I remember when I was about 13, my parents gave me a little book about all things puberty, from getting hairier down under, to the more puzzling aspects, including sexuality. I’ve always known I am heterosexual, and never really questioned it. I mean Margot Robbie in Wolf of Wall Street definitely made my butterfly flutter, but other than that, I’m happy with Dick ‘n’ mix. On a serious note, however, working out your sexuality can be a very defining and confusing time in people’s lives. Moreover, the ‘outcome’ has more effects than what hole is a goal.
I spoke to the President of the LGBT+ Society and two other members of the community to gain some insight into what it’s like to discover your sexuality isn’t straightforward.
Me: If you don’t mind, could tell me a little bit about how you discovered your sexuality, what happened when you realised and when you came out?
LGBT+ Society President:
Firstly, regarding coming out: there are some pretty standard myths about realising your sexuality, but the biggest one is the stereotype of meeting someone who makes you realise you’re gay. By and large, that’s not how sexuality works: you come around to it in your own time, in your own way, be it slowly or quickly. I’ve met plenty of people who know they’re LGBT, but don’t want to identify as such because they feel like a ‘fraud’ because they haven’t been in a relationship or had sex or had a real-life crush on someone of the same sex. This puts a load of unnecessary stress on people they just don’t need, and it stops them from attending events in the community, which can leave people feeling really isolated.
I don’t remember an exact time I knew, but when I was around 13, one of my friends at school came out to our friends as bisexual, and I did too. At the time I didn’t necessarily see it as a serious thing, but as I got older I obviously realised that it was. Since then I have struggled with my sexuality – not necessarily with the fact that I am not straight, but more with what I actually identify as. I have always been very open with all my friends, and I have never had any problems, but while my parents probably realise, I have never actually come out to any of my family.
According to the mental health charity, Mind, members of the LGBTQ+ community are at a higher risk of experiencing mental health problems. In his article for The Guardian, Alexander Leon says, ‘LGBT people are prone to mental illness. It’s a truth we shouldn’t shy away from’, he points out the ‘uncomfortable but important reality that LGBT youth are four times more likely to kill themselves than their heterosexual counterparts. More than half of individuals who identify as transgender experience depression or anxiety. Even among Stonewall’s (LGBT equality charity) own staff, people who dedicate themselves to the betterment and improved health of our community, 86% have experienced mental health issues first-hand. It’s a morbid point to make, but it makes perfect sense that we, as a community, struggle disproportionately.’
So, after listing off the stats, I asked my interviewees: Do you think LGBTQ+ people are more at risk of mental health issues?
LGBT+ Society President:
Yes, we are definitely more likely to experience mental health issues, but we’re also more at risk of addiction too.
It is not a question that LGBTQ people are affected more by mental health problems, it is clear to see in the stats you have mentioned, and many others. I think what is most important is to recognize that mental health issues can affect anybody, but some groups are more at risk due to different struggles they face.
Me: And why is it that LGBTQ+ people are more prone?
LGBT+ Society President:
Being LGBT can be very lonely: it’s rare to grow up having access to the gay community, so many have to find a new family to accept their identities, and many risk rejection from the people they grew up with.
For LGBTQ people, simply existing in a society riddled with homophobia/transphobia brings with it a certain amount of mental and emotional distress, and for many, this can evolve into mental health issues, and, a particular issue for LGBTQ people, this can also turn into alcohol and substance abuse.
Me: Have you ever experienced discrimination/rejection because of your sexuality which has then affected your mental health?
LGBT+ Society President:
For me I don’t think I’ve ever experienced outright discrimination, but that’s because I’m very careful not to put myself in a place where it could be a factor. I’m very cautious about women I don’t know, for instance, and I don’t really mention my sexuality (although I definitely don’t hide it), unless it’s directly relevant. Obviously, some people don’t have this option. For some trans or otherwise visibly queer people, discrimination can be unavoidable.
I don’t think I have ever experienced anything directly related to my sexuality – however, I realise that this is because I am not fully out, and I spent a lot of my life in a relationship with a boy, and therefore appeared straight to most of the world. I have definitely experienced smaller discrimination, which eventually does add up and effect your mental health. A lot of societal things have homophobia and biphobia ingrained into them, and even things such as lack of representation in media can all add up to affect your mental health. Feelings of not being ‘right’, or not belonging, are something I really struggled with when I was in my teens, and these are not helped by lack of representation and such. This definitely affected my mental health as I used to have an eating disorder, and a lot of that stemmed back to this feeling of not being a good/perfect person.
For the first year or two after I came out, a lot of people would take the piss. Things got better when I started to own it more, and stopped getting upset or embarrassed when other kids would ask intrusive questions, but even then, I had to adopt a persona that wasn’t me. I suddenly had to act like a fuckboy when it came to women, so people would see me more as ‘one of the lads’. I said a lot of shit I’m ashamed of. It wasn’t good for me, and it did make me depressed.
The problem of prejudice is very much a prolific problem for the community, in September last year, Stonewall presented some very concerning statistics, that I don’t think are fully exposed in the media:
- Hate crime against LGBT people in Britain increases by 78 per cent since 2013. New Stonewall research also shows one in five LGBT people have experienced a hate crime or incident because of their sexual orientation and/or gender identity in the last 12 months.
