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Stonewall's Youth Volunteering Programme has been a huge part of my life for the last six months. The Programme is all about helping young people campaign against homophobia in schools and colleges, and when I heard about the opportunity to do something about that situation I jumped at it.
Since the age of nine, I was bullied at school for being a lesbian - but it wasn't until I was 16 that I realised I was gay and came out. At nine, I didn't even know what a lesbian was! When I learned what it meant to be gay I fought against it - the bullies had made it sound so bad I had the naïve thought that if being a lesbian is wrong I couldn't be one because I'm not a bad person.
It's taken me six years to realise that the bullying I experienced in school had a severe effect on the age I was when I finally realised that it was ok for me to be who I really am. Sadly, all this happened after school had finished. For lots of gay young people, the problem's still there - University of Cambridge research for Stonewall shows over half of gay young people are homophobically bullied at school, in many different ways. Some experience violence, some get called names, and almost all hear the word 'gay' used to mean 'rubbish'.
Since coming out I've been lucky. My friends didn't disown me, as I'd feared, and my family - though this took a while - are completely supportive, and proactive in working towards gay equality. On top of all that, I've made a whole bunch of new and interesting friends. It was these friends, the LGB&T friends, who helped me realise homophobia in schools is rife, damaging and still on-going.
Not only did Stonewall's Youth Volunteering Programme rather handily tie in well with my current studies (I'm doing social studies at the University of Bradford), but it gave me a chance to do something I'd wanted to do for a long, long time - to make a difference to gay young people. The Programme includes a residential phase with campaign staff from Stonewall and volunteers from Lloyds Banking Group, who support the Programme.
I met some amazing people at the residential, and by the end of the weekend I felt so inspired and supported, I couldn't wait to get in touch with my old secondary school and ask to deliver workshops to their students. And it was amazing. I said goodbye to a lot of demons that week, and hopefully it wasn't just me that benefited - I really hope the young people I spoke to will be the change we see in the future.
Campaigning against homophobia has helped me a lot personally, as well as academically, and the opportunity has helped me realise we can all make a difference, big or small. The courage shown by every young volunteer I've met recently has been heart-warming. They've been speaking out against homophobia, challenging anti-gay language and behaviour, and being the change for the next generation. I'm so proud to have been involved in something so amazing, and to see so many young people get something positive out of it.
Becoming Stonewall's Young Campaigner of the Year was never my mission. My mission was simply to give kids a better life than mine and those of lots of other LGB&T young people. I know we're getting there, but until we are there I know I won't stop the fight for equality - and I'm sure all my new friends won't either.
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