SEEN and not heard? Why I am inspired to work for my community

ON OCTOBER 12th SEEN, the LGBT community magazine for Merseyside, will host the second annual SEEN Awards.

This year there are several new awards, including ‘Inspirational Person of the Year’. When the shortlist was announced at the end of August I was pleasantly surprised to find I am on it.

Am I inspirational? Clearly someone thought so, otherwise I wouldn’t have been nominated. It’s not my place to say. What I can say is that this nomination has led me to reflect on what inspires me to work for my community.

The week before the awards shortlist was announced, I saw this poster called ‘How To Build Community’. The inspirational text ended with the phrase:

No-one is silent though many are not heard. Work to change this.

This really resonated with me. I don’t subscribe to the view that ‘children should be seen and not heard’, especially those who struggle to find their own voice. I am privileged, after seven years working with GYRO (gay youth ‘r’ out), the UK’s longest running LGBT youth group, to have heard the stories of many young people who could not hear or trust the voice of their own experience because it is different from what peers, family, community expect them to be.

GYRO is a safe supportive social space for LGBT young people where they will not be judged or told what they ought to be. Instead we listen, we support, we guide, we help them to make informed decisions and work out for themselves who they are and who they want to be with.

Above all, we encourage, in the true sense of the word, which means ‘to put in courage, to make stronger’. The word courage comes from the Latin word ‘cor’, which means ‘heart’ –  to ‘en-courage’ really means to give someone their heart, to put them in touch with their innermost feelings. I can’t think of a better way of summing up the life-transforming process of coming out and claiming your true identity, your deepest desire, being loved as you are and learning to love yourself and others.

It seems people are coming out at a younger age in recent years., and in greater numbers. When I started, the group was for 16-25 year olds, but in the last few years we have seen an increase in enquiries from under 16s, so two years ago we started a group for children aged 13-16. We now support around 25 young people a week in this age group. The original group has also grown, from around a dozen to nearly 60 at its peak, averaging around 35 a week.

So we support between 50-70 young people a week, on a shoestring budget which has become even smaller in recent years due to cuts in funding from the City Council. It could have been worse – in 2011 we almost lost all our funding for our work with young adults, but after a passionate campaign by young people, the grant was reinstated.

I don’t have children of my own, so the young people of GYRO are like my family – I am very proud of them, their courage and creativity, wit and wisdom. As a late developer, I did not know of any group like it when I was their age. Even if I had, I was too closeted and afraid to go. I was aware of the LGBT society while at university, but I did not see myself as ‘one of them’. What I have been through gives me empathy for others – I too felt unheard, unable to find my voice, the words to describe my experience. If you had told me ten years ago, when I first moved to Liverpool, that I would be running an LGBT youth group today, I would not have believed it possible. But others had faith in me when I had none, en-courage-d  and enabled me to become the person I am today. If I can advocate for someone who feels unheard, if the support I offer can spare that young person from anything like what I experienced, that makes it all worthwhile. If you want to read some of my story, feel free to look at my earlier blog posts.

You might enjoy seeing a short film the young people made earlier this year (5½ minutes) about what the group means to them. They also interviewed me about why I do what I do:

Someone who nominated me for the SEEN award wrote:

A real inspiration for young people. Running GYRO and fighting so hard for it through the cuts. Working constantly in his own time for the rights and support of young people.

If you agree, you may wish to vote for me as ‘Inspirational Person of the Year’ on the Seen Awards website.

>GYRO began as a youth group set up by a befriending organisation called Friend Merseyside in 1976. When Friend Merseyside closed it became an independent voluntary group supported by Liverpool Youth Service. Then in 2005 the group faced closure again, until the landlord of its city centre base, the Young Person’s Advisory Service (YPAS) agreed to take over the management of the group. Since then the group has thrived.

