Alex Blaze

UK Equality Commission Wants to Question Youth about Sexuality

Filed By Alex Blaze | March 28, 2011 4:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Media, Politics
Tags: britain, bullying, LGBT, LGBT youth, queer, survey

The Equality and Human Rights Commission in the UK wants to survey students as young as 11 about their sexuality and experiences with harassment and bullying.

youth-pride.jpgI can definitely sympathize with where they're coming from - there isn't much good data in either the UK or the US about queer youth. What we do know often comes from small studies of certain states or students in certain schools or even people who participate in certain programs geared towards LGBT youth, which isn't exactly a representative sample. The result is that a lot of statistics that we hear about queer youth - like that one about how they're two, three, or four times more likely to commit suicide than straight youth - are often based on small samples that are provide, at most, one view into how queer youth are doing.

That said, I don't think that handing out a survey to every kid will necessarily solve the problem. Some gay kids identify as gay early in their lives and some won't until well into adulthood. Some lesbian youth will identify as bisexual only to come out as lesbian in college, and some youth will follow the opposite path. It's more common than people think for young people who are fully aware of the options available to them to change their mind from time to time. A student who says they're straight at that age may still be subject to homophobic bullying and kids who are already out at that age aren't representative of those who aren't.

For myself, I knew I was gay at around age nine or ten, but I don't know if I would have been willing to put it in a survey (and I didn't have a particularly homophobic upbringing).

While that doesn't mean that asking kids about their sexuality and if they're experiencing discrimination isn't worthwhile; it just means that the results will have to be taken for what they are, limitations and all. I'm probably weary about this venture since my relationship to LGBT scholarship is outside the academe, in the media where people look for glib answers to complicated questions. When the data from such a study is made available for reporting, advocacy, and policy, it will most likely have been misinterpreted and abused beyond recognition.

Pink News quotes the commission's reports:

The paper argues that "evidence suggests that young people can experience disadvantage due to their sexual orientation, such as homophobic bullying, mental health issues, rejection from family and friends and increased risk of homelessness. The extent and impact of this disadvantage has not been systematically captured to date and constitutes a major evidence gap." Dr McDermott argues that the Equality Act 2010 requires the public bodies to protect people of all ages from discrimination as a result of their sexuality. But the lack of evidence based research into the sexuality of children and young people hampers the ability for this protection to properly occur.

The paper says: "Evidence suggests that by the age of 12 young people are dealing with emerging sexual feelings and attraction to others. Through the teenage years, some young people do begin to identify their sexual orientation, and others do not, or are just unsure. Young people also begin to identify the actual/perceived sexual orientation of others and this underpins homophobic bullying. Existing studies suggest that it is practically and ethically possible to capture evidence on sexual orientation in adolescence through research and monitoring, in order to better understand disadvantage."

There's also a part of me that rejects the institutionalization of sexual orientation categories because such identities are products of cultural forces that will eventually come to pass. While to us, today, it seems important that some people are gay and some people are straight or whatever, in a couple of centuries people will probably have a different way of organizing their sexuality in relationship to other people and asking people who they're attracted to is imposing more than it's eliciting.

Also, if the goal is to eliminate homophobic discrimination, perhaps they could start with a realization that straight people are also subject to homophobia? Especially when we're talking about youth who don't have to organize their lives around sexuality the way adults do, we're going to find that discrimination that comes from gender expression as well as social ostracism are what lots of queer and straight youth experience.

Of course, the right wing has to go off the handle at an idea like this:

The report has provoked outrage. Graham Stuart, Tory chairman of the Commons education select committee, said the plans were 'invasive, sinister and threatening'.

He added: 'School should be a place of safety, not a place where pupils are picked over for the purpose of some quango; and many children won't understand what they are talking about.'

Yes, asking kids about their sexuality will make them unsafe. And they'll understand perfectly what's going on by that age, no matter how much adults like to believe kids are asexual, innocent, and pure.

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Don Sherfick Don Sherfick | March 28, 2011 4:39 PM

I have significant reservations too, Alex, not only along the lines you express, but for another: Our opponents are always quick to say that "homosexual activists" want to inclucate youth at an impressionable age and lead them into "the gay lifestyle". This survey, to the extent that it asks such questions, would simply reinforce their nonsense.

It'll be interesting to see the results, but, like Alex, I worry about asking kids so young what their orientation is. Things change so quickly at that age.

Hmm. At that age I had no idea of who I would turn out to be, sexually or otherwise. Not sure this will have any real value.

What would, although it won't be done due to finances and politics, is the same survey in every age group from then on into college. That would show the changes as children grow into young adults.