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Opinion: It's Pride 2021, let's consider giving greater support to LGBTI+ youth in school

Nerilee Ceatha of UCD says her research shows young people no longer assume rigid sexual orientation labels and binary gender identities.

Nerilee Ceatha

WITH IRELAND’S VACCINATION program running at full speed, it appears that life in the country’s schools will return to something approximating normal this autumn.

During the pandemic, the notion of school safety focused largely on public health guidelines designed to avoid transmission. Of course, school safety encompasses far more than social distancing, masks and hand washing.

This is certainly the case for Ireland’s lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI+) young people, who too often face prejudice, stigma and discrimination in their lives, including in their schools.

As we begin Pride week celebrations, it’s a great time for the government and educators to focus on how we can make our schools safe for LGBTI+ students.

While data on LGBTI+ young people is limited, Ireland distinguishes itself as a country that has collected high-quality data that assesses the experiences of its LGBTI+ youth. In 2016, the Growing Up in Ireland (GUI) study, a government-funded survey of children and young people managed by the Department of Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth in association with the Central Statistics Office, for the first time asked its 17 and 18-year-old respondents about their sexual orientation and gender identity.

One in 10

Among a sample of over 6,000, one in 10 young people in Ireland (9.9%) self-identified as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, questioning, asexual or described their gender as other. Almost half described themselves as bisexual, with young women twice as likely to identify as bisexual as young men.

Nearly 3% of young people in Ireland described themselves as ‘questioning’ or ‘unsure’ of their sexual orientation, yet research remains scarce regarding what this means for the health and well-being of our youth.

It’s possible that a questioning response simply reflects a developmental stage in which a young person is exploring how best to describe their sexual or gender identity. But it could also indicate evidence of social change whereby young people recognise that sexual orientation is dynamic and they are reluctant to identify with a single label or, perhaps, reject the idea of labels entirely.

It’s also possible that some participants simply didn’t understand the question. In relation to gender identity, just over 1% of young people identified as transgender or described their gender as other.

We can’t be entirely certain about what it means to describe one’s gender as ‘other.’ It may be that the young person is gender non-binary, intersex, or has diverse sex development. But it could also be a rejection of conventional gender labels. Whatever the reasons, the GUI survey shows that a large proportion of Ireland’s young people are thinking about these identities.

Education must evolve with society

Since the Irish government became a signatory to the International Day Against Homophobia, Biphobia and Transphobia declaration in 2014, there have been huge shifts in Irish society, including the referendum supporting marriage equality in 2015, the gender recognition act and recent changes around the recognition of some same-gender parents.

It is, perhaps, no surprise then that the GUI questionnaire responses highlight that youth in Ireland are questioning the idea of hard and fast sexual and gender identities. Young people are embracing ambiguity and complexity associated with sex and gender and challenging our society not to assume rigid sexual orientation labels and binary gender identities.

To fully understand this potentially ground-breaking societal change, my PhD project prioritises youth participation in analysing and interpreting the GUI data. This offers exciting opportunities for ‘learning with’ LGBTI+ youth and allies with expertise by experience.

The GUI findings, and the young people I am collaborating with, suggest that it is essential for our communities, and our schools, in particular, to create safe spaces for young people to explore their sexual orientation and gender identity.

Ireland’s LGBTI+ National Youth Strategy calls for the provision of Gay-Straight Alliances or Gender-Sexuality Alliances (GSAs) in schools. These are student-run organisations that unite LGBTI+ young people and allies.

Substantial academic research documents the powerful protective potential of GSAs. Evidence suggests that they may be particularly important for young people who are questioning their sexual orientation and/or gender identity.

GSAs offer interpersonal support from peers and educators who serve as allies and facilitate greater visibility for LGBTI+ youth and their adult role models. They are helping to bring about more inclusive policies that affirm young peoples’ sexual and gender identities and allow for more comprehensive sexuality and puberty education.

This all contributes to reducing stigma and helps to create safer environments for LGBTI+ young people and, it turns out, all students. Where GSAs are concerned, a rising tide raises all boats.

Despite these many positive benefits, GSAs have not been officially introduced in Irish schools. As we move past the many challenges that the pandemic created for our schools, it’s time to focus more on doing all that we can to ensure safe and affirming environments for the nearly 10% of our young people who identify as LGBTI+.

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Nerilee Ceatha is a SPHeRE scholar with University College Dublin. Her PhD is exploring the protective factors that promote LGBTI+ youth wellbeing. This draws on her social work, policy and practice experience, alongside membership of the Oversight Committee for the LGBTI+ National Youth Strategy. GUI results in this report are based on analyses of data from Research Microdata Files provided by the CSO. Neither the CSO nor the Department of Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth takes any responsibility for the views expressed or the outputs generated from these analyses.

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Nerilee Ceatha

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