why safe spaces for lgbtu-identifying youth need to be protected
To commemorate International Transgender Day of Visibility, trans writer and activist Freiya Benson explores the effects of youth service cuts on LGBTU-identifying young people, and asks the all-important question: what can we do next?
The last time I went to a youth group was in 1985. It was run by my dad, and it mostly consisted of my friends hanging out in the front room of my house, watching videos and playing Monopoly. Back then I wasn't out as trans, or bisexual, and I didn't even have the language to describe what those parts of me were, or a space to explore them.
Now, thirty years later, I volunteer with Allsorts Youth Project, an LGBTU (Lesbian, Gay, Bi, Trans, and Unsure) young people's charity in Brighton. I found a way to explore my gender and sexual identity but it took me the best part of my life. I can't help but think how different that might have been if a place like Allsorts existed back then, when I was growing up.
On a normal week at Allsorts, anywhere from 60 to 80 young people come through the doors, to attend groups, or to access one-on-one support. All the young people that come to Allsorts identify as LGBTU, with particular emphasis on the U. Having a space to explore who you are is invaluable, and when that place also consists of people like you, who accept and respect you and your identity, and understand that exploring that naturally involves change and testing different things out, then that space becomes not only invaluable, but essential.
Imagine how it would be to only have one place where you could really be who you are. Imagine a world where everywhere else is dangerous and unsafe, where you could be verbally abused, or attacked, or discriminated against at any moment, even by people you thought you could trust. That's the world the majority of LGBTU young people live in.
Take a look at the media reports of people questioning trans identities as being real. Listen to the "debates" about identity that are just hate wrapped up in a socially acceptable disguise. Think about how it would feel if people started saying that a part of who you were wasn't valid, that being straight wasn't real or being right-handed was a choice. Think about how it would feel to have a safe space where you could escape from all that, even if it's just for a couple of hours.
It's not just about issues unique to LGBTU young people either. Depression and anxiety are common among all young people, as are feelings of isolation and worthlessness, and that's just the tip of the iceberg. Suicide, eating disorders, homelessness, violence, poverty, bullying, the list goes on and on. I think sometimes as adults we forget how awful and intense it is being a young person. We start to dehumanize young people, because it's easier that way. This isn't always because we don't care either, often the things young people are being affected by are also things we've experienced as well. As adults we can be triggered as much as anyone else, and those memories can be powerful things.
Equally though, there comes a time when we have to step up. As adults it's our duty of care to enable and support the generations below us, even if that seems like a terrifying and impossible thing to do.
The first time I volunteered at one of the youth groups Allsorts ran, I felt afraid. It felt daunting and overwhelming, and I genuinely wasn't sure I could do it. After a while though, I started talking to some of the young people that came along, and suddenly what seemed like a terrifying and impossible thing to do became something I did every week. It became a part of my life, and it's a part of my life I don't want to lose, especially because it's no longer seen as essential by the powers that be.
And make no mistake, youth services for all young people, LGBTU or otherwise, are essential. I can give you cold hard facts about the issues young people face, sure. I can tell you that in a recent survey Allsorts ran, 55 percent of young people that took part had considered ending their lives, that 78 percent of them don't have enough money for food after rent costs, or that 89 percent are suffering from depression, anxiety, and feelings of isolation. I can tell you that this is reflected across all the youth services in the UK, but cold hard facts just give you the aerial view. They don't tell you about individual young people and their lives, their experiences, and their feelings.
To know that you need to get out there and volunteer with your local youth group, you need to speak to the young people around you, and listen to what they say. If you want to know the effect that closing youth centers really has then ask the people that use them.
If you do that this is what they'll say.
"Without my local youth group I wouldn't be here today. It sounds dramatic, but honestly without that space to go to I'd have nowhere. It's given me a place to go when I have nowhere else."
"Youth groups have had a very profound effect on my life. Without the support I get from them my mental health would be significantly worse."
"Allsorts has been a place that has supported me throughout tough times and allows me to express my feelings and emotions without judgement. I know I can get the help and support I need from them without fail, it is an extremely important place to me!"
The damage cuts to youth services do can be measured with facts and figures, but it's only once you speak to the people directly affected that you truly see the reality of those cuts. Once a young person is out of the system, once they're left out, and sidelined, without access to support and even just a place to go once a week, then they effectively disappear. It can be through isolation, suicide, or homelessness, but without youth services to offer support and enable young people to survive to adulthood, it will happen.
We already know that in some of the more marginalized parts of London where cuts were made to youth services over the last five years, crime rates have risen and violence has spiked. A recent survey by Unison estimated that since 2010, £387 million has been cut from youth services across the country, with over 600 youth centers having to shut down. Even at the lowest estimates that equates to tens of thousands of young people who have lost a space that's fundamental to their wellbeing and future development.
We need to start thinking of each other as people, rather than a cost to be cut, and we need to come together to protect our young people because ultimately, when we abandon our young people we abandon our future.
These services are essential to the survival of the LGBTU young people I work with, and they're essential to the survival of us as a caring, socially conscious society.
Now, more than ever, is the time to start acting. Funding for youth services is getting reduced every year, while the risks to young people grow every day. Protest against the cuts, write to your politicians, ask them to ring-fence youth service money as non-negotiable when it comes to budget reductions. As both a society and as individuals we need to get involved and think about ways to change things. Ask yourself: How can I help? What skills do I have? What resources can I bring to the table?
Maybe I could use my finance or marketing skills to help as a trustee for my local youth charity.
Maybe I could organize some fundraising for the youth center that's facing closure due to the cuts.
Maybe I could volunteer, or become a patron, or set up a standing order, or shout as loud as I can about how important this all is.
Maybe I could get involved.
Maybe that's all it takes to turn this around.
Text Freiya Benson