Why the three wise monkey approach is failing queer young people

Karen examines how a new report into the health and wellbeing of 15 year olds highlights the way we prefer to ignore the gender and sexual identities of young people, regardless of the harm this does.


The Department of Health decision to bury the extremely worrying findings of the “What about Youth” research as regards to LGBTQI 15 year olds follows a familiar pattern. As DIVA themselves said

“These shocking disparities are not reflected in the summary of key findings, which flags significant statistics for the media and other researchers, but buried deep in the detailed report findings. Unsurprisingly, no mainstream media have picked up on these distressing differences of experience. Why should they? They are being signposted towards other findings by a report whose authors have clearly decided that LGBT youth do not really matter.”

I am 100% certain that if this had been a specific piece of research looking into sexually transmitted infections then it would have been seen as an LGBTQ+ issue.There is a common assumption that you can only have one identity. The data on depression and smoking in the report speaks to poorer long term health outcomes for LGBTQ+ young people. However, once you tick the non heterosexual box  your health concerns are all assumed to be around a very narrow range of issues. In this way the rates for the misuse of alcohol by bi women (highlighted in different research) have been ignored , since the identity of substance user is seen to be separate from that of being LGBTQ+. They are not only seen as separate, but health providers make huge assumptions based on their own stereotypes about what your health needs are. 

It is a problem that we (by which I mean both society in general and LGBTQ+ members of it) tend to see one identity as primary. As Steph Farnworth wrote here about disability, it seems you can be queer, or disabled, but not both. When it comes to LGBTQ+ youth the situation becomes even more difficult, with adults assuming the only identity which matters is your age. Thus whilst there are a whole host of discussions, debates, reports, and services aimed at those under 18 by dint of being under 18 it is assumed they have one identity, that of a child.

I am 100% certain that if this had been a specific piece of research looking into sexually transmitted infections then it would have been seen as an LGBTQ+ issue.

The default, “normal” identity is constantly assumed for this group. Within sex and relationship education whilst many call for a wider curriculum there is still no requirement to teach anything but heterosexual sex. I know from my own family that you can watch footage of giraffes having sex but the idea sex can be ever between anyone but a cis man and a cis woman is never mentioned. Almost two years since the Metro Youth Chances Report found that two thirds of LGBTQI teenagers had received no SRE relevant to their gender and/or sexual identity we are still producing work which subsumes the identity of someone as LGBTQI within the age group they belong to. 

This is all the more worrying given that LGBTQ+ young people are consistently shown to be more vulnerable, more at risk of sexual exploitation, more likely to be homeless, victims of crime, and suffer from depression, than heterosexual cis young people. 

I know from my own family that you can watch footage of giraffes having sex but the idea sex can be ever between anyone but a cis man and a cis woman is never mentioned.

One of the foremost psychological theorists on human development, Erik Erikson, described adolescence as the period of “Identity versus Role Confusion”. It is the time where we explore, and begin to act in a way which is congruent with that exploration. We look not only at who we have been told we are, or should be, but also at who we feel ourselves to be, and want to be seen as. This period of exploration does not of course just happen for LGBTQ+ young people. However given their particular vulnerability refusing to not even consider how their particular identities might be impacting their health looks to me like a wilful blindness.

This unwillingness to consider that young people might have a sexual identity comes in part, I believe, from the idea, still lurking beneath the surface, that the default is the norm. Other identities are still seen as in some way an aberration from this norm. An aberration which should be ignored in the hope it goes away. You might be able to get gay married, but don’t be a queer teenager wondering exactly where you fit in. It is all too common to see the argument that if you give young people information about being LGBTQ+ it will in some way influence their gender/sexuaity. The kind of attitude so mainstream it was expressed recently on Loose Women, where being trans was seen as something fashionable teenagers claimed to be. This is only a few steps away from dismissing being queer as “just a phase” which a young person will grow out of.

For the sake of the next generation we need to end the assumption that all young people are cis and straight until they reach 18, when magically they decide their gender and sexuality. If we do not all the fine words about love winning and LGBT equality become meaningless slogans trotted out to make cis het people feel better about themselves whilst they ignore genuine suffering and harm.

Follow Karen on Twitter @CounsellingKaz

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