THE LAST event I spoke at during LGBT History Month in February was the first interfaith seminar coordinated by the LGBT rights charity Stonewall.
The invitation came after I trained as a Role Model to deliver LGBT awareness sessions in schools registered as Stonewall School Champions. I wrote about my first experience as a Role Model in November 2015 here.
I was also invited to appear on a poster for LGBT History Month. As the theme this year was Religion, Belief & Philosophy, the aim of the poster campaign was to show that people can be both LGBT and have faith. You can see a detail of the poster above. During the month Role Model stories were shared on social media – you can read them here and see the poster here.
Then on 25th February at the headquarters of Sainsbury’s in central London, Stonewall held an evening seminar to mark some of the work individuals and groups in faith communities are doing to combat homophobia, biphobia and transphobia – to share good practice, discuss barriers and celebrate successes with key speakers and an expert panel for the audience to ask questions.
Through this event, Stonewall aimed to:
- strengthen its relationship with LGBT faith groups, communities and individuals
- gather preliminary research into the intersection between faith and LGBT identities
- assess Stonewall’s suitability as an organisation to undertake work in this area
- assess the feasibility and benefit of Stonewall conducting further faith events
- energise attendees to be visible and drive change within their communities.
- Dr Masuma Rahim, a psychologist who specialises in supporting young people who come out as LGBT in Muslim communities
- Katy Staples, author of Valuing All God’s Children, guidance for tackling homophobic bullying in Church of England schools
- Surat-Shaan Rathgeber Knan, founder and manager of Twilight People, which celebrates the hidden history of transgender and gender-variant people of faith in the UK, and Rainbow Jews, an oral history project showcasing the lives of Jewish LGBT people.
- And me!
The panel included:
- Dr and Imam Ludovic Zahed, the founder of inclusive mosques in Paris and Marseille that launched with the goal of accommodating LGBT Muslims.
- Revd Sally Hitchener, Coordinating Chaplain and Inter Faith Advisor at Brunel University and founder of Diverse Church, a supportive community of young LGBT+ Christians in UK evangelical churches.
- Ruby Almeida, media trainer and Chair of Catholic group Quest, which provides pastoral support to LGBT Catholics.
- Rabbi Shulamit Ambalu, rabbi of Kehillah North London synagogue, the Director of Youth, Education and Development and Finchley Reform Synagogue, and teacher of rabbinic literature and vocational skills to rabbinic students at Leo Baeck College.
As you can see, I was in prestigious company!
Stonewall CEO Ruth Hunt, who has spoken previously about her faith journey (which I have shared here and here) chaired the event with precision – the other three presenters and I were asked to speak for seven minutes each, without the prop of Powerpoint. As I sat down next to Ruth I glanced at her programme and saw that we had in fact been allocated ten minutes each, so I could have spoken for longer – clearly this was to ensure we did not over-run and left enough time for questions.
As I have become used to giving brief presentations, particularly as a School Role Model, I had timed my slot to seven minutes. The title of my presentation was ‘A person centred approach to working with young people’, as Stonewall asked me to focus on my ten years’ experience working with the UK’s longest running LGBT youth group. Here is some of what I shared:
I’ve been a Stonewall School Role Model since July 2015. My background is in education and youth work, and I also trained for ministry in the Roman Catholic Church in my twenties but chose not to be ordained.
My husband and I run Open Table, a monthly service for the LGBT community, family, friends and allies, at St Bride’s, an inclusive Anglican church in Liverpool. Open Table has grown over the last seven and a half years – we now have around forty attending each month, with new communities forming in churches of various traditions in Warrington, Manchester and north Wales.
We were also part of a group of Christians who approached Liverpool Pride in 2010 to offer a Christian service during the festival and were challenged to make it an interfaith celebration, which has now become an annual event attracting more than 100 people, alongside other smaller events throughout the year.
Through this interfaith partnership, my husband and I met people from places of worship open to celebrating same sex marriages, and we became the first couple to register a civil partnership in a UK place of worship in May 2012.
Tonight my focus is my experience of working with children and young people, as coordinator of the UK’s longest running LGBTQ youth group between 2005 and 2015.
