Homophobic attitudes within society mean that
lesbian and gay teenagers face a unique set of problems, and there
is a need for targeted services in areas such as housing and foster
care. Anabel Unity Sale reports.
Danny had been in care since he was 18-months
old. By 15 he had had over 30 foster placements and been out of
mainstream education for two years. He was deliberately cutting
himself and being violent.
His last foster placement changed his life.
His local social services department referred him to the Albert
Kennedy Trust (AKT), a charity for young lesbians and gay men such
as Danny, which placed him with a gay foster couple.
His natural father was unsupportive of his
sexuality and after seeing him Danny would make angry anti-gay
comments to his carers. But with their backing, he joined a lesbian
and gay youth group and made friends. He returned to education, got
a qualification and after two and a half years moved into his own
flat. More than five years later he remains in touch with his
carers and the AKT.
While being a teenager is never easy,
vulnerable and socially excluded lesbian and gay teenagers can find
it particularly difficult. Albert Kennedy Trust senior social
worker Hilary Rourke says Danny’s case is by no means unique.
Lesbian and gay teenagers are often concerned they will face an
adverse reaction from their families and friends when they first
discuss their sexuality. It is not uncommon, she says, for some
young people to be dropped or bullied by their friends or made
homeless by their families. “It is a very stressful time for these
young people,” Rourke says.
Michelle Telesford, a youth outreach worker at
the Metro Centre, a charity based in Greenwich, south London, which
provides services for vulnerable lesbian and gay young people,
agrees that being lesbian or gay can be especially hard for
teenagers. “Some young people have a realistic fear of being
ostracised,” she says. “They are carrying a big secret around about
who they really are and it can be very stressful.”
Telesford says this can lead to some lesbian
and gay teenagers internalising other people’s negative views about
them. Just under half of the charity’s current users have
considered, or are, deliberately harming themselves.
In an ideal world there would be no need for
specific services for lesbian and gay young people, according to
Rourke. However, she says society’s homophobia means that lesbian
and gay teenagers face a unique set of problems, and targeted
services are necessary.
The AKT was launched in 1989 following the
death of 16-year old Albert Kennedy in Manchester. He had been
trying to escape a group of “queer bashers” when he was found dead
at the bottom of a multi-storey car park.
The charity is based in Manchester and London,
and provides mentoring, supported housing, supported adolescent
placements, and housing advice for lesbian and gay young people
aged under 21. It also has 15 lesbian and gay foster carers on its
books and regularly runs open evenings to attract more carers.
Young people over 16 can refer themselves to
it, while those under 16 and who are looked after must be referred
to the trust by social services.
Rourke says that sexuality is not always the
main issue for the young people the trust sees. “People referred to
us have a multitude of other issues. We take away the barrier of
working with them. They can’t say to us ‘you don’t understand’,
because we do.”
The AKT also refers clients to Stonewall
Housing, the country’s only housing association specifically
catering for young lesbian and gay people. It provides temporary,
supported housing for 16-25 year olds and housing information,
advice and advocacy to the wider lesbian and gay community.
Stonewall Housing has six shared houses across London accommodating
41 people. The houses include one for minority ethnic people, two
for women and a flat adapted for those who are HIV-positive.
Jackie Fernandez, director of Stonewall
Housing, says the organisation offers a breathing space for young
people who have often been forced out of their homes, in an
environment where they do not feel judged. “We look at their
experiences and how it has affected them. There are services they
can access and they will survive their difficulties.”
Despite the organisation’s pioneering work,
Fernandez says many council social services and housing departments
are unaware of its existence.
Rourke says such specialist accommodation is
needed because lesbian and gay young people often face
discrimination in mainstream housing. “Living ‘twenty four-seven’
with people who have hostile views about you is not a good place
for a vulnerable young person to be.”
The government’s new Connexions service,
launched last year for 13-19 year olds, could be the ideal conduit
to help young people deal with their sexuality.
Rachael Hopely, a personal adviser at Greater
Manchester Connexions, says her caseload has included six young
openly lesbian and gay people since September. She says three of
them required additional help and she referred them to Gay Youth R
Out, a local project that provides counselling and support.
Hopely says she spent a long time building up
the trust of the young people who came out to her in order to
suggest appropriate help. “You have to work hard to build up a
relationship of trust with people if their sexuality is an issue
they are struggling with.”
However, Telesford says not all professionals
take young people’s sexuality into account. “Some think young
people are too young to know who they are. It is still difficult
for them to accept that they have 11-year-olds who know they are
She says some of the Metro Centre’s users have
not received the services they needed from other agencies because
their staff reacted negatively to their sexuality.
Dealing with sexuality is also a problem for
schools, according to Tracy Hind, youth and community development
worker for the Healthy Gay Living Centre in Southwark, south
While working as a school youth worker, Hind
found that teachers were often not trained in sexuality or
homophobia awareness because of section 28, the clause in the Local
Government Act 1986 forbidding councils and schools from promoting
the “acceptability of homosexuality”. So what can the social care
sector do to ensure it is meeting the needs of vulnerable lesbian
and gay teenagers?
Jane Held, co-chairperson of the Association
of Directors of Social Services’ children and families committee,
says staff should not allow their own views to influence the
service they provide to young people. “All young people should be
seen in the light of their needs and we should not be making
assumptions about their sexuality. Staff also need to be aware that
they are presenting positive images of sexuality and lifestyle
choices to all young people regardless of what their orientation
British Association of Social Workers director
Ian Johnston says that because social work professionals are not
restricted by section 28 they must deal with young lesbian and gay
people appropriately and positively. Failure to do this could have
a negative impact, he adds. “Given young people’s vulnerability, if
they feel they are being rejected by someone with a key role in
their life it could be very difficult for them,” he says.
A change in the way homophobia in the family
is viewed is also required, argues Hind. “Homophobic abuse in the
home is very damaging to a young person’s self-esteem and
well-being, but it is not seen as a child protection issue.”
Hind is involved in the HGLC’s development of
a CD-Rom for young lesbian and bisexual women aged under 16. Due to
be launched next month, it will provide a one-stop-shop for
information for this group.
Fernandez says more funding is urgently
required for the provision of emergency temporary accommodation for
young people fleeing homophobia. There is not one such shelter in
the whole of the UK for this client group.
Clearly social care professionals have a duty
to meet the needs of all young people. With an estimated one in 10
people being lesbian or gay, it is time that more services
reflected this need.