YPAS is a charity which supports children and young people aged 10-25 and their families with a range of counselling and support services. It has recently produced a one minute film to put a face and voice to young people’s experiences of the charity. You can view it here:

Because of its support for GYRO, YPAS has been nominated for ‘Charity of the Year’ in the Seen Awards. A supporter who voted for GYRO said:

They do so much for young LGBT people in the city and very are rarely recognised for their hard work.

If you agree, please vote for GYRO @ Young Person’s Advisory Service as ‘Charity of the Year’ on the Seen Awards website.

Through my work with GYRO I have also had the privilege of working with  Marie and Mike Causer, the parents of Michael Causer, an 18-year-old gay man who died on 2nd August 2008 after being brutally assaulted and left for dead.

Michael’s death was not widely reported in the mainstream media in the UK, in contrast to the deaths of other young people in the region following race hate crime or gang-related violence. Liverpool’s annual LGBT arts festival Homotopia commissioned a 10 minute documentary exploring the media silence, which you can watch here:

In memory of their murdered son, they have set up the Michael Causer Foundation (MCF)  to provide safe accommodation and support for LGBT young people in the north-west of England, as they are at greater risk of homelessness than their straight peers because of prejudice or fear of rejection due to their sexuality or gender identity. I have been involved with the Foundation since it was formed in 2010, and am currently the secretary to the Board of Trustees.

When the Foundation was launched, Marie said:

I want money people have donated in Michael’s memory to be used to help young people. These youngsters need somewhere to go where they feel safe and are surrounded by people who have gone through a similar experience. I did not want a stone or a plaque to be put up in his memory. I wanted to do something worth doing and I am very lucky to have the support of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community behind me.

Former Chair of Liverpool Pride and the city’s LGBT Network, Tommy McIlravey, said:

Marie has become a person the LGBT community feels they can talk to and she understands and listens to their concerns. When she told me of her idea, I knew we had to make it happen because there is an urgent need in Liverpool for this kind of housing.

MCF became a charity in July 2011 and received overwhelming public support to receive the first Charity of the Year award less than three months later. MCF has been nominated again this year in the same category. One supporter who nominated the Foundation wrote:

The family should win the award for endeavouring to turn the tragedy that hit them so harrowingly into a campaign and scheme which will be of great benefit to young people in the LGBT community.

If you agree, please vote for Michael Causer Foundation as ‘Charity of the Year’ on the Seen Awards website.

It’s a tough choice in this category, and my loyalties are clearly split between both charities. The third nominee is Liverpool Pride, only in its third year and already the largest free Pride festival outside London, despite tough economic times, so it also deserves recognition for a phenomenal achievement. One supporter said:

We as a city demonstrated what we do best, supporting family and community together. It was such a well run and successful event with numbers both in the march and at event that would put long-established prides in envy.

It seems odd to me to be asking for votes – although I am of Irish descent, I am more like many English people in being self-effacing, backward at coming forward. But I am reminded of the following reflection, inaccurately attributed to Nelson Mandela, as if to give it more authority. It is no less powerful for being written by someone less prominent – like the young people I support,  it deserves to be heard on its own merits:

Your playing small does not serve the world. There’s nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do…. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we’re liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.
– Marianne Williamson, A Return to Love 1992

So, as I have learned to let my light shine, it seems I can do the same for others. If I were to win an award, it is not really for me, but for Michael Causer, who could not fulfil his potential as an adult so we must be his legacy and work to ensure he did not die in vain. It is for the achievements of GYRO, for weathering the storms of the voluntary sector to survive longer than any other LGBT youth group in the UK, and for all the young people, past and present, who came in for support and came out, en-courage-d, as members of our LGBT community. On behalf of each and every one, especially those  who cannot yet speak out for themselves, thank you very much for taking the time to read this, watch the films, vote for and support them.

Voting closes on Monday 8th October and the awards will be presented on Friday 12th October.

2 thoughts on “SEEN and not heard? Why I am inspired to work for my community

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *