In this piece, Ruth explains why LGBT+ visibility is important and what affect positive representation can have on your mental health.

It is a basic human instinct to desire acceptance, this is something we all value to some extent or other. We want to belong and fit in, be that in our family or among our friends and colleagues, and especially in society as a whole. It matters how people view and think of us, and their perceptions of us can seriously affect our self-image. Certainly, when growing up and going through the school system, a lot of us feel the need to sandpaper ourselves down to fit the mould and get in with the popular crowd. Otherwise, you risk losing friends and being viewed as the outcast in your year.

And it is this feeling of being alone that can have a huge negative impact on your mental health.

When you constantly hear that you are an outcast, that you don’t belong anywhere, and that who you are is somehow wrong, you begin to believe it and your self-esteem goes crashing through the floor. In a frantic attempt to be accepted, you go through the exhausting process of crushing down those parts of yourself that you think might result in your rejection.

As someone who grew up LGBT+, this was what I did for most of my childhood, and still do now when in some environments. It was internalising other people’s homophobia that led to a serious decline in my mental health. And this is a common experience of a lot of LGBT+ people. Yes, we may have come forward hugely in terms of LGBT+ rights since the Stonewall riots of 1969 and the growth of the gay liberation movement that ensued. Yet society still shuns those who are LGBT+, particularly trans and genderqueer people, and homophobia and transphobia are prevalent in the workplace and our public institutions.

This has a huge effect on the mental health of LGBT+ people, and even how they interact with health services.

The statistics are, quite frankly, shocking. LGBT+ people are 3 times more likely to experience a mental health condition than cisgender straight people. Research done by Stonewall found that 52% of young LGBT+ people have self-harmed at some point in their lives. In one survey of LGBT+ people, over half of the respondents experienced discrimination based on their sexuality or gender identity when attempting to access healthcare, and nearly 30% of trans respondents had postponed or avoided medical care due to fear of discrimination.

Creating a society and environment that is positive, open, and caring is so key to people staying mentally healthy. And to do so, we must take a stand against the prejudice and rejection that LGBT+ people face today in our society.

A huge part of tackling this prejudice is LGBT+ representation and visibility.

The personal impact of visibility is huge. Seeing an LGBT+ MP, sportsperson or actor is so important; it provides you with a role model and can make you feel empowered in your identity. You feel a greater sense of belonging in society, and this can even aid people to come out, which can lift a huge weight off your shoulders. When I was facing homophobia and really struggling with being in the closet, seeing LGBT+ characters on my favourite TV show and LGBT+ people in Parliament really highlighted to me that, despite what I was hearing, my identity was nothing to be ashamed of.

Even just a small speck of positivity and pride in who you are can be something to hold onto and boost your mental health and self-esteem, however slightly.

LGBT+ representation and visibility can also have a transformative effect on society, helping to create that wider environment for LGBT+ people that is conducive to good mental health. The more that public figures talk about their experiences as an LGBT+ person, the less that our community seems taboo. It highlights that we are not some ‘scandalous minority’ but are just normal people. Instead of our community being put in a box on the fringes of acceptable society, visibility and representation can challenge this and bring being LGBT+ down to a base level.

This is such a vital and important concept to introduce into society.

This highlights that sexuality and gender identity are not a choice; it is okay and, in fact, normal to identify other than cisgender or heterosexual. And this is what challenges the divisive narrative that sets the LGBT+ community apart from the rest of society and breeds the distrust and prejudice that is so damaging to the mental health of LGBT+ people.

But representation is not good enough.

We need positive representation that does not promote or adhere to dangerous stereotypes that can in fact be more damaging to the LGBT+ community than silence.

Currently, there is a certain perception of LGBT+ people in movies and TV shows. We constantly see the stereotype of gay men being promiscuous and lesbians being manipulative misandrists. LGBT+ characters are frequently written as one-dimensional, with their sexuality or gender identity being their one defining characteristic. Lesbians in particular are portrayed as tragic figures, with a worrying trend of lesbian characters being killed off. Not only does this give society a horribly skewed picture of the LGBT+ community, which can feed into the prejudice that is already present, but it has a hugely negative influence on the way LGBT+ people perceive themselves. Media should be used to empower, not put LGBT+ people in boxes and reinforce the negative stereotypes placed on them by society. It is positive representation that builds up that pride in your identity that is so important to keeping mentally healthy.

So how can we as a society ensure that we see positive LGBT+ representation in the media?

  • Support both media created by LGBT+ people as well as media which has LGBT+ content. A keen market will mean that companies will be more likely to fund diverse media, and there will be more opportunities for LGBT+ stories to be told.
  • Call people out if they are presenting problematic stereotypes in their media, and if you are creating your own media, check your work to ensure that you are not inadvertently adding to the prejudice that the LGBT+ community faces.
  • Write your LGBT+ characters as multidimensional people, whose stories are so much bigger than a tragic coming out. Everyone is so much more complex and interesting than just their sexuality and gender identity.
  • Lastly, and arguably most importantly, empower LGBT+ people to join the media industry, to write, produce, direct and entertain. They have experienced the world through the eyes of an LGBT+ person, and know how they wish their stories to be told.

It is simply not good enough that on average an LGBT+ person is more likely to experience a period of poor mental health than a cisgender straight person.

But with visibility combined with the positive representation of LGBT+ people in the media, we can truly empower the LGBT+ community to be who they are without shame. Our voices and stories can tackle the prejudice inherent in society. Ultimately, by challenging the stereotypes and fighting division, this can help people become more accepting of the LGBT+ community, and encourage LGBT+ people to love and have pride in who they are, and thus create a positive, open, and caring society that is not only hugely beneficial to the mental health of LGBT+ people, but the mental health of all of us.

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