Choice around sexuality is a hot topic at the moment. Cynthia Nixon had her words blown all out of proportion by the gay media and she had to clarify that in fact, she is bisexual and has chosen to follow her feelings for her female partner. Kids often ask us 'when did you turn gay?' or 'why did you choose to be a lesbian?'. We do not answer this question, or any question for that matter, on behalf of the entire LGBT community. We answer it individually and we don't always agree. It's ok, and in fact, useful, for young people to see that people who have a particular characteristic aren't always going to agree upon why, nor do they look the same, do the same jobs, have the same hobbies or the same cultural background.
The whole point of us speaking to young people with honesty is to allow them to see us as human, not as predictable clones who follow a well-worn script. There are as wide a range of LGBT people as there are heterosexual people and that is what we want the next generation to understand. Judging people by their sexual orientation or gender identity is limiting and creates unnecessary barriers between people who might otherwise relate to each other on a positive level. We put a human face to an oft-misunderstood and demonised concept: yesterday a student announced in class 'well, they kill gay people in Africa and so they should; it's disgusting and unnatural'. This is the level of intolerance we work with at times and it is more important than anything to help these students understand that it is NEVER alright to bully somebody or hurt them on the basis of their sexual orientation, any more than it was acceptable for Stephen Lawrence's killers to take his life because they were offended by his skin colour.
We've been up and running officially for five months now so we've had a good chance to see how young people respond to our role models. In the last 9 sessions we've seen 244 students. Prior to our workshops, 127 of these said they would stop being friends with an LGBT person. After hearing from our role models, only 15 held onto this viewpoint. We ask this question as it is a realistic gauge of how 13 year olds view life and it's also suggestive of the slippery slope to loneliness and depression that many LGBT young people disappear down. Why do they change their minds? In every workshop, without fail, students have unashamedly acknowledged that they think a gay friend would hit on them. When we tell them that we as 'proper gays' (as one 12 year old called us) don't view our same sex friends any differently to our opposite sex friends, they start to get it. We don't fancy everybody! And they look a little embarrassed when we remind them that a gentle 'no thanks' usually does the trick if somebody, regardless of gender, asks them out.
The recurrent themes of the evaluations we receive are 'you can't tell someone's sexuality just by looking at them', 'treat gays like 'normal' people' (!) and 'the word gay can be hurtful'. It's not all plain sailing; a response to the question 'what did you enjoy least about the workshop?' was a defiantly printed 'having to be near gay people'. It wouldn't be realistic to get through to every student straight away; some of these kids come from violently homophobic homes. But we are encouraging the majority to think critically and helping them to understand. And although we won't know this for some time, we will have spoken to students who end up being LGB or T and we have demonstrated very clearly to them that there is every opportunity for a happy and successful life surrounded by friends and loved ones. This in itself is 100% worth it.