When I joined as staff three months ago, nearly every Just Like Us ambassador I spoke to said they go into schools because they wish an LGBT+ role model had come to their school.
Many of them are fresh out of school themselves. Our ambassadors have different sexualities and gender identities. They come from rural and urban areas across the UK. Some were raised in other countries. We have ambassadors with brilliant experiences of being LGBT+, and ambassadors who feel they can never come out to their families and communities. Our ambassadors are diverse, but in nearly every case they are motivated by the same desire to be the heroes they themselves wanted to see.
Why is it so special that our ambassadors are LGBT+?
They know the important things LGBT+ and non-LGBT+ kids should know. In training, Just Like Us ambassadors identify the key things they’d wish they’d known and that their classmates had known about LGBT+ people. For example, one of our Christian ambassadors wished she knew that she could have joined a more inclusive church. They build these messages into their talks.
They can make you understand like no one else can. Our ambassadors can make you understand the uncertainty of figuring out you’re LGBT+, the mistrust of people who show subtle prejudice, the pain of being excluded and the joy of being accepted - in a way that no one else can. Our ambassadors’ honesty moves kids and teachers to action.
They have power here, when LGBT+ people often don’t. Many LGBT+ people have felt shame and have had to keep secrets. LGBT+ people are often pressured to stay invisible and feel more exposed to violence and discrimination - this can make us feel powerless. Our LGBT+ ambassadors choose to join an organisation where their identities actually give them unique power to inspire others. Our ambassadors use their identities to give a hand up to younger LGBT+ people.
And there’s more we need to do:
We need more role models with even more diverse identities. If you’re a disabled LGBT+ person, a BME LGBT+ person, an LGBT+ person from a faith background and/or a working class LGBT+ person, you’ll know that it’s even rarer to see people like you in the world. I’ll be working to diversify our ambassadors, so that even more school kids see themselves in us.
Would-be ambassadors worry they’ll be ‘outed’. You need courage to be an ambassador - they often start their talks by announcing that they’re LGBT+. I worry that we miss a huge group of would-be ambassadors who think it’s too risky volunteering in schools in case word gets out to their friends and relatives. We never make the names or images of ambassadors public without their permission, and often ambassadors volunteer away from their hometowns - this makes it safer. But we need the voices of more people who can’t come out to everyone. I’ll be working on ways to give these people the discretion they need to tell their stories.
Keep young LGBT+ people at the heart of our work. Time moves quickly. As a teen, ‘The L Word’ was how I saw LGBT+ people like me. Since joining Just Like Us, I’ve learned about so many LGBT+ YouTubers who are making life better for young people. If we keep consulting young people directly, we can keep making a difference to them. I’ll be working to give young people a role in steering us.
As a sixth former I painted this Barack Obama quote across my bedroom wall: “We are the ones we’ve been waiting for.” Ten years later, this spirit runs through the veins of everyone I work with. It’s a privilege to be a part of Just Like Us.
Taz Rasul is JLU's Director of Programmes.