NEIL MACKAY’S BIG READ: 'Homophobia is on the rise' - The truth about the lives of young LGBT Scots today

·14-min read
23/06/2022 Picture Duncan McGlynn +447771370263 Portrait of Amy Winter in Dundee for Pride Month piece ©Duncan McGlynn ***NO SYNDICATION***NO ARCHIVE***.
23/06/2022 Picture Duncan McGlynn +447771370263 Portrait of Amy Winter in Dundee for Pride Month piece ©Duncan McGlynn ***NO SYNDICATION***NO ARCHIVE***.

As Pride month comes to an end, Scotland’s leading youth activist for LGBT rights, Amy Winter - who’s also a member of the Scottish Youth Parliament - talks to our Writer at Large Neil Mackay about what it’s really like to be a young LGBT person in Scotland today

IF there is one person who speaks for young LGBT people in Scotland, it is Amy Winter. At just 19, she represents every single gay, lesbian, bi and trans person in the country aged 13-25 in her role as a member of the Scottish Youth Parliament.

Winter identifies as “queer” and her partner is a trans man. As Pride Month comes to an end, The Herald on Sunday sat down with Winter to find out what life is really like for young LGBT people in Scotland today. LGBT equality is at the centre of an often toxic culture war.

Hate crime has doubled in four years. Britain has also fallen down Europe’s LGBT rankings for three years running.

Winter, though, paints a nuanced picture of life for young LGBT people. On one hand, she recounts a distressing catalogue of bullying, assault and abuse, of people being spat on and followed home, of relentless hate online, and a sense that LGBT people are constantly seen as “the other” with their identity called into question.

However, she is also clear that improvements have been made. Scotland is a happier place for LGBT people than England – and the idea of a generational divide over LGBT rights is nonsense. Often older people are the most kind and accepting, Winter says.

Asked to sum up life for young Scottish LGBT people, she says: “It’s not great. It’s better than it was – if you look back, we’ve progressed, but it’s still not where it should be. A lot if improvements need made. A lot of young people aren’t happy with the world, especially school. My personal experiences with school weren’t great.”

The big problem

THE biggest problem? “Homophobia and transphobia are on the rise. General disrespect and misrepresentation in the media is common,” she says. However, “there’s more representation” of LGBT people, who are increasingly visible, vocal and accepted. “It’s not taboo anymore. People can talk openly. They’re more happy coming out, and openly coming out at younger ages, and they’re getting a more positive response compared to 10 years ago.”

Winter studies product design at university in Dundee. She’s an MSYP – Member of the Scottish Youth Parliament – elected on behalf of the campaign group LGBT Youth Scotland. The Youth Parliament elects MSYP from constituencies, and representatives of groups like the Scouts, Guides and the Kirk.

Many LGBT activists fear Britain is in a “snapback” moment - that there’s a push to erode equality. “People always need someone to hate,” says Winter. “For now, we’re the people.”

Online hate

MOST hate is online. “People are braver when they’re behind screens,” she says. Anonymity makes abuse “easy”. Winter tries to avoid social media. “It’s toxic,” she says. “It gives space to hate for no good reason.”

The subject of trans rights is ground zero for online toxicity.

“Trans rights literally only affects trans people but everybody wants their say,” she says. “There’s so much nonsense and fake information. Trans rights should be the same as everybody else’s rights.”

Like all LGBT campaigners, Winter is outraged by UK Government moves to exempt trans people from a conversion therapy ban. The intention in Scotland is to ban conversion therapy outright, and pass legislation making it easier for trans people to legally change gender.

“Gender critical” groups oppose reforms on grounds that, among other concerns, they put “woman-only spaces” at risk. LGBT activists believe that’s transphobic and discriminatory.

The result is a bitter war of words, with a minority on both sides engaging in hate and abuse. Polls, though, mostly show public support for trans rights.

Winter says the debate is riddled with disinformation. She cites claims that more trans people “detransition” than live happy lives. “It’s just not the case.” Trans people, she says, “don’t want to fight, they just want to be happy”.

Media imbalance

WINTER questions why these “false stories” aren’t balanced in the media with “positive stories of people who are happily trans”.

She says: “The LGBT community as a whole just deserves the same opportunity as everybody else. At the end of the day, we’re all human. I don’t understand why people can’t just let others live.”

Many in the LGBT community fear there’s a concerted campaign by right-wing organisations, politicians and journalists, as well as some traditional religious activists, to undermine equality. As such, Winter looks back fondly to the past – when Section 28 was repealed and equal marriage legalised.

Winter also harks back to the campaign to decriminalise homosexuality in the 1960s. “I’m grateful I didn’t have to grow up in an environment where it was illegal for me to just be myself,” she says.

“I’m really grateful people fought before me. That’s part of the reason I fight now.”

