The Polarised Project

A relative of mine rebuked me recently: 'Going on and on about gay rights - it’s 2016! No-one cares anymore!'

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Many like-minded souls in the UK are under the impression that, now that we have marriage equality in this country, we’ve made it and LGBT people face no further barriers to participation in our society. Bigotry and discrimination are a thing of the past, something that only truly backward people still engage in. Don’t they get it’s 2016?

I’m sure that most of us have stories that debunk that idea completely. The friends of mine who were glared at for holding hands on a train station platform. My friends in Scotland who were evicted by their landlords after they realised that the two women moving in were a couple. The time I had a homophobic slur shouted at me in the street, as far as I could tell because I have short hair.

At the time of writing, there are two stories making international headlines: Israel is receiving its first openly gay Knesset member, and Slovenia has just rejected marriage equality by a 2-1 margin. Much of the time, it can feel like the struggle for our rights is several steps forward, then one step backward. The winds of change are in our favour, but some of us are on rafts with no sails are others whizz by.

Even seemingly all-powerful celebrities are not immune. Stephen Fry’s husband tweeted on their honeymoon that they had to vacate their hotel in Honduras, saying, ‘I don’t want to go into detail, but it was homophobia. We had to leave.’

And that’s really part of our problem: the lack of detail. As LGBT rights have increasinly become a litmus test for cis-heterosexuals to prove how tolerant or accepting they are, the very real stories of our community are being lost. The fact is that many of us are still being disowned by our families every day for being LGBT. The fact is that many of us still have to make decisions about whether to come out or not – at work, in town – and judge the likely reception to who we are in a Sarah McCulloch - The Polarised Projectway that cis-heterosexuals will never have to do. And all of us have to live with being a minority in a society that requires us to opt out of presumptive cis-heterosexuality and continues to subtly exert pressure on us to conform to a mould we can never fit.

In the meantime, within our own community, there are similar pressures to conform. Pressures around body image, around being ‘too gay’, the discrimination against bisexual and trans people, and the increasing expectation among our community institutions that now that people can get married they should do. The assimilation of LGBT rights into our national culture has mostly been positive but has also had the effect that LGBT spaces are shutting down across the country through a lack of custom or funding as we are expected to no longer ‘need’ our own places to be together.

The impact of this on the mental health of our community is significant. Our suicide rates are several times that of the cis-heterosexual population. Nearly 42% of young LGBT people have sought medical help for depression or anxiety. In one survey 13% of gay and bisexual respondents had an eating disorder in the last 12 months alone.

Amongst this backdrop, the government’s drive for austerity has fallen particularly hard on LGBT and mental health services. PACE, the only UK LGBT mental health charity, recently had its funding cut by 50%. The Gender Identity Clinics are oversubscribed and underfunded. Waiting lists for counselling services on the NHS are now commonly 12 months or more. Often mental health professionals simply do not understand the issues and needs of LGBT people with mental health problems, which can be different from the needs of cis-heterosexuals and therefore require a different approach.

These facts form a distinct counter-narrative to the one we experience in the media where everyone is happy and married and ‘openly gay’ (a phrase highly popular with writers of Wikipedia articles). They are the reality that many of us experience every day and continue to live quietly – out of sight or mind.

In 2014, a small group of friends, all queer, many with mental health problems, sat down in their living room and decided they’d had enough of being invisible. If no-one else was telling our stories, then it had to be us. From those late night conversations came The Polarised Project. We’re making an independent documentary that is going to take the stories of our communities, the stories that we don’t talk about, and put them on-screen so they can no longer be ignored.

We’re now fundraising for our third and final round of filming for the feature length documentary for release in August 2016. We completed the first round of filming at the end of summer 2014 and a second round last summer, ultimately producing a short film, also called Polarised, that we are now touring around film festivals, film groups and student societies, in order to start the public conversation this issue so badly needs.

We’re aiming our documentary at both the LGBT community and wider society. The film will look at the parallel structures that we’ve created for ourselves. For example, how many of our straight friends know of the prevalence of ‘Queermas’, a festive gathering of friends in a safe space, as a joyful alternative to the family Christmases that many people in our community cannot take part in or find alienating because of a denial of their identities (for example, by being misgendered)? They say that your friends are the family you choose. In Polarised, we explore the creation of familial structures and support networks within queer friendship groups, and little pockets of queerness that spontaneously form within local areas.

We’ll also be looking as people within intersectional identities within our community – the stories of LGBT people of colour, of queers with mental health conditions and disabilities and more. We’ll be looking at the difficulties LGBT people of faith experience trying to exist in religious communities where institutional homophobia keeps many on the margins while the discrimination and/or racism within the LGBT community marginalises them here as well. And we’ll be looking at the pressures on people on the scene to look good, play hard, and never poop the party. We’ll be asking what effect these struggles have on how we feel about ourselves, how we live day to day, and how we manage when life gets tough.

By making this film, uncovering these stories and breaking the silence that exists around mental health issues across our culture, we hope to put up resistance to the idea that everything is fine now that we have marriage equality. The removal of legal barriers is only the beginning of our journey to full gender and sexual liberation.

It’s been really exciting being involved in such a cutting-edge project, and we’ve received a lot of interest from mental health groups. Mind has partially funded us, and in January we screened our short film at their Suicide Prevention Conference in Bristol. At our fundraising gig in November 2015, we had local mental health groups come along to give out literature and speak to our community about services available. Building these links is so important to us: anything we can do relieve the pressure on our community.

For a long time, LGBT and mental health issues have been marginalised, kept in the closet, and silently suppressed. Great leaps forward have see both causes rocket up the social and political agenda, but not anywhere near where we need them to be in order to care for and support people who continue to live with feelings of alienation, exclusion and hopelessness. It’s time to talk about LGBT mental health – the closet is for clothes!

Polarised is out August 2016 – you can learn more at their website PolarisedProject.com.

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