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Column: Homophobic bullying is taking young lives, yet it’s treated as harmless

Most adults in Ireland can now be openly gay, writes Michael Barron – but the reality for young people is very different.

Michael Barron

WE HAVE HAD a monumental end to the year in our long battle to combat homophobic and transphobic bullying of young people.

It’s been so important and encouraging to see Ireland at the centre of what has become a global movement to protect our young people from this harm. On the international stage, a dizzying sequence of events occurred over the first few weeks of December.

From December 6-9 UNESCO held its first global consultation on homophobic bullying. While this consultation was underway in Brazil, US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton addressed the UN in Geneva, declaring “gay rights are human rights and human rights are gay rights’.

Two days later the UN released a statement from Secretary General Ban Ki-moon calling homophobic bullying “a moral outrage, a grave violation of human rights and a public health crisis”. He went on to say. “It is also a loss for the entire human family when promising lives are cut short” and called on governments throughout the world to act to protect LGBT young people.

Then on December 14, the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) released a groundbreaking report on the human rights of LGBT people, again drawing attention to homophobic bullying and the mistreatment of LGBT young people around the world.

For too long homophobic bullying has been seen as a mild, near-harmless part of growing up. Having the issue taken seriously and reframing this daily and devastating harassment of our young people as an international human rights abuse is timely, honest and helpful.

Why is ending homophobic bullying so urgent?

Homophobic bullying needs to be eliminated urgently because it is costing young people their lives. In 2009 the HSE’s National Office for Suicide Prevention supported a national study (carried out by the Children’s Research Centre in Trinity College) which found shockingly high levels of suicidal behaviours amongst LGBT young people in Ireland – and that this was clearly linked to experiences of homophobic bullying.

The study found that 50 per cent of LGBT young people under 25 had seriously thought about ending their own lives, while 20 per cent had attempted suicide. The majority of LGBT young people experienced homophobic bullying in school and one third had heard homophobic comments from teachers.

LGBT young people who experienced homophobic bullying were more likely to self harm and attempt suicide, (the only other correlation found was between family rejection and attempted suicide).

And other damaging effects of homophobic bullying on our young people include early school leaving, poor body image and elevated levels of drug use. All of this amounts to the “grave violation of human rights” and “public health crisis” that Ban Ki-moon speaks of.

So how are we doing?

Recent international events would suggest that we are doing comparatively well in tackling this issue in Ireland. BeLonG To’s work was highlighted as good practice at the UNESCO global consultation mentioned above, and was included as a positive response to homophobia in the Office of the High Commssioner for Human Rights report on LGBT Human Rights.

Earlier in the year, the European Council’s Commissioner on Human Rights Thomas Hammarberg singled out BeLonG To’s Stand Up! Campaign (the only work of an NGO to be mentioned in his ‘viewpoint’ on the issue), calling it “indispensable” as a way to tackle homophobic bullying.

Over the past decade with partner organisations we have run information and awareness campaigns. Teachers are being trained throughout the country, guidelines have been produced for teachers and youth workers and a major new curriculum is being piloted.

This year the government committed (in the Programme for Government) to combating homophobic bullying in schools, and the Minister for Education and Skills, Ruairi Quinn has spoken of the need to ‘eliminate’ it from our schools.

So going into 2012 we are well-placed to make real inroads into ending homophobic bullying. In fact, we could become world leaders in this area – the only area of LGBT Rights where Ireland could make such a claim.

But this is no time to be complacent. I fear the government could take its foot off the pedal in this area, and after the high of international acknowledgement we could start sliding backwards again. We are experiencing substantial funding cuts to the relatively meagre resources put into working with LGBT young people – and almost a year later, there has been very little action on the programme for government commitment to combating homophobic bullying in schools.

‘For most adults it is possible to be gay – for young people it is not’

It is important that we don’t forget that under both national and international law our government has committed to and is obliged to take measures to protect all people (including LGBT young people) from violence and discrimination. So we are working together to fulfil these basic obligations rather than providing extraordinary supports to our young people.

And it is not all about school. Young people live most of their lives outside of school – in communities, online and of course in families. While we work towards the large structural changes in our education system, lets not forget the ‘small places near home’ that Eleanor Roosevelt spoke of (and Hilary Clinton recently cited) where LGBT young people can still experience the worst kind of homophobia and rejection and which also puts them at great risk. To truly combat homophobia towards young people we need to work with families and communities providing education and standing up to often invisible violence against them.

Last year following the airing on RTÉ of the Crossing the Line documentary series Growing Up Gay we advertised BeLonG To’s phone number for people to call if they were affected by the programme. Mostly we got calls from young people coming out, but I was fortunate enough to receive a call from a middle aged man living in London. He said that he left Ireland in the 1980s because it was ‘impossible to be gay’ here then. Having seen the documentary series he felt for the first time that it might be possible to move home.

For most adults it is possible to be gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender in Ireland today, but for many young people daily homophobic bullying means that it still is not. We cannot let another generation of young people grow up feeling uncared for and rejected.

In light of this month’s international events to combat homophobic bullying, and Ireland’s role in them, I urge the government to reprioritise action to support LGBT young people. Let’s be true world leaders and ensure that in our own country no young person should have their human rights and safety violated because of who they are.

Michael Barron is the co-founder and Chief Executive of BeLonG To Youth Services – Ireland’s national support service for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender young people. You can watch their Stand Up! ad against homophobic bullying here.

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Michael Barron

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