In Belgium, at the end of the eighties, there were already so-called “coming out” groups in Flanders. Safe groups where young LGBs could get to know each other. On July 11, 1994, three groups organised a meeting at the beach as a joint activity. And this turned out to be a great success. The participants quickly asked for more of these bigger activities and even dreamed of having their own summer camp. Wel Jong Niet Hetero was born (this way).
Within this brand new organisation, there was no lack of motivation. Soon, the volunteers saw the opportunity to also inform young people outside their associations about their existence and they published the boy-boy and the girl-girl booklet. The step towards information and raising awareness had been taken. The growing effect soon required more structure. Together with the AIDS team (now Sensoa) and the LGBT federation (now Çavaria), grants were requested for initial professional support. In 1999 the time had come: The first employee was hired.
Since December 31, 2002 Wel Jong Niet Hetero has been recognised as a nationally organised youth association. With local groups all over Flanders who offer a listening ear, fun activities, the necessary information and above all a lot of fun! It is the ideal environment to make friends and build a network. In addition, WJNH has additional teams: Min19 organises various activities throughout the year for and by LGBT+ teenagers from 13 to 19 years old, T-Jong welcomes young transgender people starting from 10 years old, there is our annual summer camp ‘Camp Z’, and you can find us in large numbers at all kinds of events such as the annual Belgian and Antwerp Pride.
Through the years, we have achieved several successes such as winning the prize for “Youth Work Website of the Year 2005”, which was a firm pat on the back for the volunteers and the entire organisation. As the first national youth work initiative, we provided a TV program a little later: 11 episodes of shOut appeared on JIM TV. We saw a strong growth of online visibility. And the number of our volunteers grew to more than 200. In addition, the forum on the WJNH website was the largest Dutch-speaking LGB youth forum with more than 10 000 members throughout the years. In 2017 we launched min19.be, an online community especially for LGBT+ teenagers from 13 to 19 years old, which has over 500 members.
In 2019, we celebrated our 25 years birthday with a big party. There was also a start-up of Jabari, a safe(r) space for queer youngsters, and we went an a quest for a new identity. In this quest we renewed our mission and vision, and broadened the organisation. We want to focus on the needs that children and young people experience in regard to their body, sexuality and gender experience in all the places where they want to feel at home: sport, school, youth work.
And we’re not slowing down! Also for this year we have big goals in mind. Based on our new mission and vision, we are renewing our name and corporate identity. Bring on 2021!
In what ways have young LGBTQI people in your community been affected by the COVID 19 emergency and the lockdowns?
The impact of the crisis is big. In the period from mid-March to mid-May there were 65% more calls at our Flemish helpline for LGBT+ persons this year than in the same period last year. The conversations are also becoming heavier in terms of content. The topics of the conversations focus on welfare aspects such as anxiety, loneliness, suicide and depression.
The crisis puts additional pressure on mental well-being, they strengthen concerns that were already there. The support that LGBT+ young people normally find in their social networks provides better welfare but due to the corona measures they fall away. Young people cannot structurally go to school and meetings with other LGBT+ young people are more difficult to organise this year. Online initiatives have been started but do not offer a fully-fledged alternative.
It is important to remember that some children and young people live in an unsafe or difficult home environment. Or are still looking for their identity and fear to talk about this with their immediate environment increased, because they can’t just leave when things go wrong. The loneliness, isolation or a difficult situation in your ‘own home’ causes more brooding and doubting.
Much of the planned help has been and is being postponed, such as non-urgent operations on trans persons. Many ongoing processes (such as therapy sessions) can also be interrupted without a digital alternative.
Are there specific ways in which you have supported the community that you would like to highlight and/or share with other European organisations?
– We reached out to them, asked on Instagram how they were feeling, talked to them – Gave them directions, platforms and organisations to contact when they were feeling down or wanted to talk to someone.
– Launched a Discord on which they could keep in touch and play little games
– Our teams organised online activities and even an online summer camp
– We organised activities and summer camps according to the safety measures – Each team within our organisation has its own coordinator (volunteer) who leads their group. We invested heavily in our connections with them and organised online peer-to-peer meetings regularly where we check how they are doing and which needs they have.
– We provided online meeting platforms and board games
What can governments, (national and international) authorities and institutions do more to support the communities you serve throughout this crisis?
Governments should take into account the increased vulnerability of LGBT+ children and adolescents, especially those who are in a difficult home situation, or those who are still very much searching for their identity. It is important that their well-being is specifically monitored and together with LGBT associations, low-threshold and quality support is sought.
In addition, extra efforts should be made to eliminate waiting lists for psychological assistance and medical support for trans persons.
There are reasons to believe that the COVID-19 pandemic will continue to be a part of our lives for 1-3 years. In what way do you think that prolonged lockdowns and/or other preventive measures will impact your work and LGBTQI+ youth in your country?
It will have a great impact, as we said according to question 2. But we are committed to pay more attention to the wellbeing and integrity of LGBT+ youth. We know – more than ever- how important it is to check in on our youth and to actively reach out to them. Strong(er) online platforms are being built to keep in touch with our volunteers and youth, we’re being challenged to be creative.