Schooldays and the thought of returning to the classroom don’t necessarily conjure up great ideas of rose-tinted nostalgia and sunshiny memories for a lot of the LGBTQI+ community, in fact for a lot of people it is exactly the opposite.
There are generations of us who clung to the notion that leaving school would be the advent of the ‘it gets better’ stage of our lives. Once we had survived school then we could go and actually be ourselves. The more time I have spent in our secondary schools the more I am seeing a massive shift in how this is playing out for our young people. I travel to secondary schools the length and breath of Ireland and in each meet openly gay young people living inspiringly authentic and courageous lives. Obviously not all young LGBTQI+ people are going to be in safe spaces where this is permitted, and the high levels of self-harm within the community speaks to this but they are getting stronger and less accepting that they have to hide themselves to make others comfortable. There is an awareness that the problem is with the space and not them.
I get the privilege of meeting all these incredible young people through my work as a facilitator with the Soar foundation, we are an organization that creates and provides wellness workshops in schools around Ireland. Our main programs are three hour long workshops for 6th class and T.Y. students. These are transitional periods in a young persons life when they get to re-write the script on how they want to be known and have the freedom to explore who they are. The concept that underpins all of our work is ‘within all young people there is the potential for greatness’. We have seen through the spike in suicide, depression and self-harm that they are, in some cases, not seeing that in themselves.
What we do is go into schools and facilitate an honest conversation about what is happening in young peoples lives, there is nothing we will shy away from and no issue we are unwilling to tackle. Often in school you can spend six years sitting next to a person without really understanding who they are, or what struggles or successes they are carrying into school with them. We find that breaking these silences leads to an incredible level of compassion and kindness. We acknowledge that even the students that are behaving in ways that isolate others are doing so out of frustration, or pain or a lack of understanding. It is very easy to disagree with an idea but much harder to dismiss somebodies lived experience and once people can truly see one another there is much more we have in common than separates us. We see that young people are craving this type of authentic connection.
The curriculum in Ireland covers such a wide range of subjects but one thing that is sorely lacking is emotional awareness work. If we can equip our youth with the tools to talk about their lives, we can spare them the shame and fear that many past generations may have felt. Studies often suggest the LGBTQI+ people are aware of their gender and sexuality at around twelve years old but don’t come out until they’re seventeen. Those five years of isolation are damaging the mental health of our young people and what ever we can do to prevent that is worth trying.
The highlight of my job, though I claim that I hold no bias, is when young people feel that they can come out in workshops. I have witness beautiful moments of whole year groups surrounding young people with hugs as they stand in the middle of the room and claim their identity. Young trans guys in all girls schools telling people what they need to feel supported, what pronouns they prefer and how they want to continue their time at school in a way that reflects their gender identity. A place where people can ask questions in a non-intrusive way, to gain understand, where there are people facilitating everyone’s needs. I have seen strong silent young men crying with pride as their friends come out and commending their bravery. I came out eight years ago and I still haven’t worked out how to sit in these moments with young people without tearing up myself.
I am always so humbled by both the bravery of these young people and the willingness to learn from the peers that surround them. I think it takes such courage to be yourself, but also a lot of self-awareness to acknowledge that you don’t know something. I have seen so many wonderful allies and activists emerge in workshops as they grapple lovingly with the new ideas that are being presented. Yesterday I did a workshop in an all boys school where they erupted into cheers and applause when I told them I was marrying my girlfriend. There is no way that I would have anticipated that three years ago when I started this job, and the sixteen year old Clodagh scared in her room in Mayo that people would find her out,could never have dreamed of such acceptance and acknowledgement. When I see these incredible teenagers evolving at such a rate I know that our responsibility now is to continue creating spaces where they can feel free to challenge beliefs and test out new idea. A practice space where they can visualise their place in the world that they are creating. It is a world that I cannot wait to see.