Una Mullally: Why Ireland’s new LGBTI+ youth strategy matters

Life is improving for queer young people, but the fear, shame and worry have not gone away

'LGBTI+ young people’s demands are quite simple. They’re about inclusion and respect.'

'LGBTI+ young people’s demands are quite simple. They’re about inclusion and respect.'

 

This time last year I became the independent chair of the oversight committee developing Ireland’s LGBTI+ youth strategy, the first of its kind anywhere in the world.

On Saturday we published one of our first reports, after consultation and research, on and offline, with about 4,000 young people – a process that will inform the final strategy, in 2018.

At the weekend we gathered 200 or so of them from around the country in Dublin to meet each other and hear about the content of the report (which you can read on the Department of Children and Youth Affairs website).

Designing a strategy that will have such an impact on young people has been illuminating and emotional, particularly as a gay person. When I was younger I didn’t have the opportunity or vocabulary to name the things that would have made my life better. But in fact young people’s demands and aspirations for improving the lives of young LGBTI+ people are quite simple. They’re about inclusion and respect.

When we set up the oversight committee we also established a youth-advisory group, to run in parallel; three of the group’s members sit on the committee, alongside representatives from Education, Justice, Tusla, the HSE and so on. It’s common sense to have those young people influencing the design of the potential policy that will affect them, but it has also been a lesson in insight and empathy.

Only its perpetrators can end homophobic and transphobic bullying – whose victims can be anyone who is perceived as ‘different’

So what does the report say? It supports better training for professionals (the most mentioned issue in the consultations), inclusive education, the enforcement of anti-bullying policies, gender-neutral uniform options, more alcohol-free spaces for LGBTI+ young people to socialise in, gender-neutral toilets and changing rooms, the inclusion of nonbinary people in the Gender Recognition Act, improved mental-health services, and better sex education that includes LGBTI+ people and relationships.

Discrimination and bullying were mentioned often. Existing models that address potentially unfriendly atmospheres in schools could easily be adapted across Ireland. In the United States, GSAs – gay-straight alliances or gender-and-sexuality alliances – have made LGBTI+ people feel included.

Crucially, they involve non-LGBTI+ students as allies for their peers. Only its perpetrators can end homophobic and transphobic bullying, for example – and it’s not just LGBTI+ young people who are the victims of such bullying but anyone perceived to be gay, meaning young people are often targeted for being “different”.

At the report’s launch the social-media personality James Kavanagh spoke about the daily trauma of being bullied at school. One bully in particular was endlessly creative with his tactics. One day, for example, he tried to pass a survey around the class that asked, “How gay is James?” It was only when a classmate stopped it being circulated that Kavanagh realised the bullying might not be inevitable. And it changed his perception: if one person was willing to stand up for him, maybe other schoolmates were good, too.

It is very difficult to hear stories about young gay people being bullied at school, as it unearths trauma for many LGBTI+ people as we reflect on our own experiences – experiences that can be glossed over, as if bullying were “normal”, or repressed.

The only time I can recall my teachers mentioning homosexuality was when one summoned my class to tell us ‘Níl sé nádúrtha’ – ‘It’s not natural’

Bullying also doesn’t just come from classmates. It’s only recently that I’ve started to acknowledge the negative attitudes I suffered from teachers. The only time I can recall them mentioning homosexuality was when one summoned my class to tell us “Níl sé nádúrtha” – “It’s not natural”.

We laughed at the time, but those words rang in my ears for years: I knew it didn’t matter how many friends I had, or how hard I worked, because I was still gay, and still “unnatural”. It’s hard to articulate the damage a remark like that can do, but it stays with you.

Young people now have access to a vocabulary that older LGBTI+ people did not growing up. The confidence of many young LGBTI+ people astounds me. The idea that people can be out at school was completely alien to me as a youngster.

But even though our environments can improve, and legislation expand to include and protect LGBTI+ people, the emotions at the heart of these young people’s experiences are something we still have in common. A welcoming context for one’s sexuality or gender identity is invaluable, but those feelings of isolation, fear, shame, panic and worry cross generations.

The report talks about the need to bridge the gap between older and younger LGBTI+ people. This is often framed in terms of young people learning from their elders, knowing their history and understanding the context of their rights and culture. But, in working on this strategy, the opposite has been true for me. It has been a process not of imparting information to younger people but of learning from them.

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