One of London’s best qualities is its diversity.
And one of the many communities who are welcomed in the capital is the LGBT community.
With it being LGBT History Month, February is perhaps more important than ever following the past 10 months of on and off lockdown.
LGBT+ charity Just Like Us is an LGBT young people’s charity who work with schools and young people to improve inclusivity in schools and beyond, empowering young people from the LGBT+ community.
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Their ambassador programme trains LGBT young people aged 18 to 25 how to talk about their experiences in schools, which in-turn makes sure their voices are heard.
MyLondon spoke to ambassadors Ramses, a trans man, and Pippa, a lesbian woman, on what it’s like being a LGBT+ young person in London during lockdown, and why inclusivity in schools matters.
Both young people shared their fears for those who are being “forced back into the closet” in the current climate.
‘London has been so welcoming’
Both Ramses and Pippa shared that the diversity and inclusive nature of our city make London an inclusive place to be.
Ramses said: “As an adopted Londoner, I was surprised by how welcoming London has been.
“While I have still experienced homophobia and transphobia, these have mainly been in the form of microaggressions rather than violence, and it’s been nice to be able to go out, connect with other LGBT+ people, be able to be out and proud without being afraid of retaliation.”
Pippa added: “I feel very lucky to live in a city as big and as diverse as London. Just the sheer amount of people in the city means that there are always communities filled with those who are exactly like you, and those who are exactly unlike you.
“There are always people who make an effort to tell each other’s stories. Right now because of the pandemic I am really missing the feeling that people are physically, geographically close to me, but I know that once this is all over, that feeling will return.”
For both Pippa and Ramses, lockdown has not been a personal struggle due to being an LGBT+ person, as Pippa’s family is very supportive and Ramses’ living situation didn’t change, so he still has his partner living with him. However, they worry for the many LGBT+ young people who are not so lucky.
“I can still be myself at home and my colleagues have shown lots of support,” said Ramses.
“I started my medical transition during the second lockdown, and I’m grateful my partner was at home to support me. But many of my friends had to go back to their families, sometimes losing their support network.
“A close friend of mine has been misgendered daily for months, which in the long term had a huge impact on mental health.”
Pippa shared that she is missing having physical places to gather for the LGBT+ community during lockdown. She said that she now has to make an active effort to remain connected to her community, which is exhausting and can feel very isolating.
She added: “It is particularly difficult for young people who are stuck in households that don’t accept them – unfortunately the pandemic has reinforced this idea that our households and our families are always the place where we are most safe, which is often not true for young LGBT+ people.
“At the moment so many young people are completely isolated in their house, sometimes with families who don’t know that much about LGBT+ communities, or occasionally are even actively hostile towards LGBT+ people.
“That escape into a community that just gets it has been taken away by the pandemic, and young people might feel like the opinions of their home environment are the only one they’re ever going to hear again. So it is more vital than ever to show that there are LGBT+ people out there, there are allies out there, and we are here to support each other.”
‘Education is vital’
For both Ramses and Pippa, inclusive education is vital, in helping to empower young LGBT+ people and in order to reduce the homophobia that sadly still exists in schools and wider society. They feel their charity’s in-school talks, which are currently being held virtually, are important in overcoming this.
Ramses said: “In a climate like this, with young people forced back into the closet, exposed to homophobic, biphobic and transphobic news and lacking the support networks they built, education needs to step up to fill those gaps. Something as simple as studying LGBT+ historical figures, having a Just Like Us online school talk, being recommended LGBT+ books and movies can really make a difference, and create a safe bubble (although limited in time and space) to make those students feel accepted.
“When I walk into a classroom (be it physically or virtually), most people have never seen a trans person in real life, or talked to one. To be fair, that’s the case in most spaces I walk in. School talks are more than just giving a series of definitions, they are an opportunity to ask questions, to talk to someone. It’s easy to have prejudice against someone you’ve never met.
“As a child and teen, I had never knowingly met any other gay or trans person. I barely knew what ‘gay’ meant, but I was so used to hearing it used as a slur that I used that word as well a few times. It wasn’t until I saw some form of representation that I realised what being LGBT+ actually meant, and I was able to educate other people and work towards creating a positive environment at school.
“Going into schools is a great opportunity to challenge that. Something as “easy” as sharing my own experience has the potential to change people’s lives, and from my experience, that has already happened numerous times.”
