How are young LGBTIQ people doing in Finland?
In spring 2013, the wellbeing of young LGBTIQ people in Finland was charted through an extensive online survey (LGBTIQ stands for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex and queer). The study is part of the joint project of Seta and the Finnish Youth Research Network, Hyvinvoiva sateenkaarinuori (Wellbeing of LGBTIQ Youth). The project is executed with funding awarded by the Ministry of Education and Culture for implementation of the Government’s Child and Youth Policy Programme.
The survey participants were 1,623 young people aged 15–25. The participants came from all parts of the country, but most lived in a large or medium-sized city or town in southern Finland. The majority of the participants (1,449) entered their sexual orientation as falling in the sexual minority and defined themselves using terms such as homosexual, lesbian, bisexual, pansexual or queer. In the analysis, this group was compared to respondents who had entered themselves as heterosexuals. 369 respondents said that they had a trans identity (transperson, transsexual/transgender, trans-man, trans-woman, genderqueer, transvestite/crossdresser 1 ). Seven participants said that they were intersex. Those who classified themselves as genderqueer, transsexual/transgender, trans-men or trans-women form the group ‘trans’ in the analyses.
The present study has gauged wellbeing on a number of levels in terms of young people’s physical and mental health, social relationships and their sense of security and belonging, experiences of violence, harassment and discrimination. The picture of what it is like to grow up as an LGBTIQ person in Finland in 2013 is not unequivocally negative or positive, but characterised by diversity and variability at all levels: this applies both to the way in which young persons in general perceive and define (or do not define) their gender and sexual orientation, and their experiences of social settings and close relationships, as well as health and illness.
The results of the study show that young people belonging to sexual and gender minorities in Finland are subjected to various forms of discrimination, which has an impact on their wellbeing. Of the survey respondents, young LGBTIQ people do on average worse than heterosexual and cisgender youth. Although some problems are more common among LGBTIQ youth than others, it does not mean that all young people with LGBTIQ identities are faring worse than their peers. All experiences, both positive and negative, are personal, also when they are reported by many. Most young LGBTIQ people are doing well, despite the majority of them also having experiences of difficulties and challenges resulted from normative societal concepts of gender and sexual orientation.
Many of the young LGBTIQ persons who responded to this survey are open about their sexual orientation or gender identity at least to some family members, among friends, and at school. However, many want to keep the matter secret. Young people do not want to bring the issue into the open, for example because they are afraid they will be thrown out of home or excluded from their circle of friends at school or in their leisure activities. Openness increases with age – 20-25-year-old respondents were more open as regards their sexual orientation or gender identity than young people aged 15-19.
Experiences of the attitudes of their surroundings to LGBTIQ people are evident in such areas as young people’s choices concerning studies and leisure activities. Compared to previous studies of LGBTIQ youth, the participants of the present study reported having experienced considerably more harassment and discrimination (about 70% in this study compared to 36% found by Huotari et al. in 2010). Experiences of violence were also much more common with the participants of the present study than with Finnish young people in general.
Social relationships are important to all young people. However, this study shows that the subjective assessment of particularly trans-youth is that their friendships are both quantitatively and qualitatively inferior to those of other young people. Homosexual and bisexual respondents are generally more satisfied with their friendships; most have friends with whom they can be open about their sexual orientation and from whom they receive support and encouragement. In our society, sexual minorities are substantially more numerous, visible and familiar to the population at large than gender minorities. The results may be partially due to this visibility and partially to the fact that there are more meeting places for sexual minorities than there are for gender minorities.
It is vitally important for young LGBTIQ persons to find environments where they can be open and find other young people with whom they can talk. For many young LGBTIQ people, the internet has become the forum where they can find information and like-minded people, although on the other hand the net brings its own problems. Virtual and physical environments frequented by young people are not always positively disposed towards gender and sexual minorities.
Young people spend a large part of their time at school, which in the light of both the present study and earlier ones is not a safe environment for LGBTI persons, albeit that their experiences over the years become more positive. It is a matter for some concern that a majority of the young LGBTIQ persons who have reported bullying to teachers have not received help or found that they themselves have been blamed for the situation. An ever greater proportion of these young people reply that they have not reported the bullying because they have felt that it would not have led to any
resolution, or that because of it they would have been forced to disclose their LGBTIQ identity. This puts young LGBTIQ people, harassed or bullied because of their gender expression or sexual orientation, in a particularly difficult situation – especially if they also keep their identity under wraps at home.
As well as school, sporting activities, national service and the workplace are environments in which not nearly all young LGBTIQ people feel that they can safely be themselves. It may be a case of taking part in everyday discussions under the same terms as everyone else, so that their sexual orientation or true gender identity is exposed, or it being possible for them to express their gender, for example through clothes, in a way that feels right to them.
Previous studies have shown that impaired health and unhealthier habits are more common than average among LGBTIQ youth. Similar results are also in evidence in the present study. Subjective assessments of their state of health of young people with trans identities are considerably more negative than those of other respondents. This is particularly clear in the case of young trans people who are unable to express their gender in a way that feels right to them. Nevertheless, trans youth report healthier consumption of tobacco and alcohol than the cisgender respondents do.
Based on this study, homo- and bisexual women appear to have unhealthier alcohol use habits than heterosexual women, whereas homo- and bisexual men considered their smoking habits to be very unhealthy twice as often as heterosexual men.
Young LGBTIQ people also reported significantly more problems related to mental health than did heterosexual young people and youth without gender incongruence. Compared to others of the same age, young LGBTIQ people have more symptoms of depression and anxiety, more suicidal thoughts and self-destructive behaviour.
Incidence of so-called minority stress is not due purely to young people themselves having experienced discrimination, but also to their own internalised normative concepts, which affect their perception of themselves and their own possibilities. Our study shows that many of those who today are open about their LGBTIQ identity find support in their immediate circle and friendships, although they previously hesitated to come out. Thus, their confidence in the environment would seem to have been lower in many cases than was justifiable in reality. It is of uttermost importance that adults communicate that it is possible to discuss the diversity of sexual orientation and gender – and that such discussion is taken seriously. This demands knowledge on diversity and support for those working with young people in their professional capacity – and also for parents.
1) Due to cultural differences, trans terminology commonly used in Finnish is different from the English, and direct translation of certain terms is not possible. The Finnish terms used in the survey were transihminen, transsukupuolinen, transmies, transnainen, transgender and transvestiitti.