Without past campaigns, she says: “I can’t imagine what my life would be like. It definitely wouldn’t be like it is just now.”

School failings

THE big issue for Winter is education – not simply education to tackle bigotry, but also better education about LGBT issues. When it came to sex education, “the word gay or lesbian was never mentioned to me at all, which is scary because I didn’t know what I was doing. Lots of people my age and LGBT had no idea about safe sex”. Teaching around gender was also poor.

“There was no education on anything gender-related. You get ‘there’s males, there’s females’.Occasionally, in biology, intersex people are thrown in. It should be more openly spoken about, so there’s basic knowledge on how to navigate the world if you’re queer as that’s terrifying without support.”

Teaching staff “should have basic knowledge to support young people through that process. Most young LGBT people go through a phase in high school of discovering who they are and there’s no support. There’s the odd staff member, who is part of the community, but it should be across the board. Staff should be trained to notice homophobic and transphobic bullying and act”. School, Winter adds, “should be a welcoming, safe space”.

LGBT History Month was taught but it felt tokenistic. “We’d get two or three things thrown in – the odd lesson about ‘oh, this person was gay 100 years ago’.”

Winter, who went to a number of high schools, says she has seen both the good and bad when it comes to young people coming out. “I’ve seen one side where if you’re gay you’d get beaten up in the corridor and were the lowest of the low, and I’ve seen the other side where you could come out and everyone was like ‘okay, fine’.”

She pointed out, however, that if “popular guys come out, it can be harder for them – they get it rough”. However, safety and support depends on “the dynamic of the group you’re around, who your friends are because everywhere you go there’ll be supportive people, but there’ll also be people who’ll just hate you”.

Hit and spat on

WINTER adds: “Hate speech is a daily occurrence. You can’t go anywhere without hearing it.” Friends have been called “fag on a daily basis, poof, bumboy – any nasty words people use”, adding: “It goes further quite often – you get stuff thrown at you, followed home. Many people have experienced physical attacks. Spitting happens often – it sounds bad, but that’s our normal. Hate is constant online, you can’t escape it. They’ll find your private accounts and message you.”

Anti-LGBT political activists targeted one of her schools over plans to “hold a gay event”. Activists filmed at the school, posting information online. “It was pretty terrifying, they were saying awful things. They turned up to intimidate us and got escorted away by police. That was scary. I was just turning 16.”

Winter, originally from East Lothian, is uncomfortable with being “put in a box” regarding her identity but she feels “queer is good word”, although points out that many “perceived” her as lesbian in school. “I’m of the opinion I can express myself how I want without needing a label. I just want to be me and happy.”

Although anti-LGBT hate is rising, Winter says “there’s more discrimination for being born with a vagina than anything else”. In her engineering and manufacturing classes, she’s often the only woman. “That’s rough,” she adds.

The churches

AS a Christian, Winter sought support from religion. It has not always been successful. Raised Catholic, she “didn’t have a great experience with the church”. However, she switched denominations and found her new church “super supportive and happy for me to attend”. As in secular society, in church, Winter has seen “both sides”.

She says: “Certain people will say ‘this is wrong, the Bible says it’s a sin and you’re a terrible person’. Others will say, ‘Jesus says love everybody, so he must love you’.”

While there are more supportive voices in the media than before, among many journalists there’s “an unconscious bias of hate”. At university, “individual people couldn’t be more supportive, but the actual institution isn’t great”. Often LGBT issues feel like “boxes being ticked”.

Winter notices how some straight people change with alcohol. At university, “people are really supportive when sober, then they get drunk and suddenly it’s hate”. She says: “I walk down my street four times a day and twice at night – during the day, there’s nothing, it’s great. At night, when everybody’s drunk, you start getting shouted at, that’s when you get spat on or followed.”

She says she can “pass pretty well as a cisgendered heterosexual” but with her trans partner “it’s another story” – the same goes for her “best friend who’s non-binary and has rainbow-dyed hair”.

The SNP’S role

ALTHOUGH some LGBT activists blame the SNP for allowing a toxic atmosphere to fester with the long delay in passing trans legislation, Winter feels the Government has handled the matter “quite sensitively”. She blames the media for the negative reaction. Although she feels the SNP hasn’t deliberately delayed legislation, Winter does believe the Government fears backlash.

She meets many MSPs and is struck by their “overwhelming support”, but adds: “I do understand they’re a bit scared when we see how much the media has blown things up.”

On the issue of public figures like JK Rowling commenting on trans rights, Winter adds: “They’ll always get more publicity because society prefers the negative. Their voices will always be louder regardless of whether what they say is true or not. I tend to avoid it – it just makes me depressed and hate myself.”

However, she does feel those with powerful platforms making negative comments “cause harm 100%. Unfortunately, I think what’s currently happening will spiral for quite a bit longer.”

