By David Barbour, SCSN Comms Officer and current Chair of the Glasgow LGBTQI Substance Use Partnership

February is LGBT History Month.

There is so much I can write about on this topic in normal times, but of course these are not normal times. As with other minority groups, the LGBTQI community has unsurprisingly also been disproportionately affected[i][ii] by the Covid-19 pandemic, and this has exacerbated many underlying issues we face. But in this article I want to focus on broader issues and how they relate to our research on LGBTQI experiences of community safety.

My own brief history of LGBTQI time (1986-present)

I was born in 1986 and grew up in Scotland through the 1990s and 2000s. I began to realise I was not as other girls (as Stephen Fry so delightfully puts it) at around the age of 13/14 and came out as gay in 2005 at the age of 19. Previous generations of LGBTQI people had things much harder, but LGBTQI people of my generation grew up at a queer time, if you’ll pardon the pun.

The 1990s was the first full decade in which it was legal to have same sex relationships Scotland (disgracefully only legalised in Scotland in 1981, vs 1967 in rUK), the legal age of consent was gradually equalised through the early 1990s, and at the end of the decade we finally saw the repeal of the odious Section 28 (AKA clause 2a) which had banned teachers from discussing our lives in schools.

The 2000s continued to see great strides for legal equality being made with the Gender Recognition Act of 2004 and the legalisation of Civil Partnerships for same sex couples in 2005. So I grew up in two decades of the fastest changes in legal equality in favour of LGBTQI people this country has ever seen.

And yet…

I was born bang in the middle of the AIDS epidemic, a time when (again as we might all have recently seen in ‘It’s a Sin’), gay, bi-sexual and other men who have sex with men were dying in their thousands in the most appalling ways. They were being brutalised by the police for protesting, being forced to come out to their families as a consequence of their AIDS diagnosis and sometimes disowned or ignored just as they most needed love, and stigmatised all over again for the sex and love they shared with and for each other. Homophobia was the norm at the highest levels. Indeed the Chief Constable of Greater Manchester, James Anderton, spoke of gay people ‘swirling in a human cesspit of their own making’.

The year after my birth, then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher addressed the 1987 Tory Party Conference decrying that:

“Children who need to be taught to respect traditional moral values are being taught that they have an inalienable right to be gay.”

I was only beginning to realise my probable sexuality (with nothing less than abject horror, fear and trepidation) around about the year 1999 into 2000, exactly at the time of the poisonous debate around the repeal of Section 28. Whilst Section 28 was repealed in Scotland in 2000, I can’t ever remember LGBTQI lives or sex being discussed by school teachers at any time in my high school PSE lessons (1998-2004) the way heterosexual relationships or lives were – not without much sniggering in any event.

Though I didn’t experience direct homophobic bullying (I didn’t present as camp and even played football!), I couldn’t help but imbibe the impression that being gay was being less than, or worth less as I listened to taunts directed at others and on occasion myself where the word gay was a synonym for shitty, crap or uncool – e.g. ‘That’s so gay!’ ‘Those trainers are so gay!’, ‘Don’t be gay, just do (insert generic activity you didn’t really feel like doing).’ Quelle surprise that more than a decade of absorbing this idea that being gay meant being less than or worth less, left one feeling slightly worthless.

I came out in the year 2005 and assumed all would be well from then on. Alas, no. Mental health problems including severe anxiety, depression, alcoholism and other harmful addictive behaviour were to be my own never ending story. I’m far from the only LGBTQI person for whom a similar story applies.

I have to admit, thinking about it all makes me viscerally angry. How dare society put young children through this?!

So what was the point of that long story?

In a word, context. SCSN recently carried out research titled ‘Perceptions and Experiences of Community Safety’. The first and most obvious issue we have here is that our research identified that nobody has thus far bothered to do any research. That’s another way of saying there are big data gaps. Surprising? Not really. Like most minorities, historically, unless we as a community get angry and start demanding stuff mostly nobody bothers to ask us about our lives or think about our needs – see the Stonewall Riots, the AIDS epidemic, Section 28, Civil Partnerships, gay marriage etcetera.

As our research says, this needs addressed. Across the board, our needs are still not being adequately explored or addressed. YOU (the cisgender/heterosexual majority) need to start thinking about us more when developing policies, strategies and services. That means finding out about us through research and effective data gathering; and thinking about how what you’re doing affects us. It shouldn’t take for us to have to always protest, demand and badger. It’s exhausting for us. We’ve got other shit going on too you know!

I’ve worked in the alcohol and drugs field now for almost a decade (though I was half drunk for nearly half that decade, somewhat limiting my attention span) and before I got sober, started working with GCA and really started thinking coherently about this stuff, there was almost no real consideration for LGBTQI needs in the alcohol and drugs world.

I don’t mean it as a specific slight on alcohol and drug services in Glasgow or anywhere else (anymore than it ought to be to the shame of all services in all fields everywhere) and certainly not on my own employer GCA, who do fantastic work, but we hadn’t previously devoted any real time, effort or resource to LGBTQI people save for notionally being open and welcoming of LGBTQI people if they happened to access our service.

