Happy International Women's Day from akt!

Today we’ll be introducing you to some of the incredible women supporting our work and behind-the-scenes at akt. We’ll also be celebrating our wonderful founder Cath.

Banner illustration by Jessica Sharville.

Our founder and straight ally, Cath Hall, seemed like a brilliant woman to champion on International Woman’s Day. So did Kate Williams, Cath’s fellow campaigner who she met at the North West Lesbian and Gay Group, and who helped Cath form what akt is today!

Homophobia, biphobia and transphobia was rife in the eighties. The negative impact this had on LGBTQ+ young people was huge. Young people felt unsupported and unsafe at home. Many were forced to choose between hiding their sexuality and gender identity from their parents or coming out and effectively being kicked out. 

In response to this, Cath Hall transformed a youth group run by mothers into a crisis response charity. One that was able to offer accommodation and mentoring to LGBTQ+ young people facing homelessness. We caught up with Cath – and Kate – to find out about the highs, the lows and future opportunities for supporting LGBTQ+ young people facing homelessness. 

When did you realise LGBTQ+ youth homelessness was a problem?

Cath: It was the eighties in Manchester, and I would take my son – who had come out to me at 13 – to the local youth group. I’d meet young people who were very innocent and vulnerable, who had been living with their parents who were very proud of them. Then, after a big row or coming home late, the young person would come out to their parents and the backlash was terrible. The next day they’d be thrown out of their home with just a bin bag – and there was nothing about this in the media. I knew something had to be done.

What was the next step?

Cath: I booked a slot at the local town hall and wrote a letter to Outnorthwest magazine about a meeting I was holding about the LGBTQ+ community. Quite a number of people turned up, I explained I wanted to set up a big brother / sister scheme (which is now known as the akt host programme) where we could take in LGBTQ+ young people who were homeless and support them. We’d also advocate for their rights. I got a group together and we formed a committee to work out the best way forward.

Kate: Cath had this idea to support young gay men and being a foster parent, she’d also fostered the boyfriend of Albert Kennedy. Albert’s death had a really big backlash in the LGBTQ+ community and inspired action. There were social and cultural factors involved that meant being a gay man was particularly hard to hide. I joined the Board of Trustees and became a carer for akt for ten years and fostered four young people. It was a big learning curve!

What was the biggest challenge you faced setting up akt?

Cath: Definitely the financial side of things. Initially, volunteers took young people into their homes without any payments to cover costs. However, we soon started getting referrals from social services and then they would pay for them. We also got donations from private donors including £1,000 from a famous somebody… 

akt has supported young people for over three decades now, what are some of your highlights?

Cath: Finding our feet as a well-recognised and respected charity by other children’s and young people services. We are a trailblazer in LGBTQ+ youth homelessness and are an authoritative voice on the issue so much so, that we are invited to go and train and teach other organisations.

I was awarded an MBE for my work setting up akt and that’s the establishment giving its highest recognition. Also, Prince William came to visit akt’s Youth Space and meet me, other staff and akt young people, which was another big thing. These are just symbols, but it’s a sign that in thirty years we’ve gone from a pariah to pioneer – all due to the wonderful staff, patrons, trustees and young people.

How do you think the LGBTQ+ community has changed over the past thirty years?

Cath: I was teacher in the nineties, and it was still considered very unusual, with lots of bullying in the workplace, if anyone came out as LGBTQ+. Work colleagues that were straight would talk about husbands, wives and children but those that were LGBTQ+ wouldn’t disclose details of their personal life. It was a very difficult situation and that meant that the community felt they had to keep that part of their life quiet.

I’ve got grandchildren who are in their early twenties and now the younger people are totally different. Social attitudes have changed to an extent and we’ve got people going to the gay village who are much more relaxed about their sexuality or gender identity. Saying that, there are still a vast number of LGBTQ+ young people who are having a very difficult time – hence why akt is still needed.

Kate: We’ve come a long way. We have a lot more equality in laws but homophobic, biphobic and transphobic hate crimes still very much exist. We’re seeing an increase in anti-LGBTQ+ hostility both here and around the world.

In your mind what does the future of akt look like?

Cath: I think technology has completely changed the scope for the future of akt. Thirty years ago, there were no laptops or mobiles, so it was difficult for young people to get in touch - it was mostly done through articles in magazines. Now, the possibilities are endless. 

We can reach out to young people across the whole world and they get in contact with us too. Tim (akt CEO) has been to countries such as Albania to talk to people about the work akt does and help set up safe houses. He’s visited big LGBTQ+ communities in the USA, and they didn’t have anything like akt. Because of technology, we can offer meetings and counselling sessions to so many people.

The influence akt now has is totally unrecognisable to the small thing we started in 1989. 

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