Cuts are doing what Section 28 couldn't to LGBT services

Michael Bracey
Tuesday, September 27, 2016

I can imagine that for a lot of people, being gay in 2016 is no big deal. Many of the legal battles have been won and social attitudes have certainly changed. Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people are more visible and they are now accepted for who they are. Right? Well, to an extent.

Progress has certainly been made, but it can still be really tough growing up gay. Homophobic bullying still wrecks too many young lives, and those teenagers questioning their sexuality are often more vulnerable to abuse and exploitation. Despite the opportunities young people now have to interact with others online, isolation and acceptance in real life remains an issue, especially for those living away from our larger cities.

The repeal of Section 28 of the Local Government Act back in 2003 was heralded as the big breakthrough, removing the ban on councils "promoting" homosexuality and an attempt to prevent public money being spent on educational materials and projects. It was supposed to be the beginning of things getting better.

But what practical difference would it make to young people today if Section 28 was still in place? We couldn't spend any less on LGBT youth right now if we tried. The NHS and local government, faced with huge budget pressures, have been scaling back or withdrawing funding for non-statutory services up and down the country.

The result? Organisations like PACE, a London-based charity providing LGBT counselling, advocacy and youth work had to close its doors earlier this year after 31 years of service. Cuts did what Section 28 couldn't. And if larger organisations like PACE have struggled, things have been even worse for smaller community organisations, with many already having folded.

Services for LGBT young people are often fragile and out of sight. Although the work these groups do rarely gets much coverage, they provide an important service. On one level, they offer a safe space for young people to have fun, meet new friends and just be themselves.

But if you look deeper, you'll find young people choosing to enter into a relationship with a youth worker and together exploring a whole range of issues, raising awareness, building resilience and enabling them to develop the skills needed to better manage difficult situations ahead.

I know this first hand after years of working with an LGBT youth group. I still occasionally get emails out of the blue from young people who were part of the group who want to tell me how well they are now doing, how they appreciated the group and how much it helped them move forward in their life.

However, too many of these services are run on a shoestring and now face a very uncertain future. Just this summer, the national consortium of LGBT voluntary and community organisations published a snapshot of the LGBT sector. Among the 85 organisations that responded, just under half now have an overall income of £10,000 or less.

When your organisation is being run on that sort of money, any reduction can have a massive impact. So for the 40 per cent of these smaller groups reporting a reduction in income of up to £4,000 in the past year, the outlook isn't good.

To make matters worse, many groups highlighted that they have had to lose paid staff positions over the past year, which in turn places pressure on volunteers. They then leave because they feel overwhelmed by being asked to fill the gaps created by removing paid staff and the cycle then becomes difficult to break.

Despite the decrease in income and loss of capacity, for the vast majority of these organisations the survey highlighted a significant increase in demand from people wanting support and to use their services.

Many LGBT groups are being run by youth workers on just four or five hours a week. They are often unqualified, but nevertheless work with real skill and care, often with some really complex issues, which, like the increase in the number of young people who are now identifying as transgendered, can be demanding to respond to. Without adequate funding and support, these groups and services are simply unsustainable.

To me, one of the most worrying figures to emerge from the consortium survey was that one in five LGBT groups are reporting that unless their income opportunities start to improve, they won't be around in a few years' time.

Section 28 may be gone, but it is not yet forgotten. We need to take urgent action to stop the dismantling of services if we are really committed to improving the lives of LGBT young people and tackling the prejudice Section 28 represented.

Michael Bracey is corporate director for people at Milton Keynes Council

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