Black Gay People Face Serious Problems Accessing Public Services

13/08/2012 09:24 BST | Updated 12/10/2012 10:12 BST

Despite huge progress in public attitudes towards Britain's 3.7 million lesbian, gay and bisexual people, news stories about homophobia in the media and among politicians and church leaders show there remains a lot to be done. Sadly, for some parts of the gay community problems run deeper still. Black and minority ethnic gay people, in particular, face problems beyond straightforward homophobia, because too often our public services seem only to be able to deal with one minority at a time.

New research published today by Stonewall and the Runnymede Trust exposes the damage caused by services that think users are either from one minority or another. The research, based on detailed interviews with black and minority ethnic gay people, shows that many public service workers rarely consider the possibility of someone being black and gay - and most have little or no training to encourage them to do so. Black and minority ethnic gay people contribute more than £4.5 billion in taxes to fund these services; it's right that we challenge poor provision and identify failings.

Black gay people's difficulties with public services include their earliest interactions with teachers and other people at school. Black young people find it hard to talk about their sexual orientation. Many fear rejection at home, and as there are almost no openly gay black role models on TV or in other media, they can feel utterly isolated. Recent research by the University of Cambridge for Stonewall's School Report 2012 found black and minority ethnic gay pupils are at particular risk of suicidal thoughts and self-harm. It's not hard to see why.

Unfortunately, many gay black people also find it hard to use our criminal justice system. Their confidence in the police is chronically low, and crimes targeted at them often go unreported because victims worry the police won't take them seriously. Other Stonewall research has shown that more than half of black and minority ethnic gay and bisexual men have experienced domestic abuse, and that black gay people face double the level of some forms of homophobic hate crime experienced by gay people in general. With homophobic crime remaining at stubbornly high levels, it's vital the police work harder to understand issues related to ethnicity and sexual orientation.

Perhaps the most insidious problem identified by the research is a widespread assumption among service providers that black and minority ethnic people are always heterosexual. As one participant stated: 'there's a perception, "oh, you're Indian, you can't be gay" or "you're black, you can't be gay."' When accessing healthcare, that can be a big problem for black and minority ethnic gay people.

Research participants said they found it hard to be open with health workers about their sexual orientation. Others said health workers didn't recognise same-sex partners, or referred patients to culturally-specific healthcare services which might not be geared up to deal with gay people. Sometimes these experiences stop people from accessing healthcare at all. This is even more alarming in light of additional health research by Stonewall also published today to accompany this report demonstrating worryingly high levels of poor mental health among black and minority ethnic gay people.

Public services must think about discrimination differently. Most have had anti-racism policies and practices in place far longer than they've had policies that outlaw anti-gay bullying. Now it's time to think about how those two forms of discrimination interact, and the impact that can have. The media has a role to play too. If black gay children aren't to feel isolated, they and their friends and families need role models on TV, in film and on sports fields. Stonewall's report Role Models shows that successful and influential black gay role models do exist. Media executives should be asking why they and their stories receive scant coverage.

Public services have to work hard to make sure they serve people from all kinds of different backgrounds. Sadly, for black and minority ethnic lesbian, gay and bisexual people, that doesn't always happen. Dealing with people as though they belong to one minority at a time often means they're simply let down. Today's report is a first step towards putting that to an end.