HUMAN RIGHTS DAY FEATURE: Teen Pride gets LGBTQI+ teens talking IRL

2018-03-21 13:25
Ansela and Noah Sloman who started Cape Town's Teen Pride (Jenni Evans, News24)

Ansela and Noah Sloman who started Cape Town's Teen Pride (Jenni Evans, News24)

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Cape Town – Shrieking, loud laughter and giggling wafts up from Teen Pride, hosted at Cape Town's famous Book Lounge on the corner of Roeland and Buitenkant streets.

The gathering for teenagers who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transsexual, queer or intersex (LGBTQI+), or are wondering whether they fit somewhere into that acronym, has become a regular event, with the next one planned for this Saturday, March 24.

By the sounds of the excited chatter coming up the wooden steps of the popular book shop, it was more than just a party that went well. 

"Can you believe it? I met someone who reads the same books as me and follows the same YouTubers?" was one comment.

"Aw – everybody was so friendly," was another. 

This is a great feat for teenagers who are often too shy or awkward to speak to people they do not know at a social gathering.

Leaving the isolation of their bedrooms 

Later I learned from the children I had driven there that a WhatsApp group had been started, and photos were being shared. Friendships blossomed, art sketches, memes, favourite songs were shared, the joy that John Green had written another book created much chatter.

Picnics at the beautiful Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden were arranged by small groups who could make it and more in-real-life (IRL – that rare thing for today's teenager) meetings were arranged, with hurried calls between parents for permission and meeting points. 

They even made a Teen Pride flag, threw coloured powder at each other, and marched in the Cape Town Pride gathering in Green Point on March 3.

Through Teen Pride, these children have gone from having a few friends who "get" them, to leaving the isolation of their bedrooms to attend a gathering of like-minded teenagers.

Mervyn Sloman, the owner of the shop, is used to getting calls and emails from parents asking whether it is a safe space.

He allows over-protective parents to go downstairs and check everything out, but just for a few minutes. This is Teen Pride, not Mom Breathing Down Your Neck Pride and it is not for adults.

'We decided to start our own thing'

Some of the comments Sloman and his wife Anneke hear most when parents come to fetch their children are tinged with a little envy.

"Some say they are envious that they did not have something like this when they were teenagers.

"They say that when they were teenagers they felt so completely alone," said Sloman of the pre-Constitution era during which same-sex marriage was not permitted, and the right to not be discriminated against was not entrenched.

But the event is not his idea – it's the brainchild of his teenage children – the fresh-faced and warm Noah and Ansela. 

"I was looking for a space for me to meet other people my age and to be able to relate to other queer kids in real life," said Noah, telling News24 how the idea for Teen Pride came about.

"There's a huge online community, but I didn't know anybody face to face. We couldn't find anything. So we decided to start our own thing."

'Everybody who was there, wanted to be there'

Said Ansela: "We were very open about it, and spoke to our parents about it... and our dad said: 'Why pay for something? You can have it here.'"

They designed and made posters and sent them to schools and put one up at the shop. They told their "super supportive" school guidance counsellor about their idea, and she networked with other school guidance counsellors she knew, and they got the word out even further. 

The last hurdle was a radio interview. After that, with cupcakes, cold drink and books laid out, they waited for the first people to walk through the door for the first event in 2016.

"We were kind of worried that only our friends from school would come," laughed Ansela. "But a lot of people came and everybody was so lovely and friendly. Everybody who was there, wanted to be there."

The teens came from as far afield as Stellenbosch and Somerset West.

"I was quite a shy person, so I had to step out of my comfort zone," adds Ansela, explaining how they did their best to make the awkward teens feel as comfortable as possible.

Freedom of expression, protection from discrimination

Said Noah: "Whenever we saw someone sitting by themselves, we walked up to them, and spoke to them, and found someone we trusted, and introduced them to each other to integrate everybody a bit more."

Their parents are always upstairs and available in case there is a problem, but they have not had to step in yet.

The two do not want parents to be worried, or for the teens to feel uncomfortable.

"It's really just a space where kids can just chat to one another," adds Noah.

And in that little space downstairs, the Bill of Rights comes to life, offering dignity, freedom of expression, and protection from discrimination.

Sloman said that for some children, asking parents to be allowed to attend the event is a way of opening what may be a difficult conversation in some homes, to ease the parents into how their children identify themselves.

Support from 'straight allies'

He said part of him still wants to have his babies "in the crook of his arm", but the other part is proud that they are finding their own way and doing things for themselves.

There have been more Teen Pride events since then, the biggest drawing 60 people, with costs coming out of the teens' own pocket, with the sales of Teen Pride badges contributing to the snacks and drinks.

Not all who attend are LGBTQI+, regarding themselves as "straight allies" instead. This "ally" support plays out at school if somebody is being bullied, or if a friend's parents are not coping with their child coming out.

Their free initiative interlocks with others such as the Triangle Project, which also arranges safe spaces for children in suburbs such as Khayelitsha, and also works to improve tolerance for people who do not identify as straight.

If you want to go to this weekend's Teen Pride, between 17:00 and 20:00 on Saturday, or want to know how to set one up in your town, information can be found on the Book Lounge's website, or the Teen Pride Instagram account teenpridecpt.

Read more on:    cape town  |  youth  |  lgbti rights  |  good news

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