The Queer Taboo: Self harm in the LGBT+ community

Image credits: Rachel Adams via Creative Commons

Image credits: Rachel Adams via Creative Commons

CN: self harm, mentions of depression, stress, anxiety, eating disorders and suicide, discussion of queer- & transphobia and intersecting systemic oppressions

As a society, we’ve got a lot better recently at talking about things.

Whether it’s stress, anxiety, depression or physical illness, you’ll find various articles and blogs analysing and dissecting it. Explaining and questioning it. Eating disorders are shedding their traditional cloak of silence and emerging into popular discourse. Even suicide appears to be being treated with a little more compassion and sensitivity than it has been in the past.

But we still haven’t really got there with self harm. It remains a taboo. A taboo which silences those who suffer, and paints them as attention seeking, self-indulgent, and self-pitying. An extremely high percentage of those who suffer are LGBT+.

The facts and figures vary across studies, but in essence, LGBT+ youths are hugely more likely to self harm than non-LGBT+ people. One study claims that 52% of LGBT+ and 12% of other teenagers self harm, another posits that LGBT+ youth are 4-6 times more likely to self harm than their straight, cisgender peers.

As with any marginalised group, these figures mask deeper inequalities. Any person who sits on the intersection of oppressions is likely to suffer more deeply at the hands of the kyriarchy (or the white supremacist cis hetero patriarchy, or whatever you want to call it). Accordingly, LGBT+ youth of colour, disabled LGBT+ youth, and transgender individuals will feel discrimination and isolation all the more keenly. This is not to say anyone’s experience of self-harm is any less valid than anyone else’s; these issues cannot be ranked. But it is nonetheless telling that insufficient research appears to have been done for me to back up these claims about intersections with stats.

So why is this? Lifesite News claims that numerous studies have drawn a link between self harm and “the harmful effects of homosexuality”. Could that be it? Is being LGBT+ fundamentally detrimental?

Clearly not. That’s ridiculous. It is not better to be straight than gay. It is not better to be cis than trans. But the fact that the idea is even out there on the internet is significant. The environment in Cambridge is pretty accepting (I choose my words carefully there because it is still not perfect, and we can pat ourselves on the back however much we like for being a liberal and accepting community, but the fact remains that it is still not easy). Nevertheless, there are places – although for some LGBT+ people, Cambridge is still one of them – where instances of homo/bi/transphobic bullying are commonplace, where LGBT+ people live in daily fear of experiencing a hate crime. This has a profound effect upon LGBT+ youths as they are growing up.

Many have to hide their gender identity or sexual orientation for years for fear of violence or ostracisation. Teenagers, who already operate with limited functional coping skills, are growing up in an environment where everything, from advertising through to literature through to Eastenders is telling them that they are not the norm. That they are different According to Stonewall, 143,000 secondary school pupils have suffered from anti-gay name calling, and 70% of primary school teachers have heard pupils use expressions like “that’s so gay” or “you’re so gay”.

The internalised homophobia this kind of environment can invoke leads to low self esteem, self loathing, depression, and feelings of shame. These are exactly the same symptoms recorded by a large number of people who self harm. The society that we live in and subscribe to reinforces hugely damaging mentalities, but because of the supposed societal norm, LGBT+ youth feel this much more starkly than others.

People self harm for a number of reasons; indeed studies have shown that very few LGBT+ people believe their self harm is directly linked to their gender identity or sexual orientation. Nevertheless, the correlation cannot be ignored. Contrary to what Lifesite claimed, the problem is not homosexuality. The problem is our society, and those of us who do not see it for what it really is.

Two things need to be addressed here: our stubborn silence and our calamitous misunderstanding of self harm, along with our reluctance to admit that LGBT+phobia is still alive and well. Same sex marriage did not solve everything. Sorry.

So. Think through some of these issues, and see if what I’ve said conflicts with any of your existing ideas and attitudes to self harm. If so: do some research. Google it, talk to people, try to educate yourself. The longer we stay silent about this, the more people will suffer. It is our duty to work to eliminate this taboo and to discard our prejudices.

LGBT+ teenagers are suffering, but you can do something about it.

Rowan Douglas (former sub-editor and Get Real. contributor)

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