Gay: adj cheerful, gleeful, happy, glad?
A report from Stonewall suggests that gay and bisexual men are more likely to self-harm or commit suicide. Why?
In 1992, when I first started working for this magazine, the age of consent for gay men was 21. Section 28 was still in place. There was no legal protection against homophobia in the workplace and
my friends were dying of Aids.
Twenty years on, a lot has changed. We have an equal age of consent, employment rights, partnership rights and protection from discrimination in the provision of goods and services. Section 28 was repealed in 2003, and thanks to improved medical treatments, many people with HIV are living longer, healthier lives.
So when I read the recent Stonewall report showing that Britain's gay and bisexual men are more likely than heterosexuals to attempt suicide or self-harm, suffer from depression, or experience domestic abuse, I was shocked. The report, which also said that gay and bisexual men were more likely to smoke, drink and take illegal drugs, was based on responses from nearly 6,900 gay and bisexual men across Britain, making it the world's largest survey of its kind. Of the men surveyed, one in three have not been tested for HIV, which is also a cause for concern. But the main finding of
the report was that health services tend to focus solely on gay men's sexual health, while their other needs are often overlooked.
According to Stonewall chief executive Ben Summerskill, 'This deeply troubling report provides hard evidence that Britain's 1.8 million gay and bisexual men are being let down by health services which often see homosexuality and bisexuality purely as sexual health issues. As a result, hundreds of thousands of gay and bisexual men are in dire need of better support from health professionals.'
What I found myself wondering was why, given the extraordinary advances of the past 20 years, gay and bisexual men are still faced with many of the same issues as earlier generations.
How could this be possible?
Part of the answer, I suppose, is that some things haven't changed as much as we'd like to believe. Homophobic bullying is still a huge problem in our schools. In 2010, 15-year-old Dominic Crouch was driven to suicide by taunts that he was gay. And for every death there are many more left emotionally scarred by homophobic bullying and name-calling.
The Albert Kennedy Trust, which supports young LGBT people at risk of homelessness, have seen their caseload double in the past four years. 'Partly this is due to increased awareness of our work,' says the trust's Jonathan Penny. 'But also we have seen a significant increase in young people from black and minority ethnic groups coming to us escaping forced marriage and honour based violence.'
Even in adulthood, many LGBT people feel vulnerable in the face of hate crime, be it harassment, verbal abuse or physical violence. According to figures released by the London Assembly, homophobic incidents in the capital have risen by 28 per cent in the past four years. Last year, 1,545 homophobic incidents were reported to police across London. The Assembly suggests that the real figure may be much higher. For every incident reported, another three are not.
So is it really any wonder that LGBT people are still three times more likely to have drug and alcohol-related problems than the wider population, or that mental health and emotional wellbeing continue to provide such a challenge to so many? According to the Stonewall report, one in ten young gay and bisexual men has attempted to take his own life in the past year, while one in five has deliberately harmed himself.
The Eddie Surman Trust has been counselling gay and bisexual men since 1996, mostly about HIV, but also about depression and other related issues. The director of the trust, Peter Shapcott, says that many of the men they talk to 'have struggled with things such as abuse in the family or in their childhood and many have suffered from internalised homophobia. In many cases they have fought these emotions for a considerable number of years before seeking help. And sadly I'm aware of many who couldn't take the torment any longer and ended their lives.'
Shapcott believes that part of the problem is that 'we have lost a sense of community, largely as a result of the Aids epidemic which split our community and which I don't think we've ever fully recovered from.'
This certainly seems to be the case in big cities like London, where older notions of a gay community have been replaced with a growing emphasis on the commercial club scene. And while the gay scene offers plenty of opportunities for pleasure, it can also be a place where people resort to self-medicating as a means of escaping their problems. Twenty years ago, you rarely heard of people being hospitalised or dying from drug overdoses on the gay scene. These days, sadly, such stories are fairly common.
I'm not suggesting for one second that 'things were better in my day'. They weren't. Life for LGBT people in London is a hell of a lot better in 2012 than it was in 1992. But clearly there are still those out there who don't feel their lives are worth living and who aren't getting the help they need.