Young LGBT Travellers often come out into a world where violence and discrimination against them is rife, and after that into a gay community that often holds prejudices against them. Rob Buchanan meets Oein De Bhairdúin, who is helping change things for the better.
This article originally appeared in the November 2014 Youth Issue of GCN.
Last June there was a milestone in Irish LGBT history, which many in our community may have overlooked. Pavee Point Traveller and Roma Centre, partnering with LGBT Pavee and BeLonG To Youth Services, launched the first LGBT Traveller Pride poster campaign, celebrating the largely invisible LGBT Traveller community in Ireland.
LGBT Pavee and Pavee Point have had a long and fruitful relationship with BeLonG To for the past eleven years, with a growing conversation about the particular issues facing young lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender Travellers.
“With any minority group you have problems with people hesitant to reach out for help,” explains Oein De Bhairdúin of LGBT Pavee. “A lot of LGBT Travellers are not seeking help when they are in crisis, and this can lead to depression and suicide.”
The average age of people connecting with LGBT Pavee is 22, and because of concerns around anonymity it is primarily an Internet-based resource for the estimated 4,000 LGBT Travellers in Ireland.
Advocacy At Its Core
The website is an excellent resource with social and health information, and even advice and support for parents. It seeks to empower people to take those first steps towards coming out and finding self-acceptance.
Oein says that advocacy is at the core of the project. “It takes three forms. There’s Individual Advocacy, in which we aim to maintain and expand the platforms where LGBT Travellers and Roma can present their views.
Then there’s Systemic Advocacy, in the ongoing calls and encouragement to change restrictive laws, government and service policies, and community attitudes.
Finally there’s Parent Advocacy, in which we recognise that the issues in play are not bound by an individual alone but shared by their family and community.
Striving to allow the voices of families of LGBT Travellers and Roma be heard is one of our core objectives, in the hope of strengthening community awareness, building positivity and adjusting old and limiting practices.”
Some of the figures regarding mental and physical health that Oein cites are truly shocking.
“Statistically one in nine Travellers commit suicide,” he says. “That’s seven times more likely than their peers in the settled community.
“Even this high number could in truth be greater, as those statistics are disputed due to under reporting. These figures only take in cases where the verdict of death is directly reported as suicide, or where there were previous attempts or notes left.
“Far higher numbers are labeled as ‘misadventure’, when the reason might actually be that the person took their own life.”
In the most recent national Traveller census 42 percent of people self-identified as having mental health issues.
Self-medication with alcohol and increasingly drugs is also a major issue.
The primary health care unit in Clondakin did an LGBT Traveller health study a few years ago and concluded that 84 percent in the previous year had self-harming or suicidal thoughts.
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Violence & Double Lives
According to Oein, “Hostility and violence towards LGBT Travellers is an on-going issue.
The 2010 Traveller Health Survey, carried out by the South Dublin collaborative partnership, showed an 89 percent increase in incidents against for those who are ‘out’.”
Also, there’s a large window where people are leading double lives.
“The average marriage age of Travellers in Dublin being 18, while the average coming out age is 21, so sometimes by the time LGBT Travellers seek help they may already be in marriages.
Catholic LGBT Travellers
“LGBT Travellers are a minority within a minority,” says Eoin. “There’s complicated cultural expectations on both sides.
“There is the duality between being a traditional Catholic Traveller and also being aware of your LGBT side.
“But then on the other hand, many of the services for Irish LGBT people have never thought about the needs of Traveller LGBT people.”
Indeed, Travellers often experience discrimination within the LGBT community. “Some people get so used to casual prejudice against Travellers that they forget their own double standards,” says Oein.
“Gay people rightly speak about how unacceptable homophobia and discrimination is, while they may themselves harbour and vocalise prejudice about Travellers.
“The LGBT community as a whole has a profound effect on whether Travellers feel shunned or embraced.
“There’s still a lot of work to do. If you search some LGBT sections in Irish message boards, the word ‘knacker’, for example, is still widely used.
“This can leave young LGBT travellers who already have practically nowhere to turn feeling even more hopeless.
“If you are used to potential discrimination, one of the first things you would do on those sites is type in the word to see what type of reception you can expect to deal with.
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Gay Bars & Clubs
“Even access to gay bars and clubs can be very problematic.
“I know of three people who identify as Travellers who would never be allowed in any of the gay establishments in Dublin.
“It can start a vicious cycle. Young LGBT Travellers feeling disenfranchised and feeling they aren’t good enough to go to gay bars lowers already fragile self-esteem.”
Thankfully the future is looking more positive. Monthly peer support meetings for LGBT Travellers began in 2009 and have proved to be highly successful in creating safe place for sharing problems in an environment of understanding and acceptance.
Those who may have mental health concerns are directed to professionals for help, and overall the meetings have led to a high increase of confidence, self-awareness and the increasing self- expression of the group members.
“We’re very excited that we have recently received funding from Exchange House to begin a project to improve Traveller mental health across the country,” says Oein.
“It will involve training 150 people to become local counsellors acting as health workers around LGBT issues. It’s a great opportunity to start the discussion about the serious topics of mental health and substance abuse, and to learn valuable skills.”
The recent near omnipresence of Travellers and Gypsies in reality TV and documentaries, both in Ireland and the UK, has had a complex effect on Traveller identity. “It’s a very mixed bag, really,” says Oein.
“Visibility is good, but if you imagine the types of settled people who are represented in many of the ‘reality’ shows, you can get an idea of how the Traveller stereotypes can be very negative.
“Combine that with the fact that there are so few positive role models of Travellers in the media and it’s very difficult to see any healthy or accurate representations in these shows.
“The poster campaign, which started during Traveller Pride this year, was about positive and accurate visibility, which is essential.
“There is also the Rainbow Wagon Wheel flag. Not only does in incorporate direct educational modules around LGBT health and social concerns, it also carries the aspect of a flag, which can be displayed by organisations as a marker that they have not only completed the series of workshops, but that they are LGBT friendly, which has gone a long way towards feelings of inclusion.”
Ultimately, as Oein asserts, there is a growing sense of self-empowerment. “There is a great desire in the Traveller community to develop and improve, especially among young people,” he says.
Find out more about LGBT Pavee at www.lgbtpavee.com
This article was originally published in the November 2014 Youth Issue of GCN.
© 2016 GCN (Gay Community News). All rights reserved.