Do we need support from a lesbian and bisexual women's community?

Published: 01 October 2015 Tags: lesbian, bisexual, community, LGBT By John Walding

Claudia Carvell explores whether we need a lesbian and bisexual women's community...and looks at who we can turn to for support:

When we talk about being part of the LGBT community, it sometimes seems tacitly assumed that all lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans people have a network of other LGBT friends and acquaintances and that these wonderful people form a support network that can protect us from difficult experiences such as isolation, depression and anxiety.

Whilst many of us DO have amazing LGBT friends, in reality, identifying as LGBT does not guarantee that you will belong to a supportive community. One of the most common reasons people seek support from LGBT Foundation is as a result of feeling isolated. With the ‘gay scene’ so often dominated by gay and bisexual men, this isolation can be particularly difficult for lesbian and bisexual women.

Lesbian and bisexual women often suffer homophobic bullying at school and beyond, difficulties coming out to family and friends, harassment in the work place, and unhelpful and unsupportive responses within the healthcare system. Even if you’re not affected by homophobia or biphobia, the strain of living in a world which expects you by default to be heterosexual when you’re not can lead to stress, especially if you don't have any lesbian or bisexual friends.

Therefore, whilst it is disturbing to consider the prevalence of poor mental health experienced by our community, it is not necessarily surprising considering the range of difficult experiences LGBT people regularly face as a result of their sexuality and/or gender identity.

For instance, Stonewall’s 2012 Mental Health briefing highlights that 5% of lesbian and bisexual women and 29% of lesbian and bisexual girls attempted suicide in that year, 1 in 5 women had deliberately harmed themselves in that year, and half of lesbian and bisexual girls had symptoms consistent with depression.

These figures are even starker for bisexual women (who are at higher risk than lesbians) and also for women from ethnic minority backgrounds and women with disabilities. These women may experience greater stress and isolation as a result of feeling that they are a minority within a minority.

Whilst it cannot be determined to what extent marginalisation and invisibility contributes to the mental health issues experienced by lesbian and bisexual women it is important to highlight how social support could alleviate the commonly-endured symptoms of depression and isolation.

LGBT Foundation offers services for lesbian and bisexual women, including befriending, social and support groups and learning events. As well as offering fun activities, these services also give an opportunity for women to meet in a friendly, safe environment. Over 85% of the women who have attended our services say that doing so has helped them reduce isolation and boost self-confidence.

Through talking to lesbian and bisexual women, we know that most of us do want to offer support and friendship to others but don’t necessarily know how to do this. That’s why we recently launched our new ‘You’ve Got a Friend’ booklet, which gives practical advice to on improving health and wellbeing and supporting a friend who’s going through a tough time. You can download the booklet here or email women@lgbt.foundation to request a free printed copy.

There are practical ways in which we all can help really build an LGBT community and reduce isolation. Small acts of kindness can have a significantly positive impact on a person’s day. We are often told not to talk to strangers, but opening up a conversation is the only way we can connect to others. If you see someone looking alone or anxious, a smile or kind word could be what they need to brighten their day.

If you feel able to do more, volunteering with supportive services such as Befriending schemes or with a local LGBT community group can help welcome newcomers who are looking to make new lesbian and bisexual friends. But it is important to remember that supporting others should not come at the expense of your own mental health - there are tips in the ‘You’ve Got a Friend’ advice booklet on protecting yourself from becoming overburdened with other people’s emotions and problems.

Equally, if you are experiencing mental health issues, and/or are feeling isolated from the LGBT community, please make use of the resources that are out there. Sign up to the LGBT Foundation Women’s e-bulletin to find out ‘What’s on’ locally and join our Meetup group for lesbian and bisexual women. You may also find our Befriending service or our Social and Support Groups useful.

Next time you hear someone talk about the ‘LGBT community’, wonder what you can do to make that phrase a reality for us all.

Do you think we need to support other lesbian and bisexual women, or is the idea of lesbian and bisexual women's solidarity a fantasy? Let us know in the comments below.

This is one of a series of opinion pieces written by LGBT Foundation volunteers and does not necessarily reflect the official opinion of the charity.