Guest Post by Sarah Haggers Holt, author of Nothing Ever Happens Here (2020), and Proud of Me (2021)
The first time I went to an LGBTQ youth group was a couple of years ago – I was 39 years old. Yes, I know, not exactly the target age range.
I went because I was invited to talk about a book I had written. I came away with an idea for another one. That book, my second middle-grade novel, ‘Proud of Me’, is published this month.
That evening, there were about 15 teenagers in a church basement. Like any group, some were confident, others quiet, some were draped all over each other – laughing, talking, sharing snacks, others kept to themselves. Later, youth workers told me that some young people had travelled across the county just to be there. Being with other queer kids made it all worthwhile.
In ‘Proud of Me’, a group of students set up an LGBTQ group in their school. They join for different reasons: because they are LGBTQ, have LGBTQ family members or simply to show support. It’s a place where they make friends, get creative, campaign and encourage each other. For both the main characters – brother and sister, Josh and Becky – this group forms part of their journey to self-knowledge, acceptance and, yes, pride.
I wanted this group to be at the heart of the story, because ‘coming out’ is not just about finding yourself, it’s about finding your tribe. It’s about cultivating a sense of belonging and self-worth in a world which, despite positive steps towards equality, can still be hostile.
Although there are no national statistics for how many LGBTQ youth groups exist, it is encouraging that more schools and youthwork settings are facilitating groups like these. They couldn’t be more important: recent research from Diversity Role Models says that less than one in three secondary school students feel that their schools are safe places to come out. The report’s recommendations – alongside staff training and strong anti-bullying policies – include visibly celebrating diversity and LGBTQ identities, which is where student-led groups play a vital role.
What a long way we have come.
When I was at school, Section 28 was still in force, the legislation which silenced discussion of LGBTQ identities and put many pupils and teachers at risk of bullying. It was also pre-internet (okay, I’m that old), so finding an LGBTQ youth group out of school would have been virtually impossible (although I do remember secretly buying a copy of feminist magazine ‘Spare Rib’ and scanning the listings for anything to do with lesbians!). I came out, eventually, in my 20s, but in my teens, a school or youth group would have made all the difference.
A few years ago, I returned to my old school for a reunion tour. There were Stonewall posters on the walls and an LGBTQ club running at lunchtime. I cried.
I hope young LGBTQ people today will find schools or youth groups to support them much more easily than I could, and I hope ‘Proud of Me’ will prompt more schools to think about the valuable role that these groups, and visible LGBT role models, play in enabling all students to flourish.
Nothing Ever Happens Here, and Proud of Me are published by Usborne, and are available to purchase from all good booksellers.
Any opinions expressed may not truly reflect those of the FCBG.