There are concerns among the LGBT community that co-ordinated attacks on trans people have shifted to a general attack on all LGBT people, and eventually the next target – as in America – will be women’s rights, specifically abortion. “America terrifies me,” Winter says. “They preach freedom, but I’m yet to see where they practice freedom.”

Scotland v England

SCOTLAND, she feels, is safer from any creeping anti-equality agenda than England. “We’ve made small progresses. In England, it’s a different story. There are big question marks over English politics. I see more negatives coming out of there than Scotland. I hope Scotland won’t fall down that rabbit hole. I hope we’ll become the country at the forefront of equality.” However, she knows that when it comes to rights, “nothing is truly safe anywhere”.

People who hate, Winter feels, “aren’t worth the breath”, adding: “They’re never going to change. They’re hating someone because of who they love. Love who you want as long as you’re safe and not hurting anybody. To hate someone because of who they love blows my mind. How can you hate someone because of the way they were born? I don’t condone any hate, but if you want to hate someone, hate them for something they can change.”

Feminism

TO Winter, there is no conflict between trans rights and women’s rights. Winter makes clear she’s a feminist. “Look at it from this perspective: do women’s rights affect black rights? No. Why would it? It’s two different groups who both deserve equal rights. One doesn’t cancel the other. It should be equality for all, not just one.”

She finds the discussion among “gender critical” groups over toilets, and fears that men posing as trans could assault women in bathrooms, as fear-mongering. “It’s just people trying to making things scary that aren’t scary,” she adds. Men who want to assault women don’t need to pretend to be trans and get into female toilets, she says.

“The harsh reality is sexual assault will happen regardless of toilets,” Winter adds. She dismisses the idea that “there’s a relationship between trans women being allowed to use the bathroom and sexual assaults. I just can’t wrap my head around it”. Trans women have been using women’s bathrooms for decades.

On trans issues, her big worry is healthcare. It can take six years for someone to be seen by professionals. “It’s getting worse.” On the issue of under-16s identifying as trans, Winter unequivocally says they need support from professionals. Teenagers waiting years for help will “start self-harming or try to kill themselves”. Anyone trans and under 16 “should have an adult in authority helping them research and make choices. They can’t do that on their own”. Minors can’t make those decisions “without some support”. She adds: “Psychological support should come first, then assistance to make medical decisions.”

Age divide?

WINTER has spent six years working with elderly people, helping with “dinners for those who can’t afford to eat, working in care homes, taking isolated people out for the day, I’ve done a ‘cuppa in the morning’ where you’ve a cup of tea and a chat”. After her experiences, she sees no generational divide over equality.

Most older people are fully supportive and while some are confused about modern terms like “non-binary”, once it is explained they are accepting. “They’re loving – you’ve got to remember they were all hippies once.” All that’s needed is a little cross-generational education, she feels.

When it comes to toxicity in the trans debate on both sides, Winter says everyone “should be debating, not shouting and threatening”. However, she thinks the view that both sides are as bad as each other is misplaced.

“Imagine you’re a coke bottle and you put a Mentos in, then you screw the cap on and every time someone yells or threatens you, they shake the bottle. At some point, the cap will burst and you’re going to explode,” she says.

“It’s more retaliation than attacking first. Everybody who actively threatens and screams is wrong, but there’s a level of wrong: there’s the attacker, and then the person who retaliates as they feel attacked. It gets to the point where you’re so worn down by the constant hate everywhere you look and go – the claims that you’re a terrible person just because you exist. You’re going to fight back at some point.”

Winter explains, however, that the Youth Parliament isn’t full of liberal-lefties. There are social conservatives too. One-fifth of members opposed lowering the age at which someone can legal change gender to 16.

However, 82% back the Government recognising “non-binary gender identities”, and 74% want dedicated funds to “address LGBT discrimination and bullying in schools”. It points to where Scottish society goes in the future, as many of these young representatives will find roles in public life.

Winter, though, doesn’t plan a political career. She has set her sights on taking over LGBT Youth Scotland. Either that or you could seeing her on Dragons’ Den soon. Through her studies in product design, she has invented 50 gadgets for disabled people. So if Winter doesn’t become a prominent Scottish LGBT campaigner, she says: “I’ll make lots of money and just live off it.”

LGBT YOUTH: FACTS AND FIGURES

LGBT Youth Scotland ran extensive research into young LGBT people’s experiences. Chief executive Dr Mhairi Crawford says: “Sadly, overall, things are getting worse.” Research shows:

• Only 10% rated their school experience as “good”

• 70% report bullying due to sexual orientation at school

• A big drop in numbers of young people who think Scotland is a good place to be LGBT (81% to 65%)

• Just 28% in rural areas say their location is a good place to be LGBT, compared to 62% in cities

• most believe discrimination is a problem in Scotland

• Just 17% are confident reporting hate crime to police

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