The Youth Chances survey of the experiences of around 6,500 LGBTQ young people aged 16-25 in England in 2014 showed that they:
- perceive discrimination against them as common,
- feel substantially less accepted in their local community than their heterosexual, non-trans counterparts, particularly in religious organisations and sport,
- experience significantly higher levels of verbal, physical and sexual abuse
- have had to leave home for reasons relating to their sexuality or gender identity
- feel their time at school is affected by hostility or fear, with consequences such as feeling left out, lower grades and having to move schools
- report significantly higher levels of mental distress including depression, anxiety, self-harm and suicidal thoughts.
The support needs of LGBTQ young people are greater than their peers yet only a few areas have specialist LGBTQ youth groups.
So how can you help? Specialist youth groups are part of the picture, but if we make our faith communities, schools and youth groups more inclusive, we will reduce risks to, and build resilience for all our young people so they can feel safe enough, achieve their potential, and integrate more fully into their community.
The approach I advocate is, I believe, not only good practice in responding to the additional needs of LGBTQ young people in our communities, but also for all our pastoral relationships, and a profoundly spiritual practice too.
The young peoples’ charity in Liverpool which hosts the LGBTQ youth group I ran is a secular organisation, with a team of youth workers, social workers, counsellors and therapists. It aims to
‘improve the mental health and emotional well-being needs of children, young people and families in a non-stigmatized environment…that allows (them) to feel safe, valued, respected, included, and motivated.’ [ypas.org.uk]
Its ethos is person-centred:
‘the young person is at the core of the support offered. That support includes choice and is…tailored to the young person’s needs and wishes.’ [Mental Health Foundation, 2007]
Person-centred professionals follow the therapeutic approach of Dr Carl Rogers, which emphasises the quality of the therapeutic (or pastoral) relationship, and a person’s ability to discover within themselves resources for personal growth and fulfilment.
Carl Rogers began training for Christian ministry but gave this up to become one of the most influential figures in 20th Century psychology.
Being person centred involves forming relationships where people can
- feel safe enough to face their pain
- increase their awareness of themselves and others
- enhance self-confidence and self-worth
- feel genuinely accepted and understood
- begin to reveal the wonder of their own natures
- more self-accepting
- more responsive to others
- better able to harness their gifts and abilities in the service of the wider community. [Thorne, 2003]
The person-centred approach is about equal partnership: Young people are responsible for improving their lives, not the youth worker or minister, whose role is to listen and encourage, and challenge constructively without judgement.
The quality of a person-centred relationship requires three Core Conditions:
- We are congruent (genuine).
- We provide unconditional positive regard (non-judgment).
- We show empathy.
Congruence means we are authentic and allow young people to know us as we really are, which invites young people to let us know them authentically too.
Unconditional positive regard is based on the belief that people grow and fulfill their potential if they are valued as they are, with deep and genuine caring. We may not approve of some of the young person’s actions but we do affirm the young person: ‘I accept you as you are.’ Always maintain a positive attitude, even when challenged by a young person’s actions.
Empathy is the ability to understand what the young person is feeling, sensitively and accurately, in the moment you meet them.
The person-centered approach is a positive, optimistic view of human nature – it believes every individual is essentially good, and ultimately knows what is right for them, which may be summed up as ‘all about loving’.[simplypsychology.org]
A Christian counsellor I met last year described his person-centred counselling as ‘a profoundly spiritual practice’. I agree – if the core conditions are not an expression of divine love, I don’t know what is.
Working within a person-centred ethos helped me to reconcile my sexuality and my spirituality and to offer a safe space for young people to come as they are and leave with a greater sense of who they can be. By listening to the needs of young people, I transformed the group from two small single-sex gatherings per week in 2005, through integration into a mixed group for 16-25s which peaked at more than 50 young people per session, to three different age groups in contact with more than 70 young people a week, finally identifying the need for a specialist trans youth group with the UK’s first full time trans youth worker in 2014.
While the growth in the number of young people we supported was impressive, what really counted was the individual impact. Young people who came to us feeling isolated, ashamed, depressed, within a few short weeks felt more positive, connected and empowered to make informed, healthy choices for themselves.
My advice to you is: Be brave – take a leap of faith. Look with empathy and without judgment for those in your community who are struggling to let you know who they are for fear of what you might say. Dispel your fears, and theirs too, and we’ll all be better for it, in a more inclusive, equal and just society which celebrates the many different ways to be human, and the common humanity we all share.