Module 2: perspectives on working with young people: facilitator's guide

3.4 Same-sex attracted young people

Page last updated: 2004

Young people who are same-sex attracted come from a variety of cultural, political, socio-economic, family, peer and school backgrounds. We can apply the systemic approach to working with all young people, including same-sex attracted young people, to understand their issues in relation to broader issues in society, in their communities, with their peers and in their families.

Sexual development can become extremely confusing for young people if they find that they are attracted to members of the same sex as opposed to the 'societal norm' of the opposite sex. There can be fears of moving towards homosexuality as opposed to heterosexuality.

Dealing with issues relating to sexual identity
Research findings: Same-sex attracted young people
Reflection - Same-sex attracted young people
Implications for professionals working with same-sex attracted young people

Dealing with issues relating to sexual identity

Task - writing exercise, brainstorm/group activity

Divide learners into small groups. Each group to record their responses on butcher's paper and present to whole group.

Question - A 15-year-old male is thinking about 'coming out' and telling his friends he is gay. How would you assist this young man and prepare him for some of the issues he may face?

Research findings: Same-sex attracted young people

Ask learners to review these statistics in their Learner's Workbook.

Recent research conducted by the National Centre in HIV Social Research, La Trobe University, has revealed that a significant group of young people are not heterosexual, with numbers ranging between 8 percent and 11 percent (Hillier et al. 1996, Lindsay et al., 1997). A survey of 750 same-sex attracted young people aged between 14 and 21 (average age of 18) explored issues related to their sexuality. They were asked questions about:
  • sexual feelings and experiences
  • the source and usefulness of sexual health information for young people
  • levels of support and experiences of abuse and discrimination based on sexuality
  • feelings about sexuality.
Top of pageWith regard to attractions, participants largely fell into two even groups:
  • Exclusively same-sex attracted (46 percent), and
  • Attracted to both sexes (46 percent)
With regard to labelling their sexual identity, most respondents chose the following:
  • gay/lesbian (45 percent)
  • bisexual (35 percent)
  • heterosexual (9 percent)
  • other (8 percent)
  • unsure (4 percent)
When asked, 'How do you feel about your sexuality?'
  • 33 percent of those who answered said they felt 'great' and did not report any problems. However, large numbers of those who responded 'pretty good' and 'OK' were experiencing a lot of difficulties. Of those who responded to this question. 16 percent were feeling very negative and despondent.
When asked about unfair treatment and any verbal and physical abuse suffered by participants because of their sexuality:
  • 33 percent of participants believed they had been unfairly treated or discriminated against, because of their sexuality. 46 percent of participants stated they had been verbally abused. 13 percent of participants had been physically abused

  • Most young people (70 percent) were abused at school more than anywhere else, with other students being the perpetrators for 60 percent of abuse cases. 10 percent had been abused by family members

  • 20 percent had never spoken to anyone about their sexuality

  • Although young people rarely sought support from professionals (doctors, youth workers, student welfare coordinators, teachers, counsellors), when they were consulted these people were found to be, on the whole, supportive.
Young people were more likely to disclose to family members than professionals.
  • Mothers and sisters were more likely to be chosen to confide in than fathers and brothers

  • 75 percent of young people had spoken to a female friend and 65 percent a male friend

  • The study found that young people who disclosed and received support did feel better about their sexuality than those who did not
Information about heterosexual relationships and safe sex was easily accessed and readily available.
  • Most young people learnt about this topic from family, media, friends and from school. However, rural young people reported less access to heterosexual safe sex information from the media than young people living in metropolitan areas.
Information about gay and lesbian relationships and safe sex was far more difficult to access.
  • Around 50 percent had received information about gay and lesbian relationships from the media and friends, 10 percent from the family and about 15 percent from school.
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Reflection - Same-sex attracted young people

Task - workplace learning activity, group exercise

Ask learners to reflect on the information given about same-sex attracted young people and consider how it might change the way they work with young people. (This task can be completed at home or in small groups.)

Question - How does your workplace respond to issues related to same-sex attracted young people? What are the inherent values of your organisation in regard to this matter? What policies does your organisation have that actively support same-sex attracted young people?

If there are none, find an example of a policy that actively supports same-sex attracted young people (e.g. state government policy).

Implications for professionals working with same-sex attracted young people

The above findings provide some strong guiding principles for workers in the youth field. Sexuality is a critical issue for young people, a significant number of whom experiment and try to establish their sexual orientation (same or opposite sex) during this stage of development. In doing so they are often faced with limited or inaccurate information. They are fearful about who to talk to and in many instances have experienced significant abuse from others, particularly their peer group.

The following are key points to note:
  • Sexuality is a structuring force in the lives of all young people. In order to help them, schools and youth community programs need to acknowledge and provide information about the diversity of sexual experiences that they may engage in while exploring their sexuality.

  • Consideration needs to be given to developing a policy which explicitly addresses homophobia along with sexism, racism and other forms of violence. Equal opportunity and human rights legislation provides a framework for policy development in this area. However, young people who have suffered discrimination on the grounds of their sexuality should also be made aware of their legal rights under this legislation.

  • Research has shown that there is an absence of basic knowledge about preventing sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) for all but heterosexual sex. However, when seeking to address this gap, schools and youth community-based programs should avoid discussing homosexuality only in the context of disease prevention.

  • Same-sex attracted young people gather much of their information about sexuality from the media. Media representations of gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgender people often draw on a very limited range of negative and misleading stereotypes. Sexuality programs need to be inclusive of all sexualities in order to ensure young people are not forced to seek information from less reliable sources, i.e. media and friends.

  • Research also reveals that some young people who are exploring their sexuality will do so relatively unproblematically whereas others will require intensive support. Thus it is important to acknowledge the diversity of young people's attractions and experiences, adopt a non-judgmental approach to sexuality and avoid making assumptions.

  • Living a same-sex attracted lifestyle is not a concept that translates easily across a number of non- Western cultural boundaries. Same-sex attracted young people from Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Backgrounds (CALDB) may need specific support related to this issue. The La Trobe research report reviewed above also produced evidence that same-sex attracted young people from rural areas were particularly isolated and face a more severe information deficit than their urban peers. The report stated that this issue requires attention at local, state and national policy levels.

  • Encouraging same-sex attracted young people to 'come out' is not necessarily the best approach. The La Trobe research has demonstrated that disclosure of sexuality only increases young people's wellbeing if the people they choose to come out to are supportive. 65 percent of the young people participating in this research were living in the family home, many with a fear of violence or of becoming homeless should their sexuality be disclosed. A more useful approach is to provide a range of options e.g. access to gay, lesbian, bisexual adult role models, linkages to youth peer support groups and the opportunity to discuss sexuality in private and in confidence with a sympathetic and informed adult.
(Adapted from Hillier et al., 1996, Lindsay et al., 1997)
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  • Allow a young person to explore their sexuality and don't set 'rules' that indicate right or wrong behaviour

  • Ensure that young people are not placing themselves at physical or psychological risk of harm whilst exploring their sexuality

  • Provide the young person with as much information as possible so that they are informed of their rights and choices

  • Understand that young people are a diverse group and work with them in the context of the broader society in which they live.