- Two in five trans people have experienced a hate crime or incident because of their gender identity in the last 12 months.
- Four in five anti-LGBT hate crimes and incidents go unreported, with younger LGBT people particularly reluctant to go to the police
However, progress has certainly been made in the last decade. Gay marriage is now legal in twenty-six countries, there are an ever-growing number of LGBTQ+ people prominent in our culture, from Sarah Paulson and Laverne Cox, to Wes Streeting, a Tower Hamlets native and MP for Ilford North, and the CEO of Apple, Tim Cook. And Stonewell have launched a national awareness campaign to encourage all people to ‘Come Out for LGBT’ and show support.
I asked my interviewees: is enough is being done to combat the issues?
LGBT+ Society President:
Things are definitely changing for the better…. People are definitely trying, but it’s hard to say if enough is being done.
I think a lot of people now are talking about mental health, which is obviously a really positive step forward for everybody. However, much of the discussion around mental health does focus on certain mental illnesses which are seen as easier to accept – such as depression and anxiety, and while this is obviously a really positive step, there are many mental health problems that people still don’t talk about enough in my opinion. Among these is alcohol and substance abuse, and rates of alcohol and substance abuse are much higher among LGBTQ+ people, for several reasons. Firstly, substances can be misused by many people who are struggling to come to terms with their identity, and secondly, a lot of queer culture is focused around alcohol and substances. This is definitely something that needs to be spoken about more, and have more done about it. (*YES YES YES)
In some ways, yes. It’s certainly easier being gay now than it was 10 years ago. However, I think there needs to be more done on trans issues (*I strongly agree with this, some of ‘less informed’, to put it politely, members of our society just see Trans people as either off RuPaul’s Drag Race or Caitlyn Jenner and LadyBoys in Bangkok), and at combatting gender stereotypes around sexuality.
It would appear that at QM there are a variety of services available to people who are unsure/struggling with their sexuality and the consequences. The Advice & Counselling page presents a step-by-step on making it through uni, and living in London, as a member of the community (https://www.welfare.qmul.ac.uk/student-life-and-study/lgbtq-life-london).
And there is the amazing LGBT+ Society (https://www.qmsu.org/groups/LGBT/). It aims to ‘provide a safe and sociable space for any and all QMUL students who identify under LGBT+ and which is also open to allies.’
There are two upcoming events, a club night at Drapers on the 18th January, dubbed ‘Icons: IT’S Britney B****’ (https://www.facebook.com/events/557186881284159/). The night offers an evening of 90s and 00s Pop party realness, with legends such as the Princesses of Pop, Ms Britney Spears and Kylie Minogue. Also, up for grabs is a hella lot of glitter, gender neutral toilets and condoms. All of this costs just £5 for non-members and £2 for members. All profits will go to Positive East, a charity which is helping combat HIV in East London (https://www.positiveeast.org.uk/). Buy your tickets by clicking the link: https://www.qmsu.org/ents/event/10572/.
This is a night not to miss: dance to anthems lathered in glitter, all in the name of a good cause. Plus, they have very kindly offered yours truly a ticket to the night – I’ve never been to a LGBTQ+ event, ever, so I’ll be popping my proverbial cherry.
Their other event, Pride Week, which begins the week of the 26th January, in conjunction with a variety of charities, involves some fantastic attractions. It includes: mental health awareness, substance abuse and sexual health events, there will be a sporting activity, a poetry slam with help from Peach Magazine, a film screening of Moonlight on the Monday and loads more!
Anyway, is all of this helpful?
Me: Do you think QM has services or societies in place which are helping?
LGBT+ Society President:
We’ve been criticised in the past for not being political enough, but my goal this year has just been to build a community, and a safe space. We have both social and educational events coming up very soon, so hopefully the numbers will say if we’re doing enough.
QM has an advice and counselling service, which, while it is not always the best, it provides students who need it with up to 6 sessions of counselling. The on campus GP can also be useful in referring students onto services which are the best for them.
The LGBT+ society is honestly amazing, they host regular events, and have many services and schemes in place for students struggling mentally as well as with other aspects of being LGBT+ , as well as holding regular social events. Alongside the LGBT+ society, QMSU has both an LGBT+ rep, and a Trans rep, who both run great events for students, as well as being there to provide some support and guidance, and to represent students.
It’s good to be around other LGBT people. I feel more comfortable in that environment. But to be honest, I don’t generally feel discriminated against in my university environment. However, I’m very aware that I am straight passing and don’t have to worry about random harassment because of this.
I’ll be honest, I’ve learnt a lot from these conversations. Although I appreciated that the mental health experience of the LGBTQ+ community was, obviously, different to heterosexual people; I had never sat down and just asked about it.
I mean I’d like to think I have not come across like this: https://www.buzzfeed.com/hattiesoykan/jokes-about-straight-people-that-are-hilariously-accurate?utm_term=.cbb8Mvp3a#.didN8pRME
Clearly, there is a long way to go before sexuality and gender are no longer taboo topics, but we are, slowly, moving forward,
“There will not be a magic day when we wake up and it’s now okay to express ourselves publicly. We make that day by doing things publicly until it’s simply the way things are.”
Tammy Baldwin (First Openly Gay U.S Senator)
—from her “Never Doubt” speech at the Millennium March for Equality, 2000