My name is Christopher Owen and for the past year and a half I have been working as the LGBTQ+ Coordinator for 42nd Street. This role has included the running of the Q42 group, writing and delivering LGBTQ+ inclusivity training and resources, and managing the Q42 website, blog and social media. I don’t usually share my identity on Q42 blog posts, but I have recently resigned from my role, and so as this is my last post I wanted to write something a little more personal.
I have been working with queer young people for just over three years, having also been working with Salford Youth Service’s LGBTQ+ youth groups. When I started the role, I thought I was going to go in and become some kind of queer mentor to the young people I worked with. I thought that my job was to teach them about queer identities, experiences and culture. In many ways, these things did indeed happen. But reflecting back on the past three years, I have found that the reverse was also true. That I wasn’t just teaching the queer youth I worked with, but they were also teaching me.
And so, for my last act as an LGBTQ+ youth worker, I want to share with queer young people how inspiring and incredible they are, and how much they have taught me. And I want to share with other adults and professionals the beauty and value in listening to the voices of queer youth. So without further ado, here are the three key things I have learned from queer youth.
Liberation Starts with Vulnerable Authenticity
I am, at my core, an activist. I have always felt that fighting against systems of oppression, like heteronormativity and cisnormativity, requires bold and brave public action. This action, from protesting to Pride parading, involved making queer people as visible as possible.
But this isn’t the start of liberation work. If anything, it’s the middle. Queer liberation doesn’t start in a crowd of people who agree with you, it starts around those who don’t. So many queer young people, especially trans young people, are surrounded by peers and adults who don’t understand or support them or their identities. From having to come out to their parents, to having to fight teachers over gender-inclusive school uniforms, to dealing with deadnaming from all sides, queer young people are often alone in their struggles. And yet I often hear of the ways they fight back, vulnerable in their authenticity, at risk of getting in trouble just for saying who they are and standing up for their rights and needs.
As an activist, I have learned from queer young people of the value of entering into spaces where the work needs to get started. Of course, there is value in the protests and the parades, but there is also value in having conversations with people and organisations that disagree with me. And in order to have these conversations it will require a certain level of vulnerability and authenticity on my part. As queer young people have taught me, starting this liberation work requires a lot of courage indeed.
Queer Self-Love is Radical Resistance
‘Love is love!’ Queer people and allies shout this all the time. So many of us are all about the beauty and value of same-sex and trans-inclusive relationships. But in our focus on finding and celebrating love with others, sometimes we forget about the importance of loving ourselves. And yes I mean our whole selves, from our bodies to our quirky personality traits to our faults, but I also specifically mean the queer parts of ourselves. Sometimes, in our desire to find love (and affirmation!) from someone else, we can forget to love our sexual orientations and/or gender identities. Or, at least, I do.
And I don’t just mean appreciate or accept our queer identities. I mean love. We say to be ‘proud,’ but we don’t talk enough about what it means and looks like to truly embody genuine pride in our queerness. But in working with queer youth, I have been very privileged to get some insight into this potential.
To love your queer self, to be glad that you are queer, means that you’re likely to refuse to dull your shine. That you’re unlikely to hide parts of yourself away so that you fit neatly into society’s heteronormative and cisnormative boxes. In so much of the world I feel like I can be gay, so long as I don’t push social boundaries, so long as I’m not queer. But by embracing my queerness, I can be bold and brave and push back on social constraints by insisting on a life that fits both who I am and what I am worth. This is not just an act of self-love, it is an act of radical resistance. It is an act of social change, a powerful step in making the world a more inclusive place for all kinds of queer people.
Some of the queer young people I work with have got this figured out, and I have been so inspired by their queer self-expression and passionate insistence on queer liberation. They have pushed me to be more authentically myself, and to reflect more deeply on who I am and how I want to exist in the world. But some of the young people I have worked with are still figuring this one out, and to them I just want to say: you are enough exactly as you are, you do not need to meet society’s standards, you do not need to change anything about yourself in order to have value, and I hope more than anything you will learn to love your entire queer self, because when you do it will make you so incredibly powerful.
From Queer Community Can Come Queer Coalition
Queer community can be life-saving. So many people can attest to this fact. And it comes in many shapes and sizes, from queer villages to digital spaces to youth groups. But one of the biggest (and most important) critiques of adult queer community spaces is that they are often not intersectionally inclusive. That while cis gay men might find community and safety in these spaces, but queer women, queer people of colour, queer disabled people, and other intersectionally-oppressed groups are not as welcomed or supported.
Queer young people are inherently intersectionally oppressed. To be both young and queer is to experience particular forms of oppression that queer adults and cishet young people do not face. Queer young people face forms of queerphobia that are written into school policy that could not be repeated in workplaces (it would break equality law), they cannot vote on their legal rights (which are often up for debate), trans young people struggle to access gender-affirming healthcare, and they are frequently put into gendered and gender-stereotyping boxes that limit their opportunities, self-expression and freedoms in really alarming ways. I hate the phrase ‘it gets better,’ because we need to find ways to make things better now, but this position doesn’t change the fact in the meantime: it really does get better because queer young people really do face particular oppressions that often go unnoticed and unchallenged by a cishet adult society.
And so many queer young people’s spaces are inherently intersectional queer communities. And yes, a lot of these spaces absolutely need to improve in the areas of anti-racism and anti-ableism and the inclusion of even more identities, there’s no denying this. But the intersectional nature of these queer community spaces is still something to learn from, even if it also has areas for growth.
Unlike queer adult spaces, which have historically catered to white cis gay men, queer spaces for young people (while yes, still predominantly white) are, in my experience, attended by a wide variety of queer identities. The majority of the young people I have worked with have been trans and non-binary, but many have also been gay, bisexual, lesbian, and a host of other queer identities. In these groups, the focus is not on the young people being allies to one another, but rather the focus is in community and collaboration. This is something that anti-oppression author Emma Dabiri calls ‘coalition,’ defining it as anti-oppression work based in ‘identifying shared interests.’
According to Dabiri, allyship as a notion is about supporting a group that you are not a part of with a problem that does not directly harm you – but this misunderstands oppression, as every form of oppression is harmful to all people. Heteronormativity and cisnormativity, while they directly harm queer people, do indeed (perhaps indirectly) harm straight and cis people as well. In queer youth spaces, the queer young people, whether they are trans and straight or cis and gay or something else, all work together in collaboration to fight any kind of queer oppression because there is a shared interest in this work. A straight trans boy will fight homophobia because it limits and harms him too, just as a cis gay girl will fight transphobia because of the way it limits and harms her. In queer youth spaces, differing identities do not tend to come from a place of solidarity with one another, they do not function from a place of allyship per se, but rather they all work together on projects of queer liberation through practices that I clearly see as coalition work.
This is something that not only queer adults, but all social justice activists, could learn from. The nature of social justice needs to move away from ‘white saviour’ tropes, of allyship as virtue signalling, of charity and pity, and instead look toward community cohesion and collaboration in organised efforts toward achieving liberation for all. It is from the practices of queer youth that I believe we can all learn and grow, and through coalitions build a better tomorrow for everyone.
To the young people I have had the honour to work with over the last three years, I want to say thank you. You have influenced me and my work in more ways than you can ever know. You have made me a better person, a better activist, and a better queer. I will carry what I have learned from you for the rest of my life. Never forget your worth, and thank you so much for everything.