‘Take Pride’: rights for LGBT* young people in Wales
I recently took part in a really ground-breaking Pride Cymru Youthconference in Wales. It was Wales’s first youth-led conference for lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans* young people. The conference hall was really buzzing with young people, many of whom are acting as activists and champions in their home communities. There were presentations and workshops that were interesting, funny and sometimes difficult listen to as young people shared experiences of coming out, being supported and being bullied or abused.
There are some really positive trends regarding changing attitudes to different sexualities in Wales and the rest of the UK. National attitudes surveys show that year on year positive attitudes to gay, lesbian and bisexual people are increasing in the general population, with younger generations leading the way in embracing diversity in sexual identities. I think we are beginning to see a similar rise in positive attitudes to trans* people, including trans* youth.
As someone who was educated in the 70s and 80s I can say that to my generation that rise in positive attitudes to LGBT people represents one of the biggest societal shifts we have seen. As a youth in small town Scotland I witnessed bullying and stigmatisation of gay and lesbian young people in school and in the community- and that was by adults as well as peers.
The second positive is that LGBT young people are increasingly self-confident in their identities and self-expression and there are many inspiring advocates and campaigners in Welsh communities. It is also great that some other young people who do not identify as LGBT* take a stand against homophobia and act as straight allies.
There are, however, still barriers to overcome and I have heard directly from young people in Wales about these since I took up my role in April this year. I know that some young people experience bullying and insensitivity due to their sexuality or gendered identity and that this is not always robustly challenged and nor is support provided in all schools and youth settings. Trans* young people in particular face many barriers in health, education and in their local communities. Many young people have complained to me about their PSHE lessons and in particular the lack of attention to gay and lesbian relationships in sex and relationships education.
One thing that I think has possibly got worse rather than better in the last few decades has been a return to rather rigid gender norms – probably led by marketing and commercialisation (i.e. companies want us to buy more and more of their stuff).
For girls in particular that has meant a return to extreme pink, sparkly and princess with everything when young and lots of personal grooming – hair, nails, make-up, tanning studios– for teens. For boys, a laddish masculinity can be dominant – more in some communities than others. For children and young people who want to bend, disrupt or completely reject the gender norms assigned to them by society, life is made harder when there are fewer accepted ways of ‘being a girl’ or ‘being a boy’. Although plenty of straight people also want to reject gender norms, it is LGBT youth who are leading the way in showing society that there are loads of different, interesting and positive ways of being a boy or being a girl – or indeed not bothering with any gender labels at all.
I noticed recently a Diesel clothes advert that described itself as gender neutral. Although this might be seen as big companies jumping on the bandwagon and trying to make a fast buck out of changes brought about by young people who have led the way in their disruption of gender norms, I do think that it was a welcome change to hyper femininity or masculinity seen in too many adverts.
However, for those who refuse to conform to gender norms then life can still be made hard. Some people seem to think that such behaviour is a threat or a challenge and can react with verbal or even physical abuse.
So what should be done to support LGBT young people better in Wales? Here are three suggestions:
- We need high quality personal, social and health education (PSHE). It should aim for young people to be able to understand and embrace diverse identities as a positive for society. And rather than consigning this learning to one subject area (PSHE), tolerance for difference (whether sexuality, gender identity, race, nationality or disability) should be a whole school or college approach
- Schools and youth setting need clear policies for challenging bullying and homophobic language use (NB I think both of these things – PSHE lessons and challenging bullying – work better when designed and led by young people)
- Information for LGBT* young people on how to challenge prejudice and overcome barriers. As well as the excellent groups such as Stonewall and Trans*form Cymru, my office is currently producing a guide for how young people can challenge media stereotypes about LGBT* people. It has been produced with young people in Wales and will be available soon.
As the champion for the rights of all children and young people in Wales, I will speak up for the rights of LGBT*young people to live full lives as equal citizens, free from stereotyping, bullying or institutional barriers.