It’s 8.55 am and I’m in a school hall in South East London. The last time I saw the inside of an assembly was 1989 and although the hairstyles have evolved, the energy in the room is instantly recognisable. I’m accompanying Deena Gornick, one of our Ambassadors, on her first school role model visit and she’s here to talk to a group of fifteen year olds about what it means to be authentic.
The Ambassadors is Stonewall’s Major Giving programme. It’s made up of a group of special supporters leading the way in changing the world for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people (LGBT). It’s easy for that to sound glib, but at Stonewall we believe that individuals make change happen. Deena is an Executive Coach by profession and a consummate story teller, so when she tells the room about her journey to fully accept herself as a lesbian, people listen. They don’t just listen because she is funny and poignant. They listen because love and tolerance are universal themes and, LGBT or not, everyone is on this journey.
Later, there’s a Q&A and I’m amazed by the show of hands. ‘I don’t mean to be intrusive’, asks one boy coyly, ‘but how many people have you been out with?’ Another wants to know what she thinks of Sodom and Gomorrah and is heckled by the room. The questions keep on coming, but at Stonewall we know the biggest impact can sometimes be on the person at the back who’s quietly taking it all in. They might be struggling with their sexuality and needing someone to step up and be a role model. Seeing Deena might make them braver and more aspirational because the power of the role model is in their ability to shine a light on what is possible by telling their story.
Role models are key to Stonewall’s ethos and when creating inclusive environments for LGBT people at school, at work and in their communities, they play a critical role. When I was at school during the days of Section 28, there were no visible LGBT people and certainly few allies standing up for them. Many of our Ambassadors are of a similar age and remember only too well this cloak of invisibility and how it eroded their sense of self. As the first generation of LGBT people who are free to live, love and influence as key opinion formers, they are a powerful force for good. I believe as a fundraiser I have a responsibility to engage them in our work.
Being a Stonewall Ambassador isn’t just about making a financial contribution, although as an organisation that has never accepted core government funding and relies entirely on donations, the money is gratefully received. As well as investors, we want our donors to be - if they chose to be - active participants in our goal of achieving acceptance without exception for LGBT people at home and abroad.
We run a series of Empowerment Programmes for LGBT people and Allies which enable the participants to connect with and influence others to challenge homophobic, biphobic and transphobic bullying. Sometimes this is through a school role model visit like Deena’s. Or it might be by bringing together a group of young LGBT people just starting out in their careers and exploring what it means to be a leader.
Giving our Ambassadors a platform to use their skills is hugely rewarding for everyone, and not just the recipients. When the teacher tells me she’s been moved or I see the girls are still posing questions after the session is over, I know it’s been a successful morning. When Deena writes later to say she’s had one of the most inspiring days of her life, I really feel I’ve done my job well.
It’s no secret the most loyal donors are those who are actively engaged in a way that is meaningful to them. At Stonewall we want all our Ambassadors to be leading lights for acceptance without exception.