Recently I had the opportunity to speak to Billijean Summerbell from Developing Initiative Supporting Communities (DISC) LGB and T* services, part of a charity which helps the local North East community, who spoke about the aim of the project and the support offered.
What is your aim with the project?
Our project’s main aim is to empower young people LGB and T* 15 to 25 years to be able to be themselves achieving their potential. We aim to support young people with their gender identity and/or sexual orientation, those whose parents or family members are going through transition, and helping them to feel safe and less isolated.
What support does this area of DISC offer?
Support includes one to one sessions, peer group support meetings, social outings, workshops, and parent support groups. We help those who are in need of advice, guidance and support, and those who would like to feel more socially included.
The term Coming Out refers to the disclosure of your sexual orientation or gender orientation. Advice, information and support around coming to terms with your sexual orientation or gender orientation is given as appropriate. A young person may be at the first stages of coming out; only they know when it’s the right time. Often coming out occurs every time someone LGBTQ+ meets a new person or starts a new job. For example, the first time someone come out usually is the biggest deal and is the time they’re unlikely to forget. Coming out can be extremely challenging but also very liberating.
We are working directly with the young people we support. However, if it helps to support their family around anything which will help them in the future we may be able to support them too. For example, someone might have just come out as trans and their family needs support around access to information – we can help! We also run a parent support group, where parents of trans children can get together and discuss thoughts, feelings, and experiences.
Access to Social Groups
The project runs peer support groups, and someone may want to access some of our social activities. It has been proven that the project enables service users to become more included and feel less lonely. The project enables service users to make social connections and networks. Past activities include glass blowing, canoeing, horse riding, photography projects, and workshops on equality and diversity.
One to One Support
One to one support is very popular and is tailored to the service users needs. The project has access to premises around the North East and can also come to people’s homes, schools or colleges, if this is more comfortable for them. Support around gender and coming out, mental and physical health, family relationships, living situation, education and employment, coping mechanisms, and sexual health can be accessed. Practical support around transitioning is also available. Staff will be happy to accompany service users to appointments or assist them in the process of changing their name. Support from dedicated, trained workers will help service users to feel comfortable and give them the confidence to be themselves!
Training and Awareness
The project delivers training and awareness across a number of organisations including schools and colleges. Workshops, events, seminars and training sessions have taken place at local authorities, primary care trusts, colleges, schools, the voluntary sector, hospitals, police, housing and GP surgeries.
How many people do you support?
We are currently supporting around 170 young people. However, this figure can be much higher if you count the school work and training we do.
Why is the project so pivotal to the LGBT youth community in Durham?
Durham Is built up of mining villages and beautiful countryside surrounding the vibrant University City. As a young person growing up in one of the many mining villages and being gay myself I know what the isolation and fear of coming to terms with been gay was like. I was lucky to be born into a family that would love me no matter who I was and people who would protect me always, so being picked on for being gay just didn’t happen. However, I did keep it inside for a long time and ran away at one point to find out who I was. I remember suffering from really bad depression when I did finally come out as I felt like the world didn’t understand and that people wouldn’t accept me. The service which I received as a young person was horrible, as I was desperate for that understanding yet I was referred to see a councillor in Durham only to be told that it was wrong and for me to pull myself together. These were not the words I wanted to hear.
I didn’t want this to happen to anyone else so when I was ready for work again I volunteered for End House, a smashing little youth project in Durham. I completed my youth work course and accessed a job working for the young gay men’s group which they held on a Tuesday evening. This got me a taste of LGB and T * community work and I set out on my dream of developing a service for LGB and T* service in Durham. Ten years later I have worked with others to develop the service and I am very proud of what we have achieved. We have been commissioned by Durham County Council for 15 to 25 years’ service, and are funded by Children In Need to work with 11 to 14 year olds across the county, along with the North East Gender Identity service. We have 5 staff and 2 volunteers.
What sort of response do you get to the service from the people who use it, and how do they benefit from it?
I can give you many examples from young people, parents, teachers and others, all of which have been so positive. We have an excellent reputation around Durham for delivering support. For example, this is a comment I have just received this week:
“I have wanted to contact you for some time to thank you for your support and advice. Thank you for giving our family the support needed when Claire first disclosed that she was Trans*. I cannot thank you enough for the initial support you gave us. The intervention when we were going through crisis gave us reassurance and confidence and we now have a happy little girl who is excited for life.”
The service works with families of LGBT youth too. What impact does this have on the young people within the family?
Family is really important in most people’s lives as it gives us the stability and love we all need to grow. If you have a family that is struggling with their son or daughter coming out, whether it is sexual orientation or gender identity, it can be a stressful time. Our project works with the family as a whole and has a wealth of experience in using tools such as family therapy to work through hopes and fears. All it generally needs is someone who can advocate and listen to each person’s perspective. We have delivered some excellent interventions in the past and have some lovely case stories to highlight the benefits.
What is the importance of health services for LGBT youth?
We work with investing in children and have recently been involved with the UN rights of a child through consultation. Time and time again the young people just want health professionals to be trained up in LGB and T* issues and be respectful. It is proven that young people will disengage if they aren’t happy with a service. For example, if a young person needs to access the dentist, yet the dentist hasn’t respected a name change or uses the wrong pronouns after having been informed they will disengage. It’s not all bad and there are some excellent examples out there of positive health services, but there is still a long way to go.
Which area of support is accessed the most?
Our Trans* support service is accessed the most. We run weekly drop-ins for 3 hours and they are always really busy. It’s a vibrant group and the Peers Support part of it is amazing. The way a young person can develop in confidence from first accessing the service is very touching. I’ve know people shake with nerves when they first meet someone else who they can identify with and then after a few weeks they are full of chat and energy and it is lovely to see them happy. One to one support is also very popular; sometimes the young people just want a chat to feel understood.
How do you work within the local community in terms of raising awareness in places like schools and colleges?
We are always being asked to go into schools and have drop-ins in the local colleges. We are becoming the first point of contact for anyone who needs support around LGB and T* support and have services ringing for advice. The main groups we work with are CHAMS, schools, social workers and parents.
You’ve worked with the service for a long time, developing it from a small programme. How does it make you feel to see the service flourish in this way?
It’s my passion and I have never lost it in all the years I have been developing the service. At times I sit back and think of all the people who have benefited and I feel really proud. I love attending Pride events as I always have young people from the past coming up to me and telling me how important the service was for them when they were struggling.
How would you like to see the service progress in the years to come?
I am really happy with the way it’s going. However, I would love to see more investment in the future in particular supporting trans* young people, even if it is schools teaching young people from an early age about differences in gender and sexual orientations. I would also love to see Durham as a safe place for “everyone” as there are still a lot of isolated people living in fear of been judged, whether that’s because of disability, image, sexual orientation, race or culture.
What has been the most rewarding thing about working on the LGBT services project with DISC?
I could give you lots of examples, but will stick with something simple. Just to be able to make a difference no matter how small and see the impact that the project can have on someone’s life, whilst being able to work with some passionate people within the team who really do care about their work.
Billijean’s email is firstname.lastname@example.org, should you want to get in touch!