Transcript

This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity

Thomas Hamilton: Rainbow Youth is a queer youth organization that has been running for 21 years. It's based in the Auckland region at 281 K Road, where its current drop-in center is. It gives education throughout the greater Auckland area to high schools and universities and organizations. It offers teacher training. It is run by youth for youth.

There is a board of 10 young people under 27; all of the members are under 27 and they vote for that board. Some of those members are also volunteers and they facilitate groups. We have nine groups currently. Two of those groups are just about to start. And some of those groups are regional, and some of those groups are based in the center.

And it also is involved in advocacy, giving information to young people.

It has three staff members, a full-time executive director, a full-time educator, and a part-time administrator. And we're the only organization in the country, currently, that's a queer youth organization that has a salaried educator that goes into schools.

Hannah Ho: And what sort of young people do you get coming into the center?

Sam Shore: It's hugely diverse. I wouldn't say there was a specific type of young people. We get all sorts of people coming in for all sorts of different reasons, whether it's to find out educational stuff or just coming in and hang out, and we have lots of different resources here like the Internet, and book and movie libraries. A lot of young people just come in and hang out because they think it's just a really cool space. But yeah, it's really varied. I couldn't really say that it was more one than the other, if that makes sense.

Hannah: But mostly queer?

[laughter]

Sam: Yeah, yeah, mostly queer. We get a few people who come in and possibly aren't queer, but they'll be looking for information. They might be doing a study or just want to get a bit more savvy to what's going on. But predominantly queer.

Hannah: So you both work in the office and you must be fairly flexible about people coming in and talking to you when you're working, and that kind of thing?

Thomas: That's an interesting topic, isn't it? We have a very unique work and office culture. Sometimes the staffer can't quite tell if they're actually queer youth who are actually part of the center or if they're staff members. They can be just as quirky and upbeat as our members.

No, I guess as staff members we have young people who just walk right through the front door. If there's no one in here to talk to they just come straight into the office and they seek out whomever they please, on that day, to talk to. Usually it's not me. I'm the executive director and so I'm the oldest in the room. I guess that gives me the almighty, wise, old-person look that's just not cool. They usually ask if Sam...

Hannah: It's the glasses. I think it's the glasses.

Thomas: Yeah, yeah, it's the glasses and the gray hair. But if Sam or Priscilla aren't there, they'll ask after them. You know: Oh, where's Sam today? And I'll go: I don't know. I don't know where Sam is today.

Usually, just because I just love how they actually have so much ownership of their space, that we are granted the right to work in it, you know? This is literally their space, and if they need something they basically come in and tell us. So, an example would be on Tuesday we had probably five people in the office, and they came in saying, "Tommy, we want to change the office around. This place is a mess."

I was like, okay, and we gave them jobs. And originally they were a bit upset because they didn't like the poster being up in the window as long as it had been, that's in the window at the moment. So, I did explain to them that that would change shortly, and would they like to clean out the back area? And they basically cleaned out the center and were really helpful, so I guess as employees we kind of had to facilitate that.

Hannah: Have you done anything to make them feel that this is really their place or do you think it's just happened?

Sam: I'm one of the newer additions to Rainbow Youth, but from what I have seen I think that it's such an open space; like, it's such a cool space because people can just come in here and they can hang out and there is such a sense of community. And particularly when you see new people coming in and the other members that are already here are always welcoming and always talk, and I think, more than anything else, I get the feeling that it's the young people that give the other young people that sense of ownership and that sense of community, and really push that it is their space, which is really cool.

Hannah: And how did you come to be working here? Have you always done community work?

Sam: I've done a little bit of it in the past, but pretty much I saw they were advertising for a position, and I harassed Tommy mercilessly. [laughs]

Hannah: So harassment works quite well?

Sam: Yes, until he employed me.

[laughter]

Hannah: And have you always done youth work or queer work?

Thomas: Yeah.

Hannah: Who did you harass for a job?

Thomas: The Board. Actually, if you ever go for a job at Rainbow Youth, I'll tell you what: going and meeting the Board when you're over 27 is really kind of... You have to be quite staunch, you know? I got the job. I applied and I was convinced by friends and peers in the community.

I did a lot of work in the queer community with trans youth, and I've worked with trans youth for years and years and years, which involves queer youth work, as well. But it's all voluntary. I'd never had a paid job, so it was quite a weird experience to get paid to do this sort of work. It's a real privilege, you know? You sort of think, wow, I've got the greatest job in the universe because it's such a powerful environment.

