“Homophobia is a cultural challenge – we need an attitude change”

Societal and community pressures can make it a challenge for many LGBT+ people to accept their identity. But those with a minority background are especially vulnerable to social isolation and loneliness. Organisation Sabaah wants more resources committed to helping this group

It’s not easy being an LGBTQ person with an ethnic minority background: 20 percent of ethnic minority homosexuals have experienced social exclusion from their families, 13 percent have suffered violence at the hands of family members as a consequence of their sexuality, and 33 percent have considered suicide in the last year.

The numbers come from a 2015 report compiled by the Ministry for Children, Learning and Equality in cooperation with Sabaah, an organisation for ethnic minority LGBT+ persons.

Sabaah, which is run by volunteers, operates three support cafés in Copenhagen and Aarhus, where primarily young LGBT+ persons from minority backgrounds can meet likeminded individuals. In addition to being a safe space, Sabaah also runs support programmes out of the cafés.

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Sabaah spokesperson Fahad Saeed says he is worried about the results of the report, calling the numbers “scary”.

“The results really show how much of a problem homophobia is among ethnic minority groups and in Danish society in general today,” he says, adding that he is especially concerned by the number considering suicide.

“That statistic demonstrates that the number of LGBT+ people who are in a bad way is very high,” he says, adding that one of the biggest challenges that minority LGBT+ people face is that they are fearful of how members of their community will react when they come out.

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According to the study, the majority of ethnic minority Danes are tolerant of homosexuality, but around 39 percent consider it a religious sin, while 22 percent believe it is an illness. The authors write that these attitudes could explain why LGBT+ persons from ethnic minority communities face higher levels of discrimination, and suffer lower levels of psychological wellbeing, than the average LGBT+ person.

“Our users experience homophobia threefold:  in society, sometimes within their families, and in the end, as internal homophobia where they carry homophobia as self-hatred,” says Saeed.

A complex issue
According to gender researcher Michael Nebeling Petersen from the Institute of Cultural Sciences at the University of Southern Denmark, educational levels play a larger role than religious or ethnic backgrounds in explaining the prevalence of anti-LGBT+ sentiment in the minority community.

While this may be, it doesn’t lessen the psychological impact of the sanctions they experience from their family and community when they come out.

“If the resistance from the community is very strong, that will undoubtedly have negative consequences for the person coming out,” he says.

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This external pressure only adds to the emotional and psychological challenges that people experience when they open up about their sexuality. Petersen explains that the process often requires leaving behind an old identity and embracing a new one.

“When choosing to begin the process of coming out, you face a vast number of challenges. You need to find new role models and become comfortable in a minority identity. When you decide to come out as a young LGBT+ person, you need to change your orientation to a different range of lifestyles,” he says, adding that the change often comes in altering the vision of one’s future life from a ‘normal’ one to one defined by the minority identity.

More visibility, more initiatives
Sabaah currently receives 600,000 kroner a year from the Copenhagen City Council, which it uses to run the cafés and political activities and to coordinate collaborations such as the recent government report.

But Saeed says more initiatives are needed to help break the taboo that people with a minority background experience when they come out. Just as important is providing safe spaces and counselling for minority LGBT+ people, so they can obtain support and advice about how to navigate the challenges they face.

“Our users face issues of loneliness. Thinking that they are the only trans, gay or bisexual person in their particular situation. When they come in they find that they are not ‘wrong’ and certainly not alone with their challenges, and we see them blossom,” he says.

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“There need to be more places that provide counsel, and really more counselling in general. We need more spaces in crisis centres, and we do need more financial support.”

Not a job for the MPs
While Sabaah has often called on politicians for support, Søren Laursen, head of LGBT Denmark, argues that politicians in Parliament are not fully equipped to address the challenges that minority LGBT+ people face.

“I really can’t see that they have a part to play, except for allocating more funds when negotiating the state budget,” he says, adding that municipal politicians have more tools available to them through integration initiatives.

“Here I would like to see more being done to have greater focus on LGBT+ elements in the rest of the integration system, in order to make it more visible,” he says.

A job for all of us
Anna Mee Allerslev (RV), Copenhagen City Council Mayor for Employment and Integration, strongly disagrees with Søren Laursen. She argues that Parliament could give municipalities much more autonomy to combat discrimination, and that MPs ought to create a public discourse to shine even more light on this specific issue.

“We should not underestimate the allocation of funds from Parliament. If I were an MP, I would view it as essential that all of our citizens be treated equally. This needs to be something the municipalities can afford, and they only can if more funds are allocated,” Allerslev says.

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She also stresses that initiatives addressing LGBT+ issues are competing for budget resources.

“It is a job for all of us. The efforts in Copenhagen are extraordinary, really, and they are in no way cheap. We spend an awful lot on anti-discrimination campaigns and inclusive action. It is not a given that the councils do this, and it is a constant battle getting the funds allocated to LGBT+ groups.”

Information not enough
But ending the discrimination that all LGBT+ people face is not simply a job for politicians, says Saeed – mainstream society needs to move on from regarding heterosexuality as the norm.

“Homophobia is a cultural challenge – we need an attitude change throughout society,” he says.

Gender expert Michael Nebeling Petersen agrees that information campaigns could help shift attitudes on homosexuality and limit the negative consequences of coming out for all LGBT+ people.

But he thinks a broader discussion of gender roles is also needed, and that educators at all levels of the educational system need to be better trained in the relationships between gender roles and identity.

“If we look at some of the ways we as a society traditionally view masculinity, we need to look at that critically as well as the way we have traditionally viewed gender roles in Denmark,” he says.

The report did not paint a completely negative picture, however. Among the more positive findings was the fact that around 70 percent of ethnic minority LGBT+ people said they felt free to express their gender or sexual identity all or most of the time.

But while only six percent of all LGBT+ people responded that they don’t feel free to express their gender or sexual identity, the same was true for 18 percent of ethnic minority LGBTQ people – demonstrating the work that needs to be done to improve the lives of this minority within the minority. M

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By Joshua Hollingdale

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