Steve Slack interview: ‘People always ask 'Do we need a charity to support young LGBT+ people now, because everything's alright?' Actually, it isn't’

Enormous strides have been made to protect the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people in the 20 years since the Sheena Amos Youth Trust was founded in Sheffield.

Wednesday, 6th February 2019, 18:07 pm
Updated Thursday, 7th February 2019, 17:06 pm
Steve Slack from SAYiT, a charity for LGBT+ young people. Picture: Dean Atkins

In 2001 the age of consent for gay men was lowered to 16, and two years later clause 28 was repealed, lifting a ban on schools promoting homosexuality as a 'pretended family relationship'. Civil partnerships were approved by Parliament in 2004, while the Gender Recognition Act came into force until the following year.

But Steve Slack, chief executive of the charity now known as SAYiT, is extremely sceptical about the idea that nothing more needs to be done.

Steve Slack from SAYiT, a charity for LGBT+ young people. Picture: Dean Atkins

"One of the questions people always ask is, 'Do we really need a charity to support young LGBT+ people now, because everything's alright?' And actually, if you look at the figures, it isn't alright," he says.

"I think it's probably harder in many ways now than it was a couple of years ago, because everybody says it's alright but they still get bullied at school, they're still not getting sex education lessons generally which includes discussions about different, diverse relationships, they're still getting beaten up and kicked out of their homes... When I was growing up my dad was quite clear, he said 'I'd shoot all queers'. You knew where you stood in some ways. I'm not saying that's good."

Steve has been CEO for almost three years - the role was newly-created when he joined from the NHS, where he was a senior manager in Sheffield's sexual health service. He's in a good mood when we meet at SAYiT's small office on Leadmill Road, as the charity has just had its core income - money from Children In Need, and the Big Lottery Fund - confirmed for the next three years, allowing it to appoint more staff and plan new programmes. 

This is a relief, he says. "In this current climate we're really excited."

Young people from SAYiT on a Sheffield Pride parade.

Sheena Amos was a forward-thinking sexual and reproductive health doctor who set up a youth clinic in Sheffield city centre on Mulberry Street. An organisation was started in her name in 1999, five years after her untimely death from breast cancer - originally it worked with all young people to offer sexual health support but now focuses on the needs of LGBT+ individuals aged 11 to 25 who, the charity has found, are more likely to experience mental health problems, struggle emotionally and contract STIs. Primarily, help is provided through group work or one-to-one sessions, but the charity also visits schools to give training, contribute to lessons and run assemblies to raise awareness.

"People talk about it being quite trendy to be LGBT and it's not - young people, and older people, are still experiencing some of the issues that go along with that," says Steve.

He tells a bleak story of a girl who went to SAYiT having not told her family she was gay. "She became very out here and felt very much herself, very free. She decided to go home and tell her family, and she was beaten up and made homeless. There's increasing evidence of high rates of homelessness among LGBT+ people, which is why the Albert Kennedy Trust exists in Manchester and London. We're hoping to do more work with them."

Schools are under pressure, mental health services are oversubscribed, public health budgets have been cut and the debate about transgender equality - notably, the prospect of upcoming legal reform - has become 'particularly polarised and difficult', Steve says.

"Some of the backlash we and other organisations get is we're trying to make young people into something, or convert them almost. All we're doing is giving them a safe space to be who they are. If they come in and go 'I'm not sure about my sexual identity or sexuality', and they leave heterosexual and not transgender, that's fine - it's just about giving them a space where they can look at building their confidence and self-esteem. Many of the young people we see experience mental health problems, self-harm, eating disorders. We've almost become a charity for young people with mental health needs."

The family of 15-year-old Noah Lomax, from Crookes, who died last year after struggling with his autism and mental health, have set up a trust fund for SAYiT in the boy's memory. "They've been amazing," says Steve.

High aspirations, debt, and uncertainty in the world can put a huge amount of strain on young people, he believes. "Put that together with all those issues around questioning your sexuality or identity, and I think you've got a recipe for huge difficulties."

He catches himself. "I'm painting a really dark picture, aren't I? It's not all dark."

The renewed funding means SAYiT will be able to offer most of its services to schools for free. Two new workers will concentrate on 'building empowerment, leadership and strength'.

"I hate using the word resilience," he says. "It's always blaming the young people. I hate this whole 'snowflake' thing. Young people are no different to when we were growing up. On the whole I think young people are much nicer than when I was a child."

Steve hopes SAYiT can foster a 'sense of compassion' in young people. "As an openly gay man, when I see homeless people or increasing inequality, I don't feel I want my rights at the expense of other people's. It's not enough to campaign on single issues."

The charity wants to help schools in preparing for the Government's new Relationships and Sex Education curriculum, expected to be made compulsory in 2020.