And I applied for the job and I got it, thankfully. The Board hired me through the regular process you go through with employment. There's no hazing or you don't have to dress in chicken suits or anything like that; you just kind of apply for a job like normal, and you get it.

And yes, I was part of the process of employing somebody like Sam, and it's really hard to find people that really understand the community so well. With Rainbow Youth we work really hard to ensure that the culture of the organization isn't run by staff, it's run by the members. And we're a human service, so we take every single approach in a human way, so sometimes our process can be really kind of jumbled looking or chaotic, but it means that we're doing things that young people want to do.

Hannah: Anything in particular that you do that would be really different from other places that are staff run and staff focused rather than community or membership focused?

Thomas: Yeah, the way that the groups run. The staff don't have a lot to do. Like, the Facebook page, for instance, is run by facilitators and is run by volunteers.

Hannah: And so the facilitators are the young people, they're not yourselves?

Thomas: Yeah, the facilitators are all the young people, and the Board is all under 27. The whole model is – and I think this has been studied in the past, because the organization's been around for 21 years – every single project goes to the members, so members can be involved on any level they want. And the strategizing of the organization all comes from feedback from the Board that is feedback from the groups. And research we do is aimed at young people, and part of our values and the mission and vision of the organization is what used to be called "youth participation," but we just say it's youth perspective or youth point-of-view. That's young people doing stuff, to be blunt.

Hannah: Why do you think Rainbow Youth is important?

Sam: Oh, there are so many reasons it's important: educating, not just young people, I mean educating everyone.

Hannah: So even with Law Reform and civil unions there's still a need and there's still homophobia?

Sam: Oh yeah! Hugely. I mean, particularly in small-town New Zealand. We have a lot of young people ride in that are not from Auckland or Wellington or not from places where, I guess, education or support is as accessible as it is in the main centers. And for them to be able to have a place that they see that they can go to where they can get this, it's so important. There is a lot of homophobia out there, still, and there is a lot of work that we have to do.

And also providing a safe space, and a space for one of the most important things, peer support; so a place for young people to come together, meet other young people that they can share experiences with and they can relate to. That's something that I don't think happens in schools as much, and I think this is quite unique. Yeah, so quite an amazing thing.

Hannah: Do you know how it all got started? I suppose it started small and now you've got three salaried staff and actual premises that are solid and won't go away.

Thomas: We pray to the universe. As solid as any other community group, yes, in these times of hard-to-find money.

The way it started was a group called Auckland Lesbian and Gay Youth, called ALGY.

Hannah: Oh, lovely!

[laughter]

Thomas: No, I think it was quite edgy for its time. And ALGY was from the university crowd, so it's probably what is today UniQ. And ALGY formed – I think it was '85 or '86 or something like that.

And then in '89 they changed the name to give it more of a... I think they were looking at youth issues in general, and it started to be Rainbow Youth. Then Rainbow Youth started employing a part-time youth coordinator, and it went through a number of phases where there was a house – there used to be a Rainbow Youth house because big issues back then were homelessness. Not that they're not now, but there was funding for things like homelessness, suicide. And the house ended up not working out.

Lots of people over the last 21 years have done a lot for Rainbow Youth to get to where it is today, in the community. So yeah, I think it was 1989 it changed to Rainbow Youth, and they actually became an incorporated society and got a constitution and all that jazz.

Hannah: What would be some of the funnest parts about your job?

Thomas: My job?

Hannah: Yeah.

Thomas: The funnest parts are playing Wii. Wii is the computer game, the TV game, just to clarify. I'm very competitive, so sometimes if a bunch of people come in that aren't so comfortable, you know, a good game of Wii will get them going, like a good game of competitive tennis or bowling. And I remember when I first started, one of the members left because they were moving house. They left their Guitar Hero here, so I remember I used to hide on the beanbags behind the couch and play Guitar Hero after dark when no one else was in here. I'm just kidding.

Interacting with young people is my favorite thing. It doesn't matter what I'm doing. Sometimes, occasionally, I'll turn up at a group and share some information. I don't turn up at groups often, but it's them coming in and saying things like: Tommy! I've got an A+ on my assignment! And it's a young person who, when I first met them was shriveled up like a little pebble and wouldn't even talk, you know? And they'd sit on the couch and I'd be talking at them for about 20 minutes, and now they come running in and tell me that they've got an A+ on an assignment and that they're getting on with their lives. They're really amazing people, and they just needed that moment to say to somebody: Hey, what do I do?