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Ramses shared that until he started volunteering for Just Like Us, he didn’t have any positive experience at school, suffering from bullying, discrimination and homophobia. Although teachers were supportive, they were not explicitly allies and he felt too scared to reach out to them. His experience in schools is completely different now.
“Walking in schools now is a completely different experience,” he said.
“I’ve seen young people come out during my talks, teachers approaching me asking me how to support their students, sometimes I’ve even seen them worried about the talks and then completely change their mind at the end. While I’ve still seen a few students laugh, most talks are welcomed with genuine curiosity, and they’re always eager to talk to me.
“Something as “easy” as sharing my own experience has the potential to change people’s lives, and from my experience, that has already happened numerous times.”
Pippa feels that it is important for her to share her story, to share her positive experiences coming out to her family, as she feels some people see her skin colour and assume that her family must be bigoted.
She said: “I want to deliver my specific story, because I think that people still have a view of LGBT+ people of colour as either non-existent or tragic.
“As a society, we have created this imaginary divide between LGBT+ communities, and communities of colour, leaving young LGBT+ people of colour often feeling extremely isolated, like they can’t comfortably exist within either of these groups.
“I want to show that you can be an LGBT+ person of colour and be confident and comfortable in your skin and in your communities. I personally grew up with really accepting parents, but I think that people see my skin colour and assume that my family must be bigoted.”
How to be an LGBT+ Ally
For Pippa and Ramses, teaching about LGBT+ history this month and beyond is more important than ever.
Pippa shared that for those facing isolation and non acceptance at home, teaching about LGBT+ inclusion can help these young people to see that throughout history and throughout hardship, LGBT+ communities have always found ways to organise and create supportive spaces.
She shared that the best thing people can do to support LGBT+ communities is to simply listen and take young people’s experiences seriously.
“As with any community, there is no one-size-fits-all way to be a good LGBT+ ally, and because of this it is really important for allies to see all LGBT+ people in their own context,” she added.
“LGBT+ people have a wide variety of experiences and backgrounds, and things that work for some people (coming out to family, going to Pride celebrations, using a particular label to describe their orientation or gender, ect) might not work for others, and that’s fine!”
How can schools get involved?
Dominic Arnall, Chief Executive of charity Just Like Us, believes their programmes and workshops can help teachers and schools to provide inclusive LGBT+ content for teachers and school leaders.
The charity aims to reach 2.8 million children this year through their programmes, after reaching 1.97 million pupils in their School Diversity Week last year. Teachers can sign up online and receive a toolkit of resources, posters and lesson plans completely free, to help them to deliver LGBT+ inclusive learning.
Dominic is delighted by the take up of schools of virtual ambassador visits during school closures.
He said: “The uptake has been fantastic – really surprising. The golden rule in working in education is teachers are very busy. So if they’re looking at how to cover LGBT inclusion – please reach out to us. We need to make teachers’ lives easier rather than harder and that’s what we’re here for.”
He added that his message to schools not currently doing this work at all is to get in touch.
“It’s not that hard at all and we can make it even easier,” Dominic said.
“We want people to be able to engage with this work in a way that feels safe and easy. The best thing we can all do is make sure we’re creating spaces where teachers can ask questions about this work.”
The charity runs a monthly webinar where teachers can ask any question in a safe space where they know they aren’t going to be challenged or feel they have got it wrong.
He added: “We can answer their q’s in a way that’s very safe and can enable them to go on and do the work they need to do. All schools are so different.
“The worst thing we can do is create one model that all schools have to fit. We’re listening to schools and teachers about what their barriers are and have had a fantastic response – 600 teachers. Keep letting us know, and we’ll keep trying to deliver what it is you need.”
“It’s important for every school to do this. There are LGBT children in every school in the UK. estimates vary, up to 10 per cent. If we don’t talk about LGBT [issues] then we have a whole generation growing up and not understanding who they are – which is incredibly damaging.
“We want to open up the conversation and make sure everyone feels included.”
What else do I need to know?
School Diversity Week resources and sign up .
Ways schools can get involved .
Free LGBT+ History Month resources for parents and educators can be found here .
Donate to Just Like Us here .
Do you think schools are doing enough to ensure LGBT+ inclusion? Let us know in the comment section here.