I was a teenage activist
March 13, 2011 § 1 Comment
I know that some of you will be ever so familiar with the logo above. So, yes – Queer Youth Network. Which used to be Queer Youth Alliance. Which, way back when, at the very beginning, was Queer Youth Overground.
It wasn’t a subject I had given a great deal of thought to, over the past six years – all nonessential thoughts were trimmed back. Attending the 2010 London TDOR ceremony, and finding out that it had been organised partly by the trans contingent of QYN was a little like a sentimental smack to the head. And, since then, getting to know a few of the current volunteers – well, if I had a lace hanky I might well be dabbing at my eyes in a delicate kind of way. Especially when Jamie told me that there were more than 20 000 members.
This isn’t a post designed to self-aggrandize, or take credit for other people’s hard work; I may have been one of the two founding members (hey, David Henry!) but I left in 2002 to focus on my academic and musical work, and then, when I was hoping to get back on board, my world imploded. But, seeing again the strength and courage of these teen activists, I just wanted to write a little about how it started, and just how much it meant to me.
I came out when I was fifteen (albeit in a ‘I don’t have all the words yet, but I know I’m queer as fuck and this ‘lady’ business isn’t for me), and the two things that struck hardest were that, despite having a bad time at school, I was in a very privileged position compared to most queer teens, and the fact that the world in general, when it came to LGBT rights, had lots of catching up to do. And because then, as now, I survived mostly on a nauseating mix of barely-suppressed rage and caffeine, and because I’m incapable of turning down a challenge, I bought me some books on queer activism and decided to give it a try.
The first move was to start a gay-straight alliance at my upper-middle class, mostly white, horribly bitchy private girls’ school (sex-segregated education and trans kids is a post for another day – but, needless to say, it wasn’t pleasant). The meetings themselves were fairly successful, something I attribute to a combination that would enhance any group situation: fabulous friends and delicious baking (this is where the policy of ‘brownies with everything’ started). We watched movies, swapped books, discussed homophobia, and even got to meet the Mayor of London to discuss city-wide policy on youth advocacy. The reaction of some of the staff, and some of the parents, however, was predictably negative. More than half the teachers refused to allow the posters in their classrooms, ripping down any they saw – students under the age of 16 were barred from attending meeting – the deputy headmistress made it her personal business to make my life hell, using such tactics as threatening to have the school board sue me for tarnishing the reputation of the school.
My family stood by me every step of the way – which only served to make me more furious – that other kids couldn’t count on that kind of parental support – kids I knew, and kids whose heart-breaking suicides and murders were reported faithfully by the Pink Paper, and not by the mainstream press. I was desperate to do something more. And then, through the magic of the internet, I found David Henry, another teenage activist out to save the world.
He was certainly more experienced than I was in terms of political organising, but I think it’s fair to say that it was a ‘learn as you go along’ kind of experience. Amply illustrated by the fact we were originally called ‘Queer Youth Overground’ – we thought people would get the double reference to the underground railroad in particular and underground cultures in general. They did not. He sorted out the website – I wrote articles about coming out, and the effects of homo- and transphobia. We created a nationwide database of LGBT youth groups. Many, many letters were written to newspapers, MPs, the Prime Minister, other LGBT organisations. I spent a bit too much time standing in the rain, handing out leaflets promoting LGBT equality. If I remember correctly we created our first logo on Microsoft Paint, and I dipped into my savings to buy us tiny ads in the back of queer papers and magazines. Section 28 was still in play, and the idea of ANY form of legal same-sex union seemed decades away.
The rest of the story other people can tell better than I could. The foundation of QYN – that it would be queer youth working at a grass roots level to represent themselves – hit a nerve. And it kept growing, and growing – and I am more than a little overwhelmed. And so, so thankful.
Working on QYN helped me through some of the roughest times of my life. It gave me a voice, and a purpose, and a community. Regardless of how shitty I felt about myself, how badly I was being treated at school, how unbearable my depression and OCD and dysphoria were – here was this beautiful project to throw myself into, and know that, no matter how little I felt my life mattered, it WOULD matter if I could use my time to help others. I think our society, as a whole, does teenagers a gross disservice, portraying them as sex-crazed, shallow fools more interested in drinking cheap vodka than experiencing/examining/challenging life. I hope that the success of QYN can stand as an alternative narrative of adolescent experience.
It’s not my place to be proud of the people who’ve worked with QYN, and who continue to work under its auspices. But it makes me just a little more hopeful about life/the universe/and so forth.