"I prefer to call it sex and relationships education," says Steve. "What worries me is we'll lose the discussions around sex."

Britain, he argues, is 'still hung up'. "We've got to change the attitudes. All the evidence suggests if you teach young people good sex education, they're less likely to have sex, and when they do it's more likely to be consensual, pleasurable and safer."

Ten years ago he helped to produce a leaflet with a similar message - the pamphlet, called Pleasure, was denounced in some quarters of the press.

"The right-wing media presented it that we were saying young people should have an orgasm a day. We never said that. There was an ironic quote in there by Mae West which said 'An orgasm a day keeps the doctor away'. One of the newspapers said I was 'overpaid, oversexed and under-worked'. I can assure you I've never been any of those things."

It was, he says, a difficult time. "I got death threats, and threats against my career."

The leaflet was even discussed on The View, Whoopi Goldberg's TV show in America. "She was supporting it, saying it was great. The leaflet wasn't for young people, it was for adults, suggesting we needed a more positive approach."

At the time Steve was director of the city's Centre for HIV and Sexual Health - he later joined Sexual Health Sheffield, but decided to leave as he preferred a community-based role. He was also unhappy when Sheena's Mulberry Clinic closed in 2016.

Had he become frustrated with life in the NHS?

"Yeah. Absolutely. I found it quite difficult to negotiate making cuts, particularly to prevention and the closure of the young people's clinic in town. We've got some great commissioners in Sheffield, some of the best in the country, but it's very difficult to make ends meet in terms of what you've been provided by the Government. It's short-sighted."

Steve grew up in Burton-on-Trent, Staffordshire, and encountered a lot of repression. "I didn't know anybody gay. My dad, bless him, was incredibly homophobic. Larry Grayson was on the telly and was a figure of fun, so all of that was really difficult."

He moved to Sheffield to study applied social studies and social work at the polytechnic. His first job was as a child protection social worker in Barnsley, then in Sheffield he worked in learning disabilities, mental health and as a HIV social worker. Subsequently he managed The Forge Centre, aimed at people with HIV/AIDS and Hepatitis C, before joining the NHS in 2005.

"The one thing I'm really proud of in Sheffield was its response to the HIV crisis," he says. "We had HIV social workers, one of the few places in the country to do that, and still do."

As a child protection social worker, however, he would 'never have felt comfortable coming out as gay'.

"There was still that whole idea you shouldn't be around children. I remember having arguments with a politician in Sheffield, who was saying if you reduce the age of consent to 16 you'll have gay men using that in order to take advantage of young people. That idea that gay men were paedophiles was still rife."

He has only felt able to live openly relatively recently. "It's been a long journey."

Steve, 58, lives in Nether Edge; his partner, Mark Scott, works in banking. He has two grown-up daughters, Gemma - a fashion designer in New York - and Sophie, a journalist. "They're very open, into social justice. When they were young, they 'came out as straight' to my partner and I. It's always been a bit of a joke. I don't think I had a choice about being gay, it's who I am, it's what I am."

He talks of SAYiT's duty to make young people aware of their history and LGBT role models like Sheffield's gay rights pioneer Edward Carpenter. This year marks the 175th anniversary of Carpenter's birth, and there are efforts to have a monument built in his honour. So far £20,000 has been raised to make a maquette - a miniature version of the statue.

"He was amazing, absolutely brave. Sheffield really hasn't adopted him, so we need to do more."

Also on the horizon is a project with the council on domestic abuse in LGBT relationships, and a 'faith and sexuality conference' in May, intended to build bridges with religious groups. "One of the challenges we have is trying to trying to attract young people who come black and minority ethnic communities. There are still a lot of issues around faith, religion and culture."

There is plenty of work, then, for SAYiT's 11 staff, none of whom are full time.

"We run on a shoestring and we make ends meet," Steve concedes. "In the NHS I got paid a lot more than I do now. But people are here because they're committed and they want to see a difference."

Football contest with an LGBT aim

SAYiT has teamed up with Sheffield Hallam University to organise a five-a-side football tournament this month to oppose homophobia in football.

The Rainbow Laces campaign was launched by the charity Stonewall, prompted by a reported rise in the number of homophobic incidents around soccer matches - from physical abuse to verbal insults - and the fact there is still not a single openly gay male top-flight footballer.

The last player to come out was Justin Fashanu, who took his own life in 1998 after facing years of hostility.

The Sheffield Rainbow Laces tournament is happening on Saturday, February 16, from 1pm to 5pm, at GOALS on Norfolk Park Road. Players need to be aged over 18, and mixed-gender teams are welcome. Participants will be supplied with bootlaces in rainbow colours to wear.

For more information or to offer sponsorship, raffle prizes or to send messages of support, email info@sayit.org.uk or call 0114 2412728.