This article about my work was published last week on the blog of Young Minds, the UK’s leading charity committed to improving the emotional well-being and mental health of children and young people:
Coming out to yourself…
…is the first step
FOR THE LAST nine years, I have had the pleasure of supporting young people who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or questioning their sexuality or gender identity (LGBTQ).
As lead worker of GYRO (gay youth ‘r’ out), the UK’s longest-running youth group for LGBTQ youth, I have seen changes in the age young people approach us for support and the needs they are presenting, which have called for a change in how we respond.
Since GYRO was founded in 1976, it has supported young people aged 16-25, mainly through self-referral. As a confidential social and support group we did not often engage with parents, carers, teachers or support workers unless a young person requested it.
In 2007 I began to take on responsibility for coordinating the project and began to notice an increase in enquiries from under-16s. At first we could only offer online support and 1-1 appointments, but as the numbers grew it became clear there was a need for group support for this age range.
In June 2010 we established a group for 13-16 year olds, and the second young person to attend came with his mum. This was new – hearing his story and those of the younger members of the group it emerged that an increasing number were ‘out’ about their sexuality at home, and sometimes at school too, so the need for support with the ‘coming out’ for these young people was decreasing.
What has increased is the need for us to help other people in their lives get used to the idea, especially parents, carers, teachers and youth workers.
Research from Stonewall suggests that the average age young people are coming out is decreasing as society’s attitudes are changing, mainly for the better, with the average age of coming out now standing at 15.
This means young people are less likely to wait until they have left school or home and are living independently to share with those closest to them their emerging sense that their identity is different from what our society expects them to be in terms of traditional gender roles.
However LGBT Youth North West, a regional network of LGBTQ youth groups, has found the majority of 15-19 year olds in the area felt adults were failing to support them with regard to issues around identity and mental health, and a quarter felt they had no adults to confide in. To address this need they have produced a practical guide to help adults help the young LBGTQ people in their lives.
The trend we are seeing in LGBTQ youth work is that fewer young people are coming to us seeking support about ‘coming out’ to adults or peers about their sexuality; instead they are seeking support with other practical and emotional issues similar to peers of the same age, but with fewer sources of relevant guidance.
While parents may be increasingly accepting when a child comes out, they may feel unsure about how to advise on issues such as sexual health and relationships. And while OFSTED now expects schools to actively challenge homophobia, many education professionals feel ill-equipped to respond to the needs of LGBTQ students.
While young people who are lesbian, gay or bisexual are experiencing greater acceptance, their peers who question their gender identity still have a way to go to find adults who can hear their experience of difference and not just dismiss it as a ‘phase’, or worse.
In an effort to be more inclusive of the full spectrum of gender and sexual identity included under the LGBT umbrella in GYRO, we have stopped assuming the gender of a young person who comes to us for support, and simply ticking ‘M’ or ‘F’ on their monitoring form. Instead we ask an open question, ‘How do you describe your gender?’
We have been amazed by the diversity of the responses we get, and some young people are delighted with the freedom it gives them to define themselves as they wish to be known.
GYRO’s parent organization, the Young Person’s Advisory Service in Liverpool, is part-funded by CAMHS to provide advice, guidance and therapeutic support to children and young people.
In recognition of the growing need for support among young people questioning their gender identity, CAMHS funded an 8-week pilot of a trans youth group, and has just agreed to continue funding this group to improve the care pathway for under 18s in the area who seek psychological and medical support for issues around their gender identity.
This will include the need to support parents, carers, teachers and support workers to understand that some young people may not be who we think they are, and how to respond in ways that can really help.