Lucy Powell: It’s time for Ministers to stop letting down LGBT young people

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Labour’s Shadow Education Secretary Lucy Powell writes for PinkNews as her party commits to introducing statutory sex and relationship education and PSHE in schools.

I might be showing my age, but when I was in my early twenties I remember thinking Queer as Folk was a welcome revelation, challenging homophobia and using culture to change attitudes for the better.

Set in my home city of Manchester it opened the eyes of many to LGBT life for the first time, introducing us to characters like Stuart and Vince and 15 year-old Nathan. The show was compulsive viewing.

It’s easy to forget sometimes though that despite his brash cockiness, Nathan was still at school, exploring his sexuality without any real support. The sad truth is that for many young LGBT people, support at school is still woefully lacking.
Lucy Powell: It’s time for Ministers to stop letting down LGBT young people
So despite the fact that in the time since Queer as Folk was first aired in 1999 being young and LGBT has become much more acceptable, many challenges still remain.

The digital world means that growing up today carries more opportunities but also more risks. Issues facing all young people are exacerbated by smartphone technology that as well as providing positive experiences, opens them up to more risk.

Premature sexualisation of young people alongside issues such as online safety, cyber-bullying, online grooming and internet pornography are all things that my generation didn’t have to worry about. Technology today means these risks are growing.

Figures I’ve uncovered show that “sexting” between under 16s has sky-rocketed in the last few years, up by 1200 per-cent.

At the push of a button or the click of a location-based-app young people can talk to strangers in their area or around the world. Images and videos can be shared without consent with the repercussions impacting on the health and wellbeing of individuals and on their relationships with family and friends.

All young people face these challenges, but young LGBT may be especially at risk. Isolation amongst LGBT young people means that they might be more likely to reach out digitally to others, unaware of the dangers this can carry.

Or the pressures they face may push them to alcohol or substance misuse.

Research published by Stonewall found that 55 per-cent of lesbian, gay and bisexual young people had experienced homophobic bullying and virtually all of them – 99 per cent – hear homophobic language, like using the word ‘gay’ in a negative way on a frequent basis.

I know from talking to young LGBT people in my own area of Manchester that these experiences can alienate LGBT young people from education, leading to low wellbeing, isolation and mental health issues.

Shockingly, a majority of LGBT young people self-harm and one in four attempts suicide. Research suggests self-harm and suicide rates amongst trans people are even higher.

This is a real indictment on our society and shows that whilst we have won many battles in the fight against bigotry and hate there is still much more to be done.

Yet despite these difficult challenges we have a school support system in many places that is not fit for LGBT people and sex and relationship guidance that is woefully inadequate. The last time guidance for schools on sex and relationship education (SRE) was in 2000.

That’s before many of the “smartphone” generation were born and certainly before apps like Tinder, Grindr, Kik, Snapchat or Tumblr existed. It’s also before the Gender Recognition Act, civil partnerships and equal marriage.

Despite these pressing problems, the government are failing to act.

They have taken no action to update the guidance on sex and relationship education and refuse to give Personal Social Health and Economic education (PSHE) the place in the curriculum it deserves given the scope of the issues young people face.

The Tories are out of touch with the challenges young people face in modern Britain.

Labour will grasp this nettle and ensure that young LGBT people have better support and up to date help to navigate the modern world.

We’ll introduce compulsory PSHE and age-appropriate SRE including information for LGBT young people so that young people and their families can have the confidence to face these challenges.

We’ve come a long way on LGBT rights since Queer as Folk was first aired but old-fashioned attitudes about sex and relationships and PSHE are holding us back. To really ensure a step-change in the experience of young LGBT people we must mainstream the help they need.

If the Tories won’t act to protect and support LGBT young people, Labour will.

Lucy Powell is Labour’s Shadow Secretary of State for Education