LGBT Youth

On Monday I met up with Michael Richardson who wears many metaphorical hats and has been working with young people for many years. He set up and runs Trans* Youth Glasgow and is a youth worker with LGBT Youth Scotland. He also works for LGBT History Month and is a writer for children and young adults creating his own work and writing for other organizations such as the BBC. So he is well-placed to talk about gender, sexuality, identity and young people.

We met in the welcoming Glasgow offices of LGBT Youth and I was given a coffee. Later I also met up with Tim Reid, a video designer who is also the father of a young boy and girl. Some of my chat with him has filtered into this blog too. We met in Café Nero in St Enoch Square.

LGBT Youth Scotland is the largest youth and community-based organisation for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people in Scotland. The charity’s mission is to:

“empower lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender young people and the wider LGBT community so that they are embraced as full members of the Scottish family at home, school and in every community.”

They state clearly on their home page:  “All young people are different. Everyone should have the same access to help or advice when they need it.” And then the site leads to options of advice on Coming Out, Bullying, Transgender, Know Your Rights. LGBT Youth offer support to young people, but also professionals such as teachers and social workers, and to parents and carers. There’s lots of really useful resources on there too.  They have a great Youtube site with videos made by and with young people who access the service where they talk about their experiences and offer their own advice to people who might be in a similar situation.

In our chat it became really clear how important it is that organizations like LGBT Youth exist because they’re able to really understand the issues and feel confident in responding to young people’s needs. We talked about how ill-equipped adults such as teachers and parents can feel to discuss these issues and it made me think about how there’s a lot of fear around dealing with children in general, and especially when it comes to anything that might be linked to sex.

So I had a little think about some things we adults might be scared of:

  • There’s often an attitude that sees children as something very different from adults – at once innocent and pure and needing protection, but also wild and alien and needing discipline. Both these positions make children a bit scary.
  • Maybe as adults we’ve grown up without being able to talk about or explore our own sexuality and gender, so we might feel on shaky ground to talk about it with young people.
  • We’re aware of and possibly influenced by anti-sex-education myths that say if we talk about sex to young people, they’ll have more of it even thought the evidence suggests the opposite.
  • We’re paralysed by a middle-class, politically correct angst that makes us worry about being judged for the way we interact with children, even/especially our own children.

Sometimes we’re scared:

  • Scared to say the wrong thing
  • Scared to say the right thing
  • Scared of the spectre of Section 28 and scared of current child protection laws.
  • Scared because we have to fill in forms and pass tests even to visit children in a school. How much do those preventative measures increase awkwardness and fear around children?
  • Scared that our actions and words could be misinterpreted or be seen as inappropriate by children and other adults
  • Scared to offend or cause controversy
  • Scared that parents will complain
  • Scared that we’ll never work in this town again
  • Scared of our bodies, scared of children’s bodies, scared of our bodies going anywhere near children’s bodies

All these fears create taboos around gender and sexuality, and I can see where they come from. But we also know that taboos and silence and secretiveness around children create a space where abuse of power can happen. So we need to find some ways of feeling less scared and being brave enough to be open even if it’s uncomfortable.

On the subject of whether there is much cultural output around these issues, we wondered if the idea of tackling gender and sexuality within children’s work might feel like too big a thing to deal with for artists, partly for the reasons above, but also because of a desire to not make work that might be seen as preachy or purely educational. Michael said that it’s very rare for there to be artistic work proposed for young people or children as part of LGBT History month. Maybe it just feels off limits?

We also talked about how it can sometimes feel constraining to be queer artists who would only make work about being queer; there’s almost a desire to prove that we shouldn’t be put into a box or that we could make work about anything. But then perhaps there’s a risk that nobody would ever make work about the subject at all!

Maybe there is also a feeling among artists who wouldn’t identify as LGBT or queer, or who are cis-gendered and perhaps haven’t felt so aware of their own gender, that they wouldn’t feel able to make work about that. Maybe depending on the subject we would have a desire for an authenticity, but at the same time I would argue that it’s everyone’s responsibility to at least consider the messages in the work that we make.

One big thing Michael has taken from working with LGBT Youth, (and the organization spends a lot of time and energy in asking young people what they need and want) is that as good as the support is for youth, it would have been great if they could have had support from a younger age. There is provision for 13-25 year olds and then LGBT Age provides support for those aged 50+, but there is nothing official for young children.

It seems that there is squeamishness around talking about gender and sexuality with children because of the connection to sex and the fears discussed above. When young people reach the teenage years there’s maybe an acceptance that they will be starting to think about and have sex anyway, so it can be time to deal with it. However I think the sex education for the older age group is still a bit vague and dependent on individual teachers. But at least there is discussion of LGBT issues through anti-bullying and anti-homophobia work.

But we also talked about some work Michael’s started doing in primary schools and with early years around gender stereotypes. He talked about how at this younger age it can be difficult to articulate your sense of self, particularly when it feels like everything adults are telling you is set in stone. We also agreed that rigid ideas of gender are damaging to everyone as they discourage people from expressing the full range of their identity.

We agreed that it would be beneficial for everyone, including the adults who work with children, if we could find more ways to talk about difference and celebrate the fact that people are complicated and that nobody really conforms to outdated gender clichés.