I grew up gay with a father who was incredibly homophobic.
Being outed to him at the age of 17 remains one of my most traumatic experiences.
While trying to find a sense of community online, I was browsing the Gay Youth UK website – a now defunct forum that gave young LGBTQ+ people an opportunity to talk to each other.
But viewing LGBTQ+ websites like that was risky business in my household. The family desktop computer was in the living room so browsing sites like this felt impossible.
One day, I thought I was alone in the living room. I thought I’d be okay. I spent some time browsing the forum, only to realise that my dad was in the room and very interested in what I was looking at.
I panicked and tried to close the browser window but didn’t manage it in time. My father immediately started shouting. He pushed me. He punched me in the face and broke my glasses.
I remember holding them, crying. I found it easier to focus on my glasses and getting them replaced. In the end, it just made me resolute to survive until I could head out to university and live my own life.
But my heart breaks for any kid who finds themselves in an unaccepting household. There is nothing more devastating than facing rejection and aggression from your own family, because of who you are.
Instead of being accepted for who I was, I was rejected. Instead of finding support I was attacked and fed misinformation. I desperately needed online spaces to feel comfortable in my own skin and find out more about being a young gay man.
That’s why I’m really passionate about empowering young LGBTQ+ people to use the internet in safety.
Mermaids, the charity for trans youth, recognises that many young trans people can’t access their website freely. But they’ve been attacked by certain conservative commentators and a legion of online trolls for installing a feature present on many websites, an exit button.
With a simple click, an exit button quickly redirects the browser to another website. For a young trans person living in an unaccepting family this button is incredibly helpful. It means they can avoid a hostile parent’s glance and still get the guidance they need.
Whilst we have made massive progress, too many LGBTQ+ people still find themselves in hostile homes
Childline’s website has the same function, as do countless other websites dealing with sensitive issues like LGBTQ+ support, domestic violence and support for young people. Exit buttons can help save lives.
But done by Mermaids? Some commentators quickly jumped to portray it as a sinister act. One decried the feature as a ‘breach of safeguarding’ and ‘grooming’. Other ‘gender critical’ activists noisily joined in.
In reality it’s a much needed feature that confronts a sad reality. Too many young people cannot, in safety, find the information they need on being LGBTQ+.
Some young people don’t have a supportive family and cannot countenance being openly LGBTQ+. Some face abusive homes and urgently need an accepting online space.
Evidence from the National LGBT Survey shows there is still very much a need for features like this. Almost one in four LGBTQ+ people said they’re not out with the family they live with.
Almost three in 10 said they had experienced an unpleasant incident with the person they lived with because of their gender identity or sexuality.
Whilst we have made massive progress, too many LGBTQ+ people still find themselves in hostile homes.
Mermaids was founded back in 1995, but it has found itself increasingly under attack. As a culture war swirls around trans rights, Mermaids and the trans young people it serves, find themselves in the crossfire.
It’s a toxic debate that makes very ordinary features like an exit button suspicious. Maligning Mermaids for trying to help young people browse in safety throws all LGBTQ+ young people under the bus.
We urgently need a calmer discussion, even if social media and internet pundits aren’t helping. Saying that parents should always know what their children are browsing disregards those who live in difficult households.
Frankly, trans young people deserve better. It should be uncontroversial to say young trans people deserve support, in whichever circumstance they need it.
Mermaids does important work helping young trans people and their families navigate the world and deal with the challenges life throws up. We can all help by being more accepting, by listening and supporting organisations like Mermaids.
Being young and realising you’re LGBTQ+ can be a daunting experience. Working through that journey in an unsupportive household can be even worse.