Derek Byrne: Marriage equality creates false sense of security for LGBTI people
High rates of self-harm, suicide, stress and depression persist in LGBTI community
wasn’t surprised to read the harrowing findings in the recent report on the mental health and wellbeing of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) people in Ireland which was funded by the National Office for Suicide Prevention and carried out by a team at Trinity College Dublin.
The LGBTIreland report highlighted greater-than-average rates of stress, anxiety and depression among LGBTI teenagers who, according to the report, are twice as likely to self-harm and three times more likely to attempt suicide than their heterosexual counterparts.
Despite the euphoria of last year’s welcome result in the marriage equality referendum, this latest report suggests that LGBTI teenagers remain stigmatised because of their identity and understanding of what it means to be different from the norm.
In my opinion, this is because, in the race to the big prize, not enough attention was given to how the messages of equality might impact on how young people will come to terms with their sexual identity in the future.
Equality comes from celebrating and ultimately respecting the differences between people and not by trying to make everyone the same. While the LGBTI community is not a separate ethnic group within Irish society, I would argue that we are a unique subculture with our own set of social values and norms. Some of these norms express clear differences in how we experience intimacy and sexual behaviour.
Culture and respect
What we need are more education programmes in schools, colleges and youth services which promote and value LGBTI culture and encourage respect for it.
LGBTI teenagers might begin to feel valued themselves and comfortable in the knowledge that they are free to be different and don’t have to fit into the mainstream if they don’t want to.
While, as a gay man, I wholeheartedly welcome the result of the marriage equality referendum in 2015, I think the gay community must not allow it to produce a false sense of security.
Legislation is vital in setting standards of equality in democratic societies, but true equality comes from change in how people behave.
The LGBTIreland report shows very clearly that prejudice and discrimination towards LGBTI people can thrive even in a country like Ireland which has some of the most advanced equality legislation in the world.
What is needed from those within the LGBTI establishment is a time of reflection in order to consider carefully the messages that are being sent out, not only to the heterosexual community but to our own community too. It is important not to make assumptions about the aspirations of all LGBTI people and how all LGBTI people understand notions of equality in order to avoid creating minorities within our own ranks.
Indeed, the report makes reference to hierarchies of risk that already exist within the LGBTI community with those who identify as bisexual, transgender and intersex more likely to experience the effects of stigma and discrimination.
It is clear to me that issues of internalised homophobia need to be explored and understood by the LGBTI community itself. The LGBTI community has shied away from this topic for far too long.
The high levels of depression, self-harm, attempted suicide and drug and alcohol addiction within the LGBTI community point to high levels of self-loathing and hatred which simply have to be addressed. As a community, we must ask ourselves if our messages are in any way perpetuating this.
True equality grows from an inner truth. What use is legislation when young people who identify as LGBTI remain at risk of self-harm and suicide because they feel different and know that they will never fit in to the norm? Are we confusing them with messages of equality that lean towards assimilation rather than respect for difference?
Winning the right to marriage did not provide the level playing field predicted by those who campaigned for a Yes vote and, despite the historic result and the ensuing euphoria, everyone’s not okay.
The LGBTIreland report points to a lot of hard work still ahead for the LGBTI community in winning true equality in Irish society.
This will only have been achieved when young people are no longer bullied at school because of their sexual identity and when the self-harm and attempted suicides stop.
Young LGBTI people need to feel proud of who they are, proud of their difference and proud of being equal but never the same.
Derek J Byrne is an academic and journalist and the manager of Phoenix FM