“Did I miss something? Isn’t everyone having a difficult time right now? What makes being LGBTQ+ so special?”
As an internet-literate child of the 21st century, I should know better than to read the comments on articles about LGBTQ+ life. I have been reading a lot of think-pieces, research papers, and news stories over the past few months, always drawing the conclusion that yes, LGBTQ+ young people are struggling more with homelessness, bullying in school and finding acceptance. While the supportive comments always far outweigh the negative ones, there still seems to be a lingering question in some of the more critical responses: don’t LGBTQ+ young people have it easy now?
It’s easy to mistakenly think that growing up LGBTQ+ isn’t challenging anymore. After all, we’ve got same-sex marriage and it’s legally easier to become a LGBTQ+ parent. Of course we must celebrate progress we’ve made but we also need to remember that these vital changes mostly just affect LGBTQ+ adults – many LGBTQ+ young people are struggling and need support. One in four (25%) LGBTQ+ young people are currently facing daily tension at home. On top of that we are also twice as likely to be lonely, worry daily about our mental health, experience depression and have an anxiety disorder, according to recent independent research by Just Like Us.
When I was at school, there was very little conversation about LGBTQ+ identity both in the curriculum and among pupils. I grew up in the Netherlands, which is typically assumed to have a good track record on LGBTQ+ rights. However, this does not necessarily translate to a more open society when it comes to actually talking about LGBTQ+ experiences. Same-sex couples walking hand-in-hand on the street were said to ‘provoke’ homophobic violence, and challenges to gender and sexuality norms were met with eye-rolls, because ‘we are all equal now’ and ‘homophobia only exists because people keep bringing it up’.
There was a lot of homophobic and transphobic language use in my school, and any objection to it was waved away with ‘but I’m not homophobic because I’m not scared of gay people’. So why make a fuss, if everything is alright, if maybe you’re making it all up and you’re just trying to find problems where there are none?
Why make a fuss? Because if this was my school experience in the liberal Netherlands, with access to lots of resources and civil rights that were (at the time) ahead of the global curve, I can’t even imagine what it must be like growing up in environments that are more overtly hostile. Every young LGBTQ+ person deserves to be educated in an environment where they feel safe and comfortable in their identity, and settling for anything less than that is simply not good enough. According to Just Like Us’ independent research, 48% of LGBTQ+ pupils in the UK say they have received little to zero positive messaging at school about being LGBTQ+ in the last year.
If we want LGBTQ+ young people to grow up feeling like there has been progress, we have to first acknowledge that many LGBT+ pupils are struggling in school. Nobody I knew in my entire school was out until my last year there. I never felt comfortable using the words ‘gay’ or ‘lesbian’ to describe myself until after I’d left school. I got the message from school that it was not really the done thing to talk about being LGBTQ+.
Moving away to university was the first time that I really felt able to be myself. It was only then that I realised how much it would have helped me if I could have had these conversations at school, at a time where the whole world already seems daunting and confusing, and every decision seems to have a massive impact on the rest of your life. It would have been very comforting to know that it’s OK to realise you aren’t straight, that there are adults around you that will accept you, and that there is a whole world full of kind, caring and supportive LGBTQ+ people out there.
School Diversity Week is one way schools can begin to do this. So until LGBTQ+ young people are no longer twice as likely to worry about their mental health or disproportionately facing difficulties at home, we will keep going on about it, until it’s no longer necessary.
For more information about Just Like Us and their incredible work supporting LGBTQ+ youth, visit their website.