Thursday, 26 January 2012

Diversity Role Models

At the end of conferences I am known to surreptitiously secrete the left-over teabags about my person. Or the occasional carton of orange juice. It's the way I roll. Intellectual stimulation, perhaps new networks created and friends made, and one of my 5-a-day for the rest of the week - who could ask for more? But a training event I attended last night truly surpassed all others, as I left with a bulging bag stuffed to the brim with left-overs: a bottle of wine, soft drinks, and a (Blue Peter-esque) tin foil tray, artfully folded to contain samosas, rice, pitta bread and fancy salads. The catering had been generously sponsored (as had the rather nice venue in Red Lion Square) by law firm Mishcon de Reya - so I'll raise a glass to them. I'm currently tucking into a stuffed vine-leaf as we speak (I type).

However - believe it or not - it was not the culinary delights of last night (and lunch time today) that inspired me to write this post. Far from it. Instead, I really wanted to say a little bit about Diversity Role Models, who were running the training.

DRM's mission is to combat homophobic bullying in schools by educating young people about differences in sexuality and gender identity. Their method is to communicate with students directly, using positive role models to counter negative stereotypes and educate young people about diversity. Last night I was training to be one of those role models. It feels a bit strange to say that, to be actively putting myself forward as a role model; I'm sure if many parents saw the messy state of my bedroom (I will get tidier, I promise) they'd baulk at the idea of me as a perfect role model. But at DMR we were assured that we're not set up as aspirational emblems; we do not need to be 'successful, attractive or brilliant', indeed if we all were I guess we'd fail at representing diversity. The point is that we are real people, who represent a broad spectrum of sexual identities (in fact, in my opinion, each and every person represents a different sexual identity, as how can such an intrinsic and personal thing be anything other than unique), and are happy to talk to young people about what it means to be L, G, B, T, straight, queer, or however we self-identify.

It was such an inspirational evening. And I don't say that lightly. I feel so, so passionately about this agenda: about tackling homophobia, prejudice, fear and intolerance. At a time where LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender) young people are three times more likely to attempt suicide and two thirds of them suffer bullying at school, how is this not important?

The event was really thought-provoking as well. It made me cast a retrospective eye over my time at school: Had people come out? (only one in my year, and it didn't end well) What were the prevailing attitudes to homosexuality? (I did a survey for my Sociology coursework at sixth form on this topic and was surprised to find so many 'It's Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve' attitudes, in what I thought was quite a liberal area) What about casual homophobia embedded into everyday language? ('That's so gay', 'Don't be so gay!', 'Urghh, they should be re-named GAY Levels!' Poor excuse for a pun. Gay, gay, gay - you hear it everywhere, and not in the sense my grandma still uses it. I remember hearing it for the first time when I was about 11 and being quite upset. When did this become acceptable?). And what about LGBT role models? Sparse would be an under-statement. Some of the others there were quite shocked by my revelation that I know basically no gay women (with the obvious exception of my beautiful girlfriend, the fabulous Miss Fox!), and certainly no Older Wiser Lesbians (OWLs - a term Gem introduced me to a while back). We need diverse role models. Young people need to know that 'gay' isn't just an insult and doesn't just mean one type of person.
Any excuse for a picture of an owl...

Listening to the other role models there to be trained, and the stories they told, I felt privileged to be party to their honesty, humour and insight.

So, a little plug: if, like me, you think this is an important issue, check out the Diversity Role Models website, or even visit their charities trust page.

Gosh, I feel all impassioned and stuff... Maybe I should use the excess energy to go and tidy my room. Or fervently apply for jobs I don't really want and would be paid tuppence for.... Maybe I'll just have another samosa and quietly reflect on the state of the world.  

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