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Staff voices: The Loch Ness Conquer

Introducing our Highlands Youth Worker, Nikki Nathan Darling, whose very personal youth work journey story is our great pleasure to share.

I was 12 when I first came out as a lesbian; no mean feat back in 1998 when Section 28 still prohibited schools from “promoting” my “lifestyle”, as if my sexuality were a prime-time ad slotted between episodes of The Bill. I grew up in Elgin, not far from Inverness, but a whole world away from the gay metropolises of Glasgow and Edinburgh. It was through coming out that I first realised the power of youth work. A youth worker in Elgin, whom I still consider a dear friend, put me in touch with LGBT Youth Scotland.

Only it wasn’t LGBTYS back then. Oh no, this is the dim and distant past, and LGBTYS were still a volunteer-run organisation called Stonewall Youth Project. I remember physically shaking the first time I picked up the phone to chat to someone, I thought I might be sick from nerves. My God those butterflies were fierce. It was Ann Marriott who answered the call and we spoke for over an hour that night. For the first time since I really got to know myself… I didn’t feel alone. LGBTYS only operated in Edinburgh at the time but Ann put me in touch with a pen pal and I was invited to residentials from the age of 14. It was only once or twice a year that I ever saw other LGBTI people, but it changed my life.

Joining LGBTYS as a youth worker was a full circle moment for me. 

When I left school, I always said that my dream job if I couldn’t write and act would be to work for this very organisation. I attended LGBTYS regularly in Edinburgh when I moved there for uni, acting and directing in The Vagina Monologues alongside the very penpal that I had been writing to since that first phonecall to Ann. When I returned to Scotland after 2 years of pursuing my DJ career abroad, I worked a couple of sessional youth work jobs including the precursor to our Inverness Pillar group. When LGBTYS came in to run Pillar, it was completely fitting that Ann was one of the interviewers that day. She was a huge role model for me, inspiring me to be a positive role model for the young people I work with too.

Since I began running Pillar, I have seen us grow from one or two attendees a night to 20+ at our busiest. I rarely sit back and take stock of what we’ve achieved but when I do, I revisit my teenage self and wonder what they would make of this accomplishment. Young people in rural areas, proudly attending an LGBTI youth group, making friends, growing in confidence. Vitally, almost everyone leaves in a better place than when they first joined.

Progress is a word that comes up often when working with young people: we encourage them and support them to attain the goals they set themselves. Another form of progress is the community progress in The Highlands.

I remember, years ago, sending packs of resources to schools and no one responding. I couldn’t even get someone to answer the phone. Parents were fearful of sending their kids to us in case they were bullied for attending. My own folks had the same fears for me. Now, schools are contacting us! Some have attained their LGBT Charter award; parents fear much less about any backlash from their kids engaging openly with an LGBTI service, and local community champions and councillors are singing our praises. Changed days indeed! 

Highland Pride has been the starkest symbol of progress though. When I started working at LGBTYS eight years ago the young people said they would love to have a pride in Inverness but that it would “never happen” as “nobody would come and it wouldn’t be safe.” Highland Pride arrived in 2018 and last year it became the best-attended Pride in Scotland. Wow! Just wow! What an immensely powerful, beautiful, and joyous testament to all that progress and all that pride.

2020 would have made for another spectacular year of progress and pride in The Highlands. Lockdown has undoubtedly impacted upon our ability to progress in the ways we are accustomed. It has also unequivocally impacted upon our young people’s ability to connect with others within their community, with the LGBTI and rural communities being prime examples.

I’m proud to say that LGBTYS have worked hard to keep young people engaged with youth work during the pandemic. We run youth groups on Discord, participate in project work with partners and continue to offer 1:1 support. We are now truly a national organisation and, having powered on in defeating Section 28, winning marriage equality, and seeing some rights of trans people improve, we will power on past this pandemic too. From Edinburgh to Inverness and our local legend who lives in the loch; LGBTYS has conquered. We are all a living story at LGBTYS, youth worker or young person. This is simply mine: The Loch Ness Conquer.

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