Cath Hall MBE tells DIVA all about her journey to becoming one of the UK’s most influential activists for queer youth
WORDS BY BEX SHORUNKE, ILLUSTRATION BY JESSICA SHARVILLE
In the spirit of International Women’s Day, we took the opportunity to spotlight one of the country’s most instrumental straight ally activists for LGBTQI rights – Cath Hall MBE. Her grassroots activism in the eighties saw her successfully campaign for the right to safer homes and happier futures for queer young people across the country.
What began as a youth group run by mothers in Manchester has blossomed into akt; a queer youth homelessness charity based in Manchester, London, Newcastle and now Bristol, that recently celebrated 30 years of service. We wanted to trace the beginnings of akt and Cath’s journey along with it. We caught up with her to hear about the greatest hurdles she faced in setting up a support group for the LGBTQI community in arguably the peak of homophobia, the future of akt and being awarded an MBE.
How have you found lockdown? What have you been doing with the time?
I haven’t been doing a lot to be honest. I’m in Manchester – home to many inventions and fantastic Victorian buildings and my home – and my son and I have been baking pies, bread and redecorating and lots of online shopping – the excitement of a parcel arriving is such a buzz now!
When did you realise LGBTQI youth homelessness was an issue?
In the eighties, my son came out to me when he was 13. I took him to the local youth group to help him connect with other young people. I joined the mothers who were running the group and started to meet more and more young people. Many were LGBT and had been thrown out of their homes with their belongings in bin bags after coming out to their parents during a big row. I felt something needed to be done.
How did the idea of akt come about?
After the government announced Section 28 there was a terrific vibe in the gay community – everybody had come out to campaign and the town hall was jam packed. We had dentists, doctors, plumbers, solicitors every conceivable type of person down in the town hall discussing how we were going to protest against this government bill. Some people brought their children along too. Myself and the two other mothers had set up a parents group – alongside the youth group – and we would go to these meetings and represent the needs of vulnerable LGBT young people. I booked a meeting slot at the town hall then wrote a letter to Out Northwest magazine with details of the meeting. Quite a number of people turned up. I told them about the issue of LGBT youth homelessness, and the fact that as a teacher and a parent I could understand different perspectives – I had to do a bit of convincing! People did come forward however and we formed a committee.
What were the next steps you took to form akt?
We set up a house/flat that was emergency accommodation for the young people – but we had no funds. We were aware of young people that were in care in unsuitable circumstances with staff that were not trained in supporting LGBTQ+ needs – they couldn’t protect them from harm. So, we decided to recruit LGBTQ+ people who had a spare bedroom and could serve as an example for the young people. These were people who were confident in their lifestyle and identity – we initially called them Big Brothers and Big Sisters.
What was the greatest challenge you faced at the time of setting up akt?
The financial side of things. Initially volunteers took young people in their homes without any payments to cover costs. After a while however, we started getting referrals from social services and they paid for the young people’s stay. We then got donations from private donors include £1,000 from a famous somebody…
How do you think the LGBTQ+ community has changed over the last thirty years?
It’s changed enormously. Social attitudes towards being LGBT are now a lot more accepting and progressive than the eighties. Although we thought akt would definitely be redundant by now – we imagined we’d be needed for a few years since launching- but the amount of young people reaching out to us every day is evident there is still enormous need.
What have been your major highlights for akt over the past thirty years?
Finding our feet as a well-recognised and respected charity by other charities and children’s services. We are a trailblazer in our area and are invited to train and talk to other organisations about the support we offer.
In 2015 I was awarded an MBE for the trust. In a way, that’s the establishment giving its highest recognition. Prince William came to open the new offices in London – that’s another highlight. Ultimately these are just symbols of how we’ve gone from a pariah thirty years ago to a well-regarded organisation. That’s all due to the wonderful staff, trustees, board members and patrons.
In your mind, what does the future of akt look like?
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 possibility is endless. We can reach out to young people across the whole world and they get in contact with us too. Tim has been to countries such as Albania to educate people on what we do and help set up safe houses. He’s visited the big gay communities in the USA – they didn’t have anything like akt. Because of technology we can offer meetings and counselling sessions to many people. The influence akt now has is totally unrecognisable to the small thing we started in 1989.
Head over to the akt website and find out more about the incredible work they do HERE.
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