05 July 2018
The run up to Pride always makes me more conscious of my own history as a gay woman. I know that for me, having a queer identity has enriched my life – socially, culturally and because it feels like an adventure to take the road less travelled. I don’t mean it’s always been trouble-free. There have been moments where I have faced discrimination. But Pride puts me in touch with all the things I’ve gained. It also offers a moment where I’m conscious of the wider context – the struggles that LGBT+ people have won and the issues still to be fought here and around the world.
Less obviously Pride also makes me think about my own history as a youth worker. My first youth work job was as a volunteer at a gay youth club, North London Line. I’d pretty much stumbled into youth work. Originally I was doing drama tutoring but got offered sessional work and had seen enough of youth work to want to do more.
Section 28 was still in force, a law that prevented the ‘promotion’ of homosexuality in schools or the promotion of homosexuality as a ‘pretend family relationship’. So when I started working with North London Line it was in a context where we had to work carefully.
We needed to keep the location of the club secret and would meet young people who were interested in attending at the nearby Tube station. We contacted young people who got in touch very carefully, not disclosing to family where we were contacting them from. Some young people then (and now) faced family or community rejection or hostility.
Once young people were within the club a world of freedom opened up. The activities were very much the same as you would expect at any youth project – sports, outdoor learning, arts – what mattered was being free to explore, rather than hide, an important part of your identity. And pride mattered. One of the things the club worked hard at was supporting young people to feel pride rather than shame or fear about who they were. Social and family rejection – actual or feared – and the fact that gay identity was still broadly and legally despised meant that young LGBT+ people had significantly higher suicide and self-harm rates.
I took that love of youth work forward and became a youth worker in charge in Islington, worked in a PRU and then moved into work with young homeless people. When I became CEO of PACE (a therapeutic organisation for the LGBT+ community) our work was all about healing the hurt and damage of rejection and shame. We were still building pride and working for a fairer society.
The community made gains. At PACE we got funding for the first ever support service for LGBT+ families (it took a while for mainstream providers to catch up). The CEO of Stonewall told me they would use civil partnership to pave the way for equal marriage. It seemed exciting if unlikely. But it happened. The section 28 legislation was finally repealed in 2003. These wins give me a great deal of hope that things can get better. We have come a long way.
In many ways, reflecting on those days feels a world away from where we are today. We have queer focused episodes of ‘Come dine with me’ (which has got to be some kind of marker for popular acceptance!). There are laws that, instead of allowing people to be fired simply for being gay, actively protect us at work. The leader of the Scottish Conservative party is an out, pregnant lesbian – and tipped for the top job!
Not everything has changed but the work of so many brave and determined people has meant that the legal and social position is now very different. It was unimaginable then, for example, that gay marriage would be so broadly supported.
But there is further to go and we shouldn’t take our foot off the pedal. Pride is not just about the UK. LGBT people in many parts of the world face struggles daily. Only at the weekend the banned Pride March in Istanbul was tear-gassed by police. I was born in Uganda and there are LGBT+ people there who are in a sometimes life threatening struggle. And it’s by no means all sorted here in the UK. We are only just getting around legally to recognising the damage done by conversion therapy.
Things can go backwards too. History is full of loops where more progressive social attitudes have been succeeded by greater social conservativism. It’s a time, I think, where many of us are worried by the rise of the far right. Freedom and safety aren’t to be taken for granted. We have to keep working for them. Networks like London Youth are, I think, incredibly important in supporting all of us to see our common ground and the many values we share. And I feel proud to work for our shared network.
This year London Youth is doing more to champion Pride. We want to help make Pride a really special moment. A moment to share with all those LGBT+ people who have found their own way of taking pride in who they are. And, for me, a moment of connectedness with all those people and communities who are trying, in the face of socially imposed identities, to construct their own identity, their own community and their own sense of pride. May you flourish and be proud.
– Rosemary Watt-Wyness, Chief Executive of London Youth