Out & About mentoring for LGBTQ women
As public opinion towards the LGBTQ community in Northern Ireland continues to positively grow Dr Gail Neill tells Nikki McKeown how its not all what it seems and how we are politically lagging behind the rest of UK.
LGBTQ rights in Northern Ireland continue to be the least advanced in the UK and although the LGBTQ community in Northern Ireland is now more visible than ever young people are experiencing isolation within society and even within their own families.
At this time Youth Action Northern Ireland has extended their Out & About mentoring programme to LGBTQ women aged 16-25. This programme is based on having an informal, supportive relationship with a youth worker and the benefits that can arise from this.
Out and About is a personal development programme and a support space for young women who want to get information and advice outside of the gay scene.
It gives young women the chance to find out more about their gender, sexual orientation, their rights and to meet other young people in a safe space.
“We work to try and include the most marginalized women within society to ensure that those who are most often overlooked- their voices are heard”, explains Programme Co-ordinator Dr Gail Neill.
“There is definitely a need for a space like this for young women” says Gail. “On one hand things are changing very positively in Northern Ireland – a recent poll showed that 70% of people were in favour of equality marriage”.
“All this makes it feel like things are fine yet on the other hand in NI- there are still high levels of LGBTQ hate crimes that go unreported. Politically we are lagging behind the rest of the UK continuously using religious discourse for politicians to deny or stall a way forward.”
Three years of funding has been given to Youth Action by the Esmee Fairbairn foundation and this will allow 30 young women a year to go through the programme.
Young LGBTQ women can access one to one sessions where they can seek support to identify and overcome personal barriers they are facing.
One of the young people availing from the programme is a girl from a very rural area, she has just recently ‘came out’ and her first action point is simple to meet some LGBTQ friends.
Statistics from ‘Still Shouting’ –research published by Youth NI and Cara-friend looks at the negative impact of growing up in a homophobic society.
The reports show that statistics for self-harm have risen 26% since 2003, eating disorders face no change in over a decade and attempted suicide has dropped by a mere 4% in 13 years.
“In a 13 year period you’re led to believe things are moving forward but actually the experiences of young people are still entrenched in homophobia.”
“Research then shows the impact of growing up in an environment like that. For example LGBTQ women have a less positive experience at school. They face trans and homophobic bullying and as a result of not wanting to be outed or wanting their parents to find out there is less reporting of this at school”.
In terms of accessing information, support and services- Gail explains that young LGBTQ people remain invisible. They don’t have the same kind of support around their sexual and mental health.
“In a piece of research that we did in schools one pupil said ‘even if it had of been mentioned it would have helped me feel more normal’, -for young people- it just contributes to feelings of being different like it is a secret and they have to remain invisible”.
One of the young women on the programme told me how the mentoring programme has ‘changed her life’. “It was the casual part of the programme that interested me, I didn’t want to sit in a room and talk about my problems for an hour and a half”.
“The programme has made me feel a lot more confident I’m more comfortable in my own skin and have made a new friend in my mentor,” said the women.
Out & Mentoring reaches out to young women with a casual approach- meeting can take place over a cup of coffee or during a walk
Youth Action NI want to avoid a ‘counselling like scenario’ as this can reinforce the idea that there is something wrong with the individual- that they are the problem instead of society.
Our aim is to make the programme as accessible as possible- not many young people will put their hand up and say I want to come and sit and talk with you for 90 minutes jokes Gail.
“What we want to do is create environments where women can talk about things when it arises in ways that are comfortable”.
Mentors are based in Belfast, Derry and Fermanagh with a Northern Ireland wide remit and there is no cost for the programme.
For more information: Visit youthaction.org