Blog - Toni Giugliano talks about Pride, being gay and the effects on his mental health

Pride is both a celebration of what has been achieved and a rally for the fights yet to be won – both at home and abroad. 

But despite civil rights advances across the world, this Pride month has been one of the most confrontational of the past 20 years, with considerable pushback from those who wish to see our rights curtailed. 

In Italy, where I was born, the hard-right has put the brakes on long-awaited laws to stamp out homophobic and transphobic hate crimes. Their concerns won the backing of the Vatican, which last week made an unprecedented intervention calling on parts of the law to be scrapped, despite LGBT+ hate crimes in Italy soaring. Research has shown that such traumatic events put LGBT+ people at greater risk of developing a mental health problem. 

In Hungary, Victor Orban’s equivalent of Section 28 prompted global condemnation – including from a majority of EU countries, human rights organisations and Euro 2020 football fans. The new law will ban the display and promotion of homosexuality among under-18s in an ideological attempt to erase LGBT+ existence from children’s lives. The damage this could cause on young LGBT+ people’s mental health is incalculable.

In Guatemala two trans activists were murdered in two separate attacks. According to Transgender Europe at least 350 transgender people were murdered worldwide last year – a rise of 6%. 

Meanwhile here at home, the debate over gender recognition reform has been hijacked by fundamentalists who have portrayed trans people as dangerous predators while trying to drive a wedge between the LGBT+ community that has fought side by side since the Stonewall uprising of 1969. 

In 2019 I was lucky to be seconded to New York University as part of the Foundation’s CRISP exchange, which coincided with the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots. Vigils and symposiums marked the occasion and New York Public Library organised an exhibition where original leaflets, banners and magazines of the time were displayed. I remember being struck by the realisation that the rights I enjoy today were fought by trans women of colour.

Gender and sexuality are distinct issues and the debate on GRA reform is a complex one – but the prejudice and discrimination that trans and LGB people have faced and continue to face are one and the same. Our struggles for adequate physical and mental health support, homelessness, workplace rights, acceptance in our communities – these are battles that we have fought together.

The recent attacks and disinformation campaigns on reputable LGBT+ organisations like Stonewall and TIE (Time for Inclusive Education) is also concerning. I wish an organisation like TIE – which combats homophobic bullying in Scotland’s schools – had existed when I was at school. I grew up in a Catholic family in the West of Scotland with no obvious gay role models to look up to. For years I struggled with my sexual identity. I knew I was different – my classmates did too – and the homophobic bullying only prolonged that process of self-discovery and acceptance. Those feelings of shame led to years of depression that could have been avoided.

My GP prescribed me antidepressants which of course never worked. What I needed was to know that my feelings were normal. That some of us are attracted to the same sex and that’s okay. That I had nothing to be ashamed of. It’s not until I embarked on my Erasmus year abroad and left my immediate circle of family and friends that I finally came out. That year – filled with self-discovery and self-acceptance remains one of the best years of my life.

We’ve come a long way, but no child or young person should be failed in the way I was then. Just last week Childline recorded a 10% increase in Scottish children saying they are worried about coming out. We can’t afford to repeat the mistakes of the past – which is why Hungary’s new laws and the attacks on LGBT+ organisations are chilling. More than half (55%) of young LGBT+ people experience homophobic bullying in UK schools. And young people who have experienced bullying are more likely to develop an anxiety disorder or suffer from depression. Not to mention the increased link to suicide attempts and substance use. 

Being LGBT+ does not cause mental health problems. But environmental factors and our childhood experiences do – such as difficult coming-out experiences; unsupportive families, rejection and loneliness; bullying; homophobia, biphobia and transphobia; and stigma and discrimination.

The answer lies in prevention. We need to address the root causes of trauma and create supportive environments for LGBT+ people to thrive; by supporting parents in early years, inclusive education in our schools, removing barriers in the workplace and smashing stigma in our communities. If we can achieve this, we can change lives, as well as reduce prevalence of mental ill health, self-harm and suicide among the LGBT+ community. Here at the Foundation we recognise that only when inequalities are eliminated can we all have an equal chance for good mental health. That why we’ll continue to walk side by side with the LGBT+ community.

Equality doesn’t mean special treatment, but the chance to be treated fairly like everyone else. It’s remarkable that this year, for the first time, I can finally register with my local blood donor centre to give blood, following a change in the law. It’s a win for equality – one that I will relish when l roll up my sleeve – but the fact that in 2021 all gay men were prohibited from giving blood on the basis of their sexuality shows how much work is still to be done.

Orban’s Hungary and Trump’s America show that progress towards equality is fragile. In the words of Martin Luther King, “human progress is neither automatic nor inevitable... every step toward the goal of justice requires sacrifice, suffering, and struggle.”  

For as long as I have to worry about being harassed while walking hand in hand with my partner I will continue to march. For as long as gay sex is punishable by death anywhere in the world I will continue to march. And for as long as trans people are subject to trauma through outdated gender recognition laws I will continue to march.