My gay childhood presented one parody event after another. Unlike most 21st century kids who leaned to view porn on trusty Internet Explorer and delete their browsing history afterwards, I decided it would be a good practice to stockpile a treasure trove of home-printed A4 sheets featuring Bebo-found hunks and Play.com-ordered gay porn DVDs under my bed. It may come as no surprise to you that this was discovered later on by my family.

In hindsight, this awkward occurrence proved a blessing and a curse. A blessing in the sense that, from then on, I was able to get the tearful “coming out speech” over with, and finally begin to accept my sexuality and understand that everything was ‘OK’ with me – being different was ‘OK’!

Oh, and if you were wondering, of course the curse was knowing that my mum had seen all my wanking material.

Not everyone gets that chance to ‘come out’ with a bang like I did. Many kids live in secrecy for a long time when it comes to their sexuality, many often carrying this heavy falsity well into adulthood. I for one was fortunate that I had the support of a gay youth group in my time of crisis.

‘A gay youth group’, I hear you say? Yes, they do really exist, and they accomplish some incredibly powerful work in transforming young people’s lives. As someone who’s been not only on the receiving end of support, but as a former support assistant myself, I’m a major believer in the vital work gay youth groups achieve for our LGBTQ community.

Every Thursday at the age of 16, I would lie to my mum and say that I was off to choir practice (oh, the irony!), but instead trek into town to congregate with a group of twenty or so fellow local LGBTQ youths as part of a group called 2BU Somerset. It was a diverse group of welcoming individuals from all walks of life – girls and boys, gay and trans, posh and poor. This was the first time I had even knowingly met ANY other gay people in my life. The group also marked the first time my boarding schooled-self had ever encountered a woman with shorter hair and lower hanging jeans than me before – it was marvelous!

As diverse as we were physically and socially, none of that actually mattered. What it came down to was the fact we all arrived wielding our own unique upbringing baggage and needs. The youth group gave us a safe space to be ourselves, interact with others experiencing the same life landmarks, and learn about the things school wouldn’t and didn’t teach us– the fundamental matters such as sexual health, relationships and learning how to live safely as an LGBTQ young person. These are teachings we continue to be robbed of in mainstream education.

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You may be asking, but why is LGBTQ-specific education so important? To explain, let me tell you a little story about a 16-year-old boy who went to go meet a stranger off a dodgy old website called FaceParty. I’ll give you a clue… that boy was me.

One faithful winter’s morning, I waited outside a train station in Somerset – my whole body jittering with nerves, as I replayed scenarios in my head about who was about to turn up. ‘Why have I decided to meet a mysterious guy off a shameless and unsuccessful rip-off of Facebook,’ I thought to myself. I released a sigh of relief as he made his arrival: to my delight he was not a fifty-something balding social recluse coming to abduct me, rather, the handsome sixth form student I envisaged from his profile. From there, he took me under his wing and helped me with ‘coming out’. One could say a true-life guardian angel; he introduced me to the gay youth group that has taught me so much. I was lucky that it was him I met and not someone else purely looking to take advantage of me – my risk had paid off on that occasion.

I say this to highlight that an online rendezvous can often take a darker turn. Sadly, there are alarming people out there willing to take advantage of young teens keen to meet other gay people for this first time. Let’s take the tragic murder of 14-year-old Breck Bednar for example: In 2014, the young Essex teenage was groomed online by 19-year-old Lewis Daynes. Having secretly travelled to the Daynes’ house, he was killed in a brutal sexually-motivated attack.

The rise of dating apps has made the issue of LGBT youth safety ever-more pertinent. Gay youth groups educate LGBTQ young people on these issues, helping to keep young LGBTQers safe, and even in some cases, alive full stop. It doesn’t always take a psychopathic stranger off Manroulette to end an LGBTQ life: Self-harm and suicide rates among LGBTQ adolescents are still through the roof, despite all the talk of how things have improved in 2016.

In fact, Stonewall released shocking figures earlier this year revealing that 41% of LGB youths in education have attempted or thought about taking their own life, directly because of bullying – a shocking 59% of trans youths had also deliberately hurt themselves. And, here’s some more: the local South-West ‘Coming Out Survey’ conducted by the very youth group I attended as a teen, 2BU Somerset, revealed that an alarming 76% of their members had self-harmed and a further 47% had attempted suicide.

Plain and simply put, these groups save lives.

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So, I’m guessing you can imagine how fatal the impact would be on our LGBTQ community if these youth support networks were to lose funding from our local government and vanish, right?

Actually… this is exactly what’s happened to so many youth groups across the UK over years passed, and I tell you with deep sadness, this is what my much-loved group is currently facing right now.

In a bid to retain their funding, the teenage members of 2BU Somerset have taken matters into their own hands and started an online petition to fight for the small sum of money needed to keep their safe space. The online petition has seen the support of almost 1000 individuals already. We need to stick together as an LGBTQ community. Is it not the right of every young LGBTQ person to grow up in a society that they can feel safe and accepted?

I urge everyone – especially those who are out and proud today, reminiscing a time they once faced the ordeal and rejection of ‘coming out’ – to please support in keeping this youth group, and other support networks like it, alive.

Sign the Change petition to keep Somerset LGBT+ Youth Service 2BU alive and funded here.

George Palmer is a Brighton-based writer and singer. You can follow him on Twitter @george_palms.

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