Anti-gay attitudes of authority figures are failing our young, warns LGBT activist

Supporters take part in a Gay Pride Parade in Belfast City Centre
Supporters take part in a Gay Pride Parade in Belfast City Centre

Anti-gay attitudes held by authority figures exacerbate the alienation and shame felt by some homosexual people which can lead to depression and in the most serious cases suicide, a lesbian woman and gay rights campaigner has said.

Ruth McCarthy said her statement is a bold one but added that she is firmly of the belief that comments made by figures of authority hurt those in the gay community struggling for acceptance in a society that “has difficulty with people who are a little bit different”.

The 43 year-old, who hails originally from Limerick but has lived in Belfast for more than half her life, has battled depression and suicidal thoughts which she said were partly sparked by her feeling of isolation as a gay person.

Ruth, who has lost two friends through suicide and others through “destructive behaviour brought on by depression”, said while society has come a long way, there is still a long road to travel before people are accepted for who they are.

Statistics show that gay people are up to three times more likely to attempt suicide and up to five times more likely to be medicated for depression.

Ruth said her ‘coming out’ was made easier by the fact she had a loving family, but admitted that even they were at a loss as to what support she needed.

“They said they loved me no matter who I was and who I loved, but it took them a little while to understand,” Ruth told the News Letter. “It wasn’t a subject that came up very often.

“People don’t realise that when you come out, your parents essentially have to come out as the parents of a gay person. They are going through a process as much as you are.

“A lot of parents don’t know what to say or how to talk about it.”

While Ruth is clearly confident and comfortable in her sexuality now she did not always find it so easy. Between the ages of 18 and 30 she suffered from depression, had suicidal thoughts and described herself as having been “in a bad way”.

“If it wasn’t for the family I have, I’m not sure I would be here now,” she said.

While she is clear not to attribute it all to handling her homosexuality, Ruth said she is sure the “side effects” of coming out as gay certainly contributed.

“There was a lack of support there, things are a lot better now, but they are definitely not perfect.

“You are different in a world that doesn’t really recognise difference. You are having to ‘come out’ constantly. It’s the everyday things, meeting new people, speaking to your doctor, getting on with things in school when people might make upsetting comments.”

Once a staff member at a gay helpline, Ruth was asked by a photographer at a funder’s reception if those from her group minded not appearing in the photograph, and has been labelled a ‘lezzie’ in the street for holding hands with her girlfriend.

While recognising that mental health is still something of a taboo subject, and one of the biggest issues is getting people to feel comfortable enough to talk, Ruth said the gay community has an extra hurdle to jump.

“The scariest thing is that people are afraid or ashamed to talk,” she said. “When you are LGBT you have that added dimension. Are people going to give you a hard time because you are gay? Or assume that is why you are feeling down?

“You feel you are having to explain yourself all the time. That kind of negativity just chips away at you over time.

“But you are not alone in it, and I know for me I wish I had asked for help sooner.”

Ruth believes schools are the key places where positive attitudes can be promoted early on.

“It’s great having all the legislation changes, but what needs to change are perceptions. Saying ‘Let’s not talk about it’ is as dangerous as saying it’s a bad thing.

“The statistics show there is clearly a disconnect somewhere, there is a gap between the support people are getting and the support they need.”

Health Minister Edwin Poots is among those making headlines recently with his court action around bans on some gay men donating blood in Northern Ireland and gay couples being able to adopt.

Ruth said society is sending the wrong message to its youth.

“I think it is having a big impact on teens especially,” she said. “They are listening to figures in authority telling them there is something wrong with them.

Ruth referred to the news last month that West Tyrone DUP MLA Tom Buchanan, told schoolchildren at a Let’s Talk event that homosexuality “isn’t right” and is “an abomination”.

“Everyone is entitled to their opinion and their religious point of view of course. But when you are a public figure and you tell people what they are is wrong and negative, that’s where I think we are failing our young people.

“And I don’t want to fail the me at 16.

“Yes things have changed and there is more support now. But if you are in a hard place you hear the negative things.”

Ruth said she has been approached by parents or other relatives of people who have taken their own lives.

“We have had mothers come over to us and say they have lost loved ones through suicide, and say they were or might have been gay.

“And they’ve all said ‘I just wish they’d told us, we would’ve been ok with it’.”

It is for this very reason Ruth said she believes society has further to go in being accepting and tolerant.

“It’s not just about LGBT, it is about race, religion - basic respect for people.”

On Friday the seventh annual LGBT Arts Festival Outburst will begin, this year featuring a play entitled Hang In There and focused on raising awareness of suicide prevention and support for people in distress.

Lifeline, the sponsor of this year’s play, can be contacted 24/7 on 0808 808 8000.