WITH 73% of LGBTI+ young people feeling unsafe in schools, a series of educational animated videos for teachers and adults wanting to create safe spaces for this cohort was launched during the recent BeLonG To Youth Services Stand Up Awareness Week.
‘Esther Explains’, the name of the animation series, was scripted by Ciara Mulcahy, a community health worker at LINC (Lesbians in Cork). It tackles some of the basics of young people being LGBTI+ (the ‘I’ stands for intersex). The aim is to start a conversation about diverse identities, assisting teachers, parents and other adults who wish to create inclusive spaces for young people who don’t identify as heterosexual.
Designed by award-winning animator, Janet Grainger, ‘Esther Explains’ covers three topics; being trans, non-binary and homophobic language. The character of Esther (inspired by a LINC staff member) is an Irish teenager who takes pride in responding to queries from her family and friends about gender diversity and homophobia in familiar settings such as at the kitchen table with her father and in the school canteen with a friend.
The approach is casual, with the tagline, ‘Don’t be a butt!’ closing out each animation, as a way of promoting inclusivity and acceptance in a relatable way for young people. The animations come with a workbook.
A recent survey showed that the mental health of LGBTI+ young people has deteriorated during Covid-19. Carried out by BeLonG To Youth Services, the research reveals that 97% of LGBTI+ youth are struggling with anxiety, stress or depression.
Ciara says that making an animated series during the pandemic wasn’t easy.
“We obviously couldn’t get into a studio to record the voices so we had actors recording zoom conversations to get the audio. We then edited it and sent on the audio to the animator.”
Teenagers respond well to ‘Esther Explains’, says Ciara. It was shown to the pupils of Colaiste Eamon Rís recently.
“Worksheets were handed out with speech bubbles containing questions. That got the young people talking about what they were watching. They’re quite fluent in talking about LGBTI+ issues and gender and stuff. Young people are clued in.”
One of the main messages in the series is that “It’s OK not to get things right all the time. Once you’re coming from a good place, asking questions in a way that’s curious and wanting to be informed, is fine. It’s alright to mix the pronouns and not to have language all the time.
"Esther is talking to people who are new to topics like being transsexual. She talks to her dad about being non-binary. He says to her that he doesn’t want to be a bigot but he doesn’t know what the term means.”
We don’t hear much about being ‘intersex’. Ciara say that “intersex births account for 1.72% of all births. It’s quite a high number, equivalent to the amount of people with red hair. What it means is that externally, internally or in terms of chromosomes, the baby is not necessarily male or female.”
A group called Intersex Ireland “is starting to organise more now that there’s more information on it. Typically, it would have been kept very quiet.
“What usually happened is that babies underwent surgery, which is basically cosmetic surgery to make the baby fit as either male or female. It has had really traumatic consequences on this community. You’re interfering with something that doesn’t need to be interfered with.
“It’s more about understanding or expanding our understanding of biological sex. It is really a spectrum as opposed to being just male or female. 98% of people fit into male or female but we have this cohort in the middle that doesn’t. It’s a natural biological fact that male or female are not the only options. We don’t know everything about that.
“As a result, we’ve basically been engaging with damaging practices on infants. When you think about when a baby is born, the first question people ask is the baby’s weight and then the question ‘is it a boy or a girl?’ Some parents don’t have an answer to that question - and they might never have an answer. So I think the advocacy that’s happening around intersex people is important.
“There should be no surgery on infants when they don’t need it. We need to expand our understanding of biological sex. It’s not sexuality or gender identity. It’s separate from that. There’s a really good TED talk on it about a woman who is intersex. It’s called ‘The Way we Think about Biological Sex’.”
Ciara says she was shocked at the amount of LGBTI+ people who don’t feel safe at school.
“I thought things had moved on. There’s situations where a young person comes out to a friend. Then it spreads around the school. When the young person looks for support from one of their teachers, the teacher doesn’t know (what to do). There’s almost an accepted amount of homophobia.”
Having finished school in 2006, Ciara says “there wasn’t a hope of coming out in school back then. But when we were at Colaiste Eamon Rís the other day, a group of kids were photographed with us. They were the ones who were out in the school. There must have been at least ten of them, which was amazing.
“Things have definitely improved massively.”
However, there are still hurdles to overcome. Key findings reveal that during the pandemic, 63% of LGBTI+ young people are struggling with suicide ideation (in 2020, that figure was 55%.) Half of LGBTI+ young people are struggling with self harm, compared to 45% in 2020; 83% of young people are feeling acute loneliness throughout the pandemic. In 2020, that figure was 60%. And 58% of young people described their mental health as ‘bad’ or ‘very bad’, compared to 48% in 2020.
More than half (56%) of LGBTI+ young people surveyed this year said they were not fully accepted in their home environment. Family rejection, feeling unaccepted and a denial of identity can result in loneliness, stress, anxiety and more complex mental health challenges.
Ciara says self-harm and suicide ideation can roll into adulthood “and there can be a higher engagement with drugs, alcohol and risk-taking behaviours within the LGBTI+ community. Also, young people who are LGBTI+ are over-represented in the homeless services. It really has a knock-on effect into other areas of people’s lives.”
LINC, which supports lesbian and bisexual women, has a community education programme.
“It’s part of a bigger project because LGBTI+ people tend to have challenging experiences with education and sustaining employment and achieving potential.
Ciara, who is from Waterford, has been living in Cork for four years and is getting married to a Cork woman next year. Cork had a reputation of being a gay-friendly city, but Ciara says that while she has had very positive experiences in Cork, “we have noticed this year in particular an almost daily incidence of homophobia. I don’t know why.
“People have been feeling caged and tetchy. I think there has been a lot of trolling. While I’ve found Cork incredible, there is still a bit to be done.”