To mark LGBT+ History Month 2021, award-winning creative Dolly Sen shares their experiences of stigma, mental health, and sexuality.
LGBT+ stands for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Questioning or Queer, plus some newer categories.
People identifying as LGBT+ have a higher chance of experiencing poor mental health, and are more likely to experience depression, anxiety, suicidal thoughts, and substance misuse. This happens due to isolation, rejection, discrimination and inequality.
The ‘Count Me In Too’ study conducted by University of Brighton in 2007 reported:
- Half of LGB people are not ‘out’ to their GP.
- One in ten say that a healthcare worker ignored them when they did come out.
- Seven in ten said healthcare workers made inappropriate comments when they did come out.
- Only one in ten felt their partner was welcome during a consultation.
The understanding of LGBT+ history and issues is deep and complex.
Instead of trying to cover everything, I am going to write personally about my experience of being a lesbian. Lesbians are women who are emotionally and sexually attracted to other women.
I didn’t see any people who were similar to me and I didn’t have any role models. Heterosexuality was compulsory. So, at a time when I needed to make sense of my feelings and sexuality, I was instead offered repression, depression and self-hatred.
Beginnings of confusion
I grew up in a Christian family where TV and reading material were monitored. I didn’t know anything about gay people at all. I remember my dad insulting Billie Jean King, the lesbian tennis player, and using derogatory terms to describe her. I had no idea what she had done ‘wrong’.
I had crushes on Donny Osmond AND the Bionic Woman as a kid. As I got older, I had more crushes on girls than boys. When I reached puberty, I felt a sexual attraction to women. I knew what a lesbian was at that point, but I didn’t want to be one. The beginning of my confusion and anguish began there.
Some concepts in LGBT+ history are related to my life. ‘Compulsory Heterosexuality’ being one of them. Compulsory heterosexuality is the idea that heterosexuality is assumed and enforced by society.
I was a teenager in the 1980s, the decade Margaret Thatcher introduced Section 28, which prohibited a local authority “from intentionally promoting homosexuality or publishing material with the intention of promoting homosexuality”.
This meant that I didn’t see any people who were similar to me and I didn’t have any role models. Heterosexuality was compulsory. So, at a time when I needed to make sense of my feelings and sexuality, I was instead offered repression, depression and self-hatred.
I tried to be straight. I mixed up thinking a man was handsome with thinking this meant I fancied them. When I kissed boys as a teenager, I felt no pleasure or connection – but it was what I was supposed to do to fit in, to not be treated badly. In the instance of my violently homophobic father, it was also what kept me alive and with a roof over my head.
Enforcement of heterosexuality can be overt or subtle, and can involve rewarding heterosexuality or punishing other sexualities. This can be done economically, socially, legally, politically or medically. Visibility of LGBT+ people in the world is so important.
Although other things were also at play in my life, including childhood adversity, my sense of disconnection from the world and being hated by a homophobic world helped contribute to the psychotic condition I developed, aged 14.
I was too unwell to work until I was in my 30s. In the meantime, I received homophobia as part of my treatment plan from the mental health system.
This often came in small but important ways. For example, after I had broken up with a girlfriend, a nurse once said to me, “You’re better off with a man anyway.” People always assumed I was straight.
I felt I couldn’t talk about it with the duty mental health team. I was scared of homophobia. I feared it would affect my treatment or people’s behaviours towards me.
Homophobia in services
Navigating the mental health system as a gay person is challenging for me. This is because mental health services and mental health research has a sullied history.
In the past, gayness was seen as a mental illness and was ‘treated’ with electroshocks, and awful hormonal and chemical therapy. So, I don’t know whether a mental health professional is homophobic or not, I don’t bring that part of myself up.
For example, when I was shot at in a homophobic attack (luckily they missed) and it subsequently caused a bout of paranoia, I felt I couldn’t talk about it with the duty mental health team. I was scared of homophobia. I feared it would affect my treatment or people’s behaviours towards me.
I have also experienced this sense of repression when involved in research. To date, I have been interviewed by many researchers. Some researchers have been great, but some have assumed heterosexuality, or have skirted around the subject of my gayness.
Thankfully, both my supervisors at McPin made an effort to get to know about that part of my identity, but I know other LGBT+ researchers have not been as lucky. Some have even left their research roles because they felt isolated and disenfranchised.
Little things to help
Since then, things have improved, but we are still in an unequal place and LGBT+ people are still suffering because of that. It would help if health professionals and researchers showed that they were not homophobic by doing little things like wearing a rainbow lanyard.
When people talk about their partner, don’t ask what ‘he’ or ‘she’ does. Instead, simply ask, “What do they do?” Ask people about their pronouns, too.
On a wider scale, I would love to see more research into LGBT+ lives, led by LGBT+ people themselves.
I am proud to be gay. How can you, as a professional, organisation or institution show that you are proud of me too?
Dolly Sen is an award-winning writer, artist, performer and filmmaker. To read more about her work, please visit her website.