It shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone that LGBTQ people are at higher risk of mental health issues. 44% of young LGBT people have considered suicide, and 52% of young LGBT people report self-harm either now or in the past.
42% of young people have sought help for medical anxiety or depression. Young LGBTQ people also suffer significantly higher levels of verbal, physical and sexual abuse during their lifetime.
There’s also a general lack of positive stories and positive role models. LGB stories are often told through the prism of struggles with sexuality, coming out to friends, family and teammates, and HIV/AIDS. Trans and Gender Queer people are almost invisible, and their stories tend to be told in a very dated way.
This week, Olly Alexander’s “Growing Up Gay” programme for BBC Three will have lifted the lid for many straight allies on mental health issues in the LGBTQ community.
Alexander is a great role model for the LGBTQ community: boyish, confident and at ease in his own skin. The documentary highlighted that for many LGBTQ people, the path to self-acceptance is not linear and is subject to awkward bumps along the way.
When I first came out, my mom, who raised me and is one of the least homophobic people you could ever meet, told me that she was worried that ‘choices’ I was making my sexuality and the impact that it would have on my health.
My mother, who has come out herself in recent years, has spent her entire professional career supporting disadvantaged people and has always been an incredibly warm and accepting influence in my life.
That even my mother would conflate poor health choices and same-sex attraction shows how deeply embedded this conviction is in our society. And yet the idea that LGBTQ people are somehow to blame for the issues that they face is so incredibly damaging.
And yet, in a way, I see where my mother was coming from. The fact that I played with Polly Pocket and My Little Pony as a kid, that I was experimenting with makeup from the age of eight and that I had to be persuaded to invite girls to my birthday party was an indication that my life perhaps wouldn’t be the easiest.
We know that the stigma is real. 40% of homeless youth are LGBT kids and it should shame us all. But even if we are not homeless, we are confronted with LGBTQ mental health issues every single day.
“Are you okay?” is not the ice-breaker it is in the straight community because in many cases your friends are not okay. One of my friends, who is trans, confided in me last week outside a club at 4 am that he was suicidal. In addition to everything else in his life, his mom deadnames him.
Being LGBTQ is not a choice we make. It runs through every facet of our being and my identity and is as much a part of me as my hair colour, my eye colour or my body shape. It’s also a part of my identity that I am unlikely to share with my family and friends.
Twitter has become a lifeline for many young LGBTQ people, creating a space for young LGBTQ people to meet and talk to others and get support without any expectation of sex. Twitter is a modern day canary in the coal mine for LGBTQ people who are struggling with mental health issues, and frankly, I wish it had been around sooner.
Yes, the LGBTQ community is still under attack from all quarters of the media. The transgender community, in particular, has become the latest figure of fun for right-wing columnists, who make hay from conflating “snowflake” tendencies with trans and gender issues. The stigma around LGBTQ people in the media is still real and we should not allow ourselves to be gaslighted.
The misrepresentation that LGBTQ people feel exists in stark contrast to the progress that we are told we are making, the kind of progress that would allow LGBTQ people to feel able to ask for mental health support.
We urgently need to make access to mental health support easier and equip LGBTQ people with the tools they need to tell positive stories about LGBTQ life.
BBC Three’s Gay Britannia season has shown the impact the media can have when it chooses to tell respectful and celebratory stories about sexuality rather than prioritizing shock value.
For many LGBTQ people, this will have been the first time they saw their lives as LGBTQs accurately reflected on screen. Life as an LGBTQ person is not all bad, honest!
Yet it’s incredible that decades of television have happened without people being able to feel “Yeah, that character on TV represents me and my life.”
This can only happen if we have LGBTQ creators in positions of influence. We can’t rely on guidelines written by middle-aged heterosexual regulators to protect us. LGBTQ people need to be on board to say what is and isn’t a positive representation.
Every ounce of effort that goes into improving LGBTQ access to mental health support and LGBTQ storytelling will pay off a hundred fold.
Responsible reporting, like that seen in the Gay Britannia season, really sets the stage for powerful change.