrum of gender and sexuality can be very different. The services offered by one of the commissioners of the report, BeLonG To, cover an equally complex group of people. Whereas many youth services can often be drawing from a fairly homogenous demographic, be that geographical or socio-economic, an organisation such as BeLonG To deals with a vast array of backgrounds, experiences, and a complex intersectionality that colours the lives of LGBTI young people.
The report found that 20 per cent of LGBTI students felt they belonged completely in their school. Half of LGBTI students personally experienced anti-LGBTI bullying. Some 67 per cent witnessed bullying of other LGBTI students in their school, something that reenforces an atmosphere of discrimination even if it isn’t directly experienced by a young person. One in four missed or skipped school to avoid negative treatment due to being LGBTI. One in four considered leaving school early, and approximately one in 20 quit school. The report also showed that there has not been a significant reduction in day-to-day victimisation and harassment of LGBTI people since the Supporting LGBT Lives study in 2009. Three quarters of those surveyed have been verbally abused due to being LGBTI, 30% in the last year.
While the outcome of the marriage referendum was a good one, the homophobia and anti-gay equality sentiment that LGBT people had to deal with during this period - across media, social media, referendum literature, and on the doorsteps while canvassing - was extraordinarily testing. We owe a great debt to LGBT people for having the collective resilience to pull through that period, but as much as the positive reinforcement LGBT people received during 2015 will live on, so will the negative impacts.
It is incredibly difficult for young people to have peers or family members collaborate in homophobia that is still part of slang, a default code of bullying, or a general intolerant social atmosphere.
The Department of Education’s anti-bullying procedures for primary and post-primary schools stated in 2013: “The inclusion of LGBT posters on notice boards, discussions with parents about specific statements of welcome and respect for LGBT members of the school, community, teaching the Social, Personal, Health Education (SPHE) resource, Growing Up LGBT and participating in LGBT awareness events are just some of the ways in which a school can address homophobic and transphobic bullying.”
Schools need to be strict on bullying across the board, as well as teaching resilience to young people, arming them with the tools they need and will need to combat discrimination now and later in life. Groups that specifically work with LGBTI young people, such as BelongTo, need to be supported and funded appropriately to continue the great work they are doing. It’s work that doesn’t just help young people, or offer sanctuary, but it’s also work that saves lives.
The LGBTIreland report is informative and insightful, but it sounds an alarm as well. If parents, families, schools, peer groups and communities don’t tackle homophobic and transphobic bullying, young LGBT people will continue to suffer, they will continue to self-harm, they will continue to contemplate or act on suicide, they will continue to have difficult childhoods and experience misery and exclusion. It is our duty as a society that aspires to care for and protect all children, to stop young people being harassed for who they are.