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Jan's Coming Out

From Jan Bridget

Monday, 18 July 2011

I'd like to thank Jan Walker and the makers of the film 'Jan's Coming Out.' I had a really good laugh at the premiere (14th July 2011) in Hebden Bridge Picture House, along with a couple of hundred of other lesbians who watched it.

For me, at 63, coming out in the 60s wasn't easy; we didn't have any positive role models, there were no lesbian or gay helplines, there certainly were no lesbian and gay youth groups. Women who came out after heterosexual marriages could lose their children in divorce cases. Indeed I have had friends who were actually incarcerated in mental health institutions because they were lesbian and treated abominably with beatings and forced drugs ? it was because of this treatment that one of my friends died much earlier than she should have.

I even experienced discrimination quite a bit myself, having been involved in several 'witch-hunts' in the RAF, when the Special Investigation Branch would descend on bases to interrogate suspected lesbians and gay men and, if proven 'guilty', they were discharged. Several years later as a youth worker I was told that, as a lesbian, I could not apply for a girls' work post, that I would never get promotion because I was a lesbian and, had they known at the time that I was lesbian, I wouldn't have been appointed to my post.

Things have changed, significantly: gone are the homophobic laws, the mental health manuals no longer class homosexuality as a mental disorder, we have laws which make it illegal to discriminate against us in employment, we have laws that are meant to ensure we get equal and appropriate treatment from public services (that's a joke, that one). We can legally have our relationships recognised and foster and adopt children. We now have many more positive role models in the media, with lesbian/gay storylines aplenty.

The result of this is that more and more lesbians are coming out (gay men have always been out in far greater numbers). But not only are there more lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgender (LGBT) people coming out, the age of coming out has dropped significantly. The average age of young people at GALYIC (Gay and Lesbian Youth in Calderdale) coming out is now 14 years. Early teens are vulnerable years for everyone, let alone if you have any extra stresses to deal with, like coming to terms with being 'different'.

What young gay people face now, which I never faced, was having to put up with the constant use of the word 'gay' as a put down. I cannot recall much bullying at all in my secondary modern school for girls whereas now, homophobic bullying is rife across all schools and very few are doing anything about it.

When I eventually came out at 23 years of age in 1971 (having made several failed attempts at 14 and 16), my mother and step-father accepted me; we never talked about it but I could take my partner home for visits. The level of parental rejection and non-acceptance nowadays seems to have risen, at least according to our data: over half of our current members do not have supportive parents. I'm sure this is partly because of the age young people are now coming out.

Along with greater visibility comes higher rates of homophobic abuse on the streets: if we dare to walk down the street holding our partner's hand, what do we expect? Last year five members of GALYIC were beaten up in three separate incidents, two in Halifax and one in Old Town. Members regularly face a barrage of verbal abuse as they walk from the youth group to the bus station.

So, yes, maybe it is easier to come out if you are 50, white, non-disabled and have enough money to go on lesbian cruises, but for LGBT young people in Calderdale it is definitely NOT easier. If it were easier, why is it that consistently around a quarter of members experience homelessness; over half experience homophobic abuse on the streets; 70% experience homophobic bullying in school; over a third misuse alcohol and drugs (significantly higher than heterosexual youth) and the majority smoke; why is it that half have suicidal thoughts, 40% have made suicide attempts and 75% self-harm?

Well, at least there are LGBT youth groups were young people can go for support. Wrong. Many have closed down (in the same way that there are very few gay switchboards now) and many more are likely to close down unless there is a sudden change in funding and, to be honest, I can't see that happening, can you?

Never mind, let's not be down-hearted, for older lesbians, as Jan's Coming Out shows, life is much easier, why should we worry about young people?