And another part of it I really like is getting out into the community and getting organizations that started the queer organization sector to understand what the hell was happening for us, and to get us involved with Youth Line, Youth Town. That stuff's really exciting for me – getting young people who aren't queer understanding what it is and [that] it's no different to them. That's kind of exciting.

And also, we have a culture here which is so diverse and so interesting. We have problems, like everyone else, in gathering that diverse structure, but I think we have a real commitment to building that so it's sustainable and so that we continue the nature of a diverse culture in here.

Hannah: Apart from funding, what would be some of the big challenges facing Rainbow Youth, and also the queer youth groups and sectors and that kind of thing?

Thomas: Homophobia in schools, safety in schools is a huge challenge. Just getting schools to recognize that homophobia is a form of bullying, that it is prevalent and it is affecting students to the point where they're harming themselves: self harm, suicide, drug abuse, alcohol abuse, homelessness. And it's so subtle.

Making education around sexuality and gender identity compulsory in schools. If we didn't have to teach it, that education, if all we were doing was giving resources to the schools or getting involved on subcommittees in Parliament, getting other queer youth organizations involved in subcommittees in Parliament, to make sure that that was part of the health curriculum, that that was actually a behavior that was not just about sexuality and not just about gender identity or about sex and how people have sex, which is actually talking about relationships and how people relate to each other, if that became part of the curriculum, that would make homophobia disappear, you know?

It would be easier for kids to go to counselors and say: Hey, someone's being a bully and throwing pies at me. Or: I have to leave this school because I'm in a relationship with someone and their parents are saying we can't have that relationship, so I don't get my education. That's affecting a whole person's life, not just the school. So, recognizing our young people's needs in those schools is a key element of that, and one of those things is sexuality and gender identity being part of that curriculum.

Issues around young people and homelessness still occur, and drug and alcohol use is so prevalent in our community at such a young age, we need the government to help visibility around our community. We need young people being seen as same-sex attracted people, or trans youth being seen as the identity they prefer, and we need government support to help achieve that. We are a minority within the community, and I think sometimes it's been shelved a little bit.

Statistics and research is really important. We need research on our youth, and that research needs to be aimed at them, for them, not about them.

And we need a national body for the queer youth in general. Queer youth ourselves have been talking about it. Rainbow Youth has done some research, which we're finalizing at the moment, the recommendations to begin that process, but we need a queer youth network that's relevant to those young people now.

And basically I hope that in five years time we have regular funding from people like Ministry of Youth Development and Ministry of Social Development to actually get some of these things up and running, and that we don't have to scrimp and save just to be able to get our educator into schools, that there are educators in all our youth groups, that there's a position available in every region for a Sexuality and Gender Identity Educator, because it is compulsory in schools to have that topic.

So, it's hard to say what the other issues are outside of funding, because so many of these issues require funding, but we're working in many ways and we're being very creative to combat these issues: the You, Me, Us campaign, which looks at healthy relationships; strength-based approaches, we're following the youth strategy and including youth voices in as many of our projects as we can that are from the broader community. We have a GLBT drug and alcohol network working group in Auckland that is pulling together resources between the organizations to talk about these issues, raise awareness of these issues in the community. But we can only do so much until it starts to become the need for a campaign.

Hannah: So, what are some fun parts about your job, Sam? Do you also hide behind the beanbags and the couch and play Guitar Hero?

Sam: No, I haven't played Guitar Hero yet. I think, like Tommy, being able to chat and hang out with young people makes me feel younger. No, it's really cool.

Hannah: It doesn't make you feel older? If that happens to me I'm like, what? What does that word mean?

[laughter]

Sam: We were out here the other day just talking. You get to have these amazing conversations, which is just really cool, and you get to see people come out of their shell as they get to know you and as they get more comfortable within the center, and it's so awesome; it's so cool!

And I really enjoy, in a really sick kind of way, getting to do all the stats and stuff. [laughs] I know! I know!

Hannah: Oh, you should see someone about that.

Sam: I know, but I sort of get this weird kick from being able to help put together resources and look at making Rainbow Youth sustainable. And there are so many awesome things that are happening here, and being able to be part of that and seeing that we're implementing these processes that last, I get very excited.

And also I occasionally get to go out with Priscilla to be involved in her education sessions, and they're amazing. They're so cool, and it's so much fun to just be in a room full of 14 or 15 year olds and watch this collective light bulb go off in their heads. Like, you can see it in this group of people when they realize what homophobia is or what's going on or how they can make a change, and that they need to. And that's so awesome, yeah. So, there's a lot of cool things about being here.

