Diva Magazine's Carrie Lyell Explores LGBT Young People's Experiences of the Media and Sexualisation



Written by Carrie Lyell for Diva Magazine

Earlier this year, we received an email from LGBT Youth Scotland giving us a heads up about a report that they were about to publish.

LGBT Youth are Scotland’s largest youth and community-based organi­sation for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender young people, and the report – titled Sexualisation and LGBT Young People In Scotland – was some­what critical of the media, specifically gay media, for presenting LGBT people in a “highly sexualised manner” – and name-checked DIVA in its findings.

On another day, a report like this might have passed me by and lingered unanswered for all eternity in the depths of my inbox. Not because we’re not interested, but simply because of the volume of emails we receive on a daily basis. This one stood out though, and I immediately picked up the phone. Partly because I wanted to know more about the report, but mostly because LGBTYS was a very important organi­sation to me growing up.

Thirteen years ago, on a rainy Tues­day evening, I went along to one of their youth groups on a whim because I didn’t have anything better to do that particular night. It was there that I was given the opportunity to meet like-minded souls (one of them ended up being my wife) and build my con­fidence, and I doubt I’d be where I am today without their support and guid­ance. So I didn’t want to let this report pass by unnoticed, or to become little more than a “here today, gone tomor­row” news story. I felt LGBTYS, and the young people that pass through its doors, deserved more than that.

I spoke to Brandi Lee Lough Den­nell, LGBT Youth’s assistant policy director, that day, and found out more about the report and its findings. She told me that a total of 100 young people between 13 and 25 had taken part in the research, which, among other things, revealed that participants felt LGBT identities were represented in a stereotyped and over-sexualised manner in the media. They felt these messages were stigmatising and didn’t speak to them and their experiences, and that LGBT media often fared worse than the mainstream. Ouch.

As part of the process, young people reviewed LGBT magazines in­cluding Attitude and DIVA, and weren’t very happy with what they found. As well as what they deemed to be highly sexualised imagery, young people were also critical of stereotyping that they felt conveyed pressure to behave in particular ways, and expressed concern that those young people who didn’t identify with the women on the pages of DIVA, for example, might feel they need to change how they dress or act in order to be a “real lesbian”.

“LGBT young people are clearly say­ing that they are not receiving enough LGBT-inclusive messages on sexuality from the sources around them, while also facing quite narrow depictions of gender identity and sexual orientation,” explained Fergus McMillan, chief executive of LGBT Youth Scotland. “This report is a call to educators, youth workers and media to consider ways of broadening the depictions of LGBT people’s sexuality they use within discussions and materials.”

Naturally, these findings concerned me and the rest of the team, and we talked about the best way forward. It seemed like the best thing to do was meet some of those young people face to face. So I boarded a train at King’s Cross St Pancras bound for Edinburgh, on a mission to repair the tattered image of LGBT media, armed with little more than paper, pens, glue and scissors, and several back copies of DIVA.

Walking back into LGBT Youth after all these years was strange and I felt incredibly nervous. After all, I was more used to being on the other side of the table – not leading a workshop. But once I’d met the group of young people who had signed up to take part, I immediately felt at ease. I introduced myself, and invited everyone else to do the same, and then we got to the heart of the matter – how they felt about DIVA, and LGBT media more generally – and what they felt we could do better.

The three-hour session flew by, and we talked at length about sex, about the difference between objectification and empowerment, and how women’s bodies – particularly non-normative ones – are often a powerful challenge to heteropatriarchy. We also discussed the importance of having a space like DIVA in which we can explore sexualities and desires that you would never see in mainstream women’s magazines like Cosmo or Elle, for example, and I listened carefully as they told me what they wanted to see from DIVA and other magazines. More people of colour, more bi representation, more non-binary people, were the messages that came through again and again.

Then we spread two huge sheets of flipchart across the table, one titled “more” and one titled “less” and cut out pictures from a stack of old DIVAs, some dating back over 10 years. I worried, as the young people leafed through the magazines and ripped out pages, that the “less” section would far

surpass the “more” section, and told myself not to take it personally if that happened. But thankfully, that wasn’t the case. The young people glued picture after picture to the more section, gesturing enthusiastically to each other when they found something they liked, and by the end of the session it was obvious that, on the whole, they wanted to see more of the same. That’s not to say that DIVA is perfect – far from it. We know we need to do much more to be inclusive of everyone in our community, and continue to listen to our readers. Paying attention to language, and not presuming we all think the same way, is crucial. And as well as that, we’re also conscious of not just speaking for young people, but letting their voices be heard, and we’re going to continue working with LGBT Youth so that young people have the opportunity to produce their own content. And let me tell you something – those millennials have got some pretty amazing ideas.

This feature originally appeared in the July issue of DIVA Magazine