As I began to look at other alcohol and drug services, and think back to my previous employers in the field and services I’d been engaged with as a client, it was broadly speaking the same story – with a few noble exceptions. I didn’t think that was good enough and I had good reason not to by that point – having stumbled across research by Glasgow Caledonian University (funded by SHAAP) and the Scottish Transgender Alliance which confirmed LGBTQI people felt that there were lots of barriers to their accessing alcohol and drug services. Included among these barriers were that LGBTQI people felt that their lives and experiences would not be understood or taken seriously, that they were invisible to services, that they might experience homo/transphobia or cis-sexism (either from staff or other service users), that services were located in places they didn’t feel safe (more deprived areas).

When I started delivering training to our staff on LGBTQI substance use and reasons why it was higher, many of our staff remarked afterwards that they’d ‘never thought about that before’, ‘never realised that’ about some of the day to day issues LGBTQI people face just going about their lives.

These barriers experiences mirror those that LGBTQI people experience in accessing support around domestic abuse, as covered in a recent webinar we attended run by LGBT Youth Scotland.

As I delved further into this work, I found that it was difficult to get a good idea of how many LGBTQI people were using drug and alcohol services because nobody collected or reported on this data – including at a national level. Clearly this is not ideal. How can we know the extent to which we are succeeding in engaging with communities if we don’t know we are engaging with them? And how can we adequately design services, create policies or direct funding if we don’t know or understand the extent of the need?

Thankfully, as the research quoted already shows, the work of the Glasgow LGBTQI Substance Use Partnership, and as demonstrated by the commissioning of a health needs assessment by NHS GGC and Lothian, some of this is starting to change – even if the burden still rests too heavily on the shoulders of motivated community members.

Data gathering on LGBTQI identities can though present difficulties one might not encounter when it comes to say, ethnicity, as LGBTQI people may be able to and even actively try or want to ‘pass’ as heterosexual or cis-gender. But why do we do that? It is a legacy and/or consequence of past and ongoing homo/transphobia, poor experience of services, and fear of experiencing homo/transphobia. Anything for an easier life.

The ongoing impact of historic or continuing homo/transphobia

We may have made great strides in terms of legal equality over the 30 or so years since my birth, and social attitudes to LGBTQI people have shifted markedly for the better, but for many LGBTQI people it still doesn’t feel that way. We can’t shake the fears or stresses we grew up facing on a daily basis. We are defensive and secretive sometimes by default, because we expect to have bad experiences, expect to be misunderstood or attacked, or expect to have to teach people about our lives because they haven’t bothered to proactively learn anything about us. So sometimes it’s just easier to keep your head down and not draw attention to yourself.

At almost age 35 and 16 years out of the closet, I still find myself sizing people or situations up for whether I think it’s safe, worthwhile or necessary to mention my sexuality. And that includes in what are supposed to be safe spaces like Alcoholics Anonymous groups or family parties. LGBTQI people are still wary of simple public displays of affection like holding hands or kissing each other in public places, and with good reason – homo/transphobic hate crime has started to rise again in recent years, as seen in some high profile examples covered by the press/media.

Thus, our research findings that we experience more discrimination and harassment, more violence, feel less safe in public places, experience more sexual violence and physical partner violence, homelessness and suicidal ideation dependent on our identity/sexuality; came as no surprise.

What our research didn’t mention but that I can tell you based on voluminous research I have collected/seen through my work, is that LGBTQI people are significantly more likely to experience substance use harms, all LGBTQI identities experience higher rates of poor mental health and suicidal ideation than our hetero/cis peers, we still experience absurdly high rates of bullying at school based on our identities, we experience higher rates of homelessness and experience higher rates of other health problems, including some cancers.

I’ll personally be interested to shortly learn more about how we also feature more often in the Criminal Justice system (if not surprised that we do given the levels of stress, trauma, abuse and problematic substance use we experience). I myself have had drunken run-ins with the law and have a criminal record.

I do know that many in the LGBTQI community certainly have a distrust or outright disrespect for the police – and again, not without good reason (historic or ongoing entrapment, exposure, harassment, brutality, institutional homophobia). Indeed, we might also possess some hostility towards the state and any of its representatives – again hardly surprising, once bitten and all that.

This is something which the Police need to continue to work to address, and thankfully they are making some progress in Scotland, though I’m not in a position to say whether my entire community thinks it’s fast enough.

A particular mention for the trans community

I am not transgender/gender non-conforming, so I cannot adequately describe to you what trans experiences of community safety are. Recently, an article in the Scotsman interviewed some trans people about their experiences of life in Scotland and frankly what they had to say should appal us. Scotland purports and aims to be an inclusive and tolerant country. Trans people in Scotland clearly would not currently recognise this description. Sadly, some people are intent on spreading smears and lies about trans people redolent of those used against LGB people in the past by some of the most notorious homophobes of yesteryear, to engender fear of trans people.

One trans activist I spoke to recently said, ‘It’s just exhausting being trans in Scotland.’

 Scotland needs to do much, much better.

Whether it be on LGB people, or specifically trans people, start by proactively thinking about what you can do to lessen the burden we carry.

Without wanting to sound bolshie, it’s the least you can do. (Grovelling apologies also accepted).

[i] Rainbow Responders Report: LGBT+ Community Experiences of Covid-19 and lockdowns

[ii] Health needs assessment of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and non-binary people: Findings relating to the COVID19 Pandemic