Hannah: You mentioned, or someone mentioned, there are nine groups that run?

Thomas: Yeah. The groups are:

ID for over 18's, and that's in the center.

GQ for under 18's, and that's based in the center.

And Gender IQ, which is a gender identity group.

Those three groups that are based in the center tend to be centralized and tend to have lots of people from the different regional groups meeting as well. They come to these groups.

The regional groups include: Out and About, which is in East Auckland; Out West, which is in West Auckland; and Queer4Sure, which is in the North Shore.

And then we have activity groups which are like Queermation, which is a bunch of people that meet and watch animation that's queer, and they'll be going to Armageddon this year and joining Youth Line at the table. So they're involved in the outside community as well. It's one way we get our word out.

The other group is Go Active, which is kind of basically like the ID group, wanted to do something out of their support group meeting because activities and a support group don't really match, so they do things like go laser tag, 10-pin bowling, picnics, and all sorts of weird stuff, but they do that in different times, you know?

And then another group would be a women's focus group, which they haven't figured out their name yet, but the whole idea there was that at times the gender of people turning up to groups can fluctuate, so it can ebb and flow between male-identified and female-identified, and at one point ID, the over 18 group, was becoming very male dominated. So, we thought to help create a bit of safety and make the younger women feel comfortable about coming back into the center, we will have a girl focus group so at times when that happens we don't lose that female energy from the organization. So that's exciting.

And I think that's all of the groups, but groups can appear out of the blue. Groups are devised by young people. We don't think of them. The young people say what they want and they develop the group, and they have posters, they have their Facebook page. Every group has a Facebook group on it and they have members who join that, so there's this whole social media sort of realm to the groups, as well as the actual, live group. And then it's all been put onto Curious.org.nz, which is the national hub for queer youth website. And then they've got their posters and they just liaise with me, or the facilitators of the groups telling me what they want to do and what they need.

And the groups that meet regionally tend to meet in cafes, so they tend to be smaller and just conversational based, so that's why we maintain lots of... the groups that meet at the center, there can be up to 30 to 40 people attend that group in the larger groups. And some of the members will attend three or four groups, so they're busy. They have a busy social schedule so there's a lot of communication required. [laughs] A very vibrant part of the organization.

Hannah: The kinds of queer communities are really, really diverse, and sometimes there can be tensions, I guess, between gay men and lesbian women, or cis queer people and trans people. Are those tensions ever apparent with the young people here, or is that just an older person thing? And if there are, how are those tensions dealt with? Do you see that at all?

Thomas: Yes. We see that in the sense that people are coming to our center who are younger, and they might not have explored or understood any of those issues. They might not identify as lesbian or gay; they might be bisexual. They might have questions around their religious beliefs. All these things get discussed within the groups, and you'll hear them having vibrant, energetic debates out here. And you'll hear the trans youth, for instance, who are involved in the wider groups, they'll tell other young people that they're being trans phobic. And in the discussions between the lesbian and gay male cultures you'll hear statements that are the young gay males putting down the lesbians, because it's something that happens, and the other younger women will be like: Shut up. That's not cool.

And if we're in the office at times, we don't let young people come in here flouting about how they've been out the night before and got really wasted, or if they say something offensive and nobody else is saying anything, we stand up and say: Hey, you know, that's kind of offensive. Not in a bullyish way, not in a mean way, but we're just really clear that you talk with respect in this space, and the way we maintain that is, in this space here everyone must respect each other. Any group time, everyone must respect each other.

If there's a problem and somebody's being homophobic and a facilitator can't deal with it or the group can't deal with it themselves, they can come to me and they can come to a staff member, and then we will, in a really nice way, take them away from the group and say: Look, what you're saying isn't really nice, and you might make someone feel sad. And usually that's fine.

The other issue that can come up, though, that's probably more of a problem is people in relationships within the groups. So our facilitators are trained to deal with that.

Hannah: And for the large part there seems to be a culture where they'll just kind of converse, and that's where a lot of understanding comes from?

Sam: Yeah. And sort of linked into that in the previous question, there are events and things that happen sometimes, like we had, not that long ago, the Intergenerational Forum at the Charlotte Museum, which was so awesome because it wasn't just that there were these two sort of parallel age groups, but there were all these different people: lesbians and gay guys and trans and all these people coming together for one purpose instead of splitting up into little groups. Everyone was talking, everyone was sharing their ideas, and everyone was feeding into this one thing. And it was so cool because everyone brought a different strength and a different idea and it was such a great day! And so there are things like that that happen where people do get to come together and they do get exposure to one another's thoughts and opinions, and you get to sort of see the strength that comes out of that. So there's really cool things like that that happen as well.

