How would you describe the essence of the work you do?
I work with and for the LGBT young people of York and North Yorkshire, meaning I do anything from one-to-ones with young people around the county, to running LGBTQ youth groups, to training professionals, sitting on boards and other stuff in-between!
What is your mission statement – the one you apply to yourself as opposed to one you would provide for PR?
Hmmm that’s kind of difficult I really believe in Yorkshire MESMAC’s aims and principles and feel very happy to be involved in an organisation that has such a good grounding in community development principles. I suppose on a day-to-day basis I focus on the rights of the young people I work with: protecting and promoting them so they can get good education/sexual health services etc and working with the young people to empower them to claim their rights.
How did you get involved in this work?
I did a degree in psychology which led to research work. I worked in the Social Inclusion and Diversity unit at York St John University on a project looking at the experiences of LGB people living in rural areas (including North Yorkshire). Although I enjoyed this research it did feel a little detached from ‘reality’. How it would actually effect, and improve, the lives of those people it studied was something I questioned. I had been volunteering with Leeds Lesbian and Gay switchboard for a year or so and when this job came up it seemed like a great opportunity to actually get in there and apply my learning in a useful way.
Do you find that the young people you work with are experiencing the same problems with coming out that gay people have experienced for generations? Or is there a sense that the media visibility of the last 15 years has made a difference?
I think there are still some similar experiences; recognising that you belong to a group that society doesn’t always respect and deciding how to deal with that situation. However, what I think is different is that media has given some visibility to LGBT people and therefore young people are able to label what they feel and identify themselves to be LGBT earlier. This isn’t necessarily a good thing because the services still have a lot of catching up to do – schools for example can be ill equipped to deal with a young person coming to them at 11yrs and saying ‘I’m gay’.
What are the main obstacles to your work in schools?
Schools don’t seem to have the time or commitment for this area of work. Teachers don’t feel that they can handle ‘gay’ issues. They think that sexual orientation is all about sex when often it’s about non-judgemental acceptance and support of young people. Also a problem is not recognising that using the word ‘gay’ as an insult is homophobic bullying.
What role do parents play in your work with schools? Do you find that it is as difficult for them as the kids?
I do little work with parents. Because I cover such a large area I have to focus on the young people almost exclusively. We do have leaflets available that parents can use to find avenues of support.
What advice would you give to kids who are being bullied in school on how to handle it – both practically through the school’s bureaucracy and emotionally?
Most importantly look after yourself, get support and someone to talk to who won’t judge you. This could be a trusted teacher, a good friend, a youth worker, a Lesbian and Gay helpline, a LGBT youth worker or someone else. It’s really important that you know you’re not wrong, abnormal or bad. What is wrong is that you get treated with disrespect or badly by anyone because they know or think you are gay.
In school you have the right to be protected from discrimination and bullying just like any other member of the school. Find a teacher you like and ask them to do something about it. You don’t have to tell them you’re gay if you don’t want to, just about the bullying that’s happening. Ask them to protect you from it and to make it stop. If they don’t give it as much attention as you think it deserves remind them that all types of bullying are bad and that the schools should look after all pupils. This can be a hard thing to do and LGBT youth workers will be able to help you with this process.
Ellen works for Yorkshire MESMAC one of the oldest and largest sexual health organizations in the UK: www.mesmac.co.uk