Hannah: What were some of the big things that came out of that that younger people could take away or older people could have taken away from that shared space?

Sam: I think that probably one of the things that came out was the need to communicate and talk. I think that's probably something that, personally, I think has waned a bit.

Hannah: Across age or across diverse kinds of groups?

Sam: I think both. I mean, it was really highlighted, because it was an intergenerational thing, between age, but I think that it applies to all areas: that need to communicate where we've come from, our history, to communicate how we feel and how we're affected as we travel through to each other, because I think sometimes we forget that within our community. And that was really awesome to see, and I think it was a bit of a reminder that we are all in it together, and it's really cool what we can achieve together.

Hannah: There's sometimes a bit of a stereotype or an assumption that young people just want to party and they're not really interested in history or they're not interested in the stories of older people. Is that something that you see, or are young people really, really interested and just haven't had a whole lot of opportunities to have yarns?

Sam: That was one of the things that came up and was talked about, and I think there is that generational thing of young people maybe potentially not seeking it as much, but then there was also highlighted the fact that that information wasn't passed down in the same way that it might have been by the generation before. You know, there wasn't that emphasis to really talk about it and to go out and, particularly, something that came up was HIV and AIDS. When that first emerged the people that it really hit hard would go out into the clubs and they would tell the young people to make sure you're.... But, you know, it was really verbal and it was really there and it was really in your face, and that's sort of waned a bit. We've become quite poster and media orientated now, but you lose that effect of actually having someone walk up and be like: Make sure; this is really important! And so I think it was just our verbal language kind of disintegrated a bit, but it's coming back, I think. I think there's an awareness that it needs to be there.

Thomas: And I think from an older person's perspective, I noticed that the older people kind of didn't realize that the younger people still had the same issues, and it was a real check-in for them. Many of those people that were at the Intergenerational Forum came back to the center and they've started integrating into the center. Like, many people in the community felt that Rainbow Youth was just a youth orientated space, and us reaching out to those wider communities has helped them to understand what we actually do in here. Yes, this is their space, but they are really desperate to interact with everyone.

So, at the Intergenerational Forum I saw one of our younger members, for instance, caught up with a very strong, very politically motivated member of our community, and absolutely besotted in wanting to gather the knowledge from them, which is so powerful. And I was really amazed to see that, and I thought, oh, this is something we must nurture for young people. As an organization we must focus on building bridges between the age gaps.

For instance, now we've got a project which we're doing with a couple of our members who are trans, so they're doing vox pop sorts of videos from people within the trans community. So that gives them a chance to interact and work with older people in the trans community. These sorts of things, I think, have come from us doing that project, and it's been a leading example.

I think it also highlighted that in our community we don't support organizations that are building our historical information. So, the Charlotte Museum, for instance, is not supported enough, and I think that was another element where the young people felt that they could be involved in something like that. So, it's very fascinating to see all that come to fruition, and I think the outcome will be really interesting. The great thing will be that at the next Big Day Out, all our young people will go past and go: Oh look, there's the Charlotte Museum. And they'll know what that is. That is a really positive outcome.

Hannah: So, if I am a person who's not just a young queer person, how would I find you – Rainbow Youth? Would I just drop in?

Sam: Well, we have all sorts of different ways. There's the Internet. A lot of people find us [that way]. There's a lot of word-of-mouth. A lot of people, I think particularly after Dancing with the Stars, people saw Rainbow Youth and it became sort of nationally known, and so I think that name's out there now and it's really floating around.

And then we have resources that are out there as well in schools for young people to use.

But I think predominantly most people just Google. We're on the Internet. We've got an awesome website with heaps of information, and that's how a lot of people access us.

Hannah: Or you can just drop in?

Sam: Yeah. Yeah, absolutely! Yeah, that's what the drop-in center's all about, and we do have a lot of people that walk past and just come in and be like: Oh, I need some information on this. Or, I just want to hang out. Or, I need some help with my CV.

Hannah: And that's office hours Monday to Friday?

Sam: Yup. We're open from 10:00 until 6:00 usually.

Hannah: Awesome. Thank you very much, both of you, for having a yarn about Rainbow Youth to us.

Thomas: You're welcome!

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