Pride Month is an important time, showcasing the history of the LGBTQ+ community finding acceptance. The celebrations encourage each individual to be proud of who they are and what they have to bring to the world.

Jake, one of our care experienced Young Ambassadors, has created inspiring content around Pride Month and the experience of care.

An online book by Jake Hartley:

This highlights key areas of LGBTQ+ history.

As inspiration for the book and to highlight real stories, Jake spoke to Marcel Varney, the Assistant Director of Children’s Services at Barnardo’s children’s charity. She was one of the first lesbian couples to adopt through the charity and has had a truly inspiring career. You can read the interview below.

Introduction and adoption

When coming up with the idea to write this book, I knew that I wanted to interview people with personal experiences of being part of the LGBTQIA+ community as well as allies of the community. This way, you get to experience first-hand what it’s like for people who are struggling with who they are or if you are supporting individuals who are a part of this community.

My first interview was with an exceptional woman called Marcel Varney, who happily agreed to be interviewed.

Marcel was on of the first Lesbian couples to adopt through Barnardo’s. When they were seen, Marcel was told that it wouldn’t be easy, and the policies can be changed. They had questions such as “How do you think a child would manage having a Lesbian couple as parents?”, “what will you do if your child faces homophobia?”, “if you have boys, how will you take them swimming?” and “how are you going to manage to access toilets in public?”

They also made training available for adoption panels regarding Lesbian/Gay parents and Homophobia, and to be aware how same-sex couples could be great parents. And even though most organisations had openly stated that they wouldn’t place children and young people with same-sex couples, the Local Authority wanted same-sex couples to adopt, which led to Marcel and her partner to adopt children, aged 5 and 6.

The children’s grandparents were also worried about having a lesbian couple as parents, but slowly this changed as they were just like any other family, giving children a good home. This was big in the news as it was very uncommon for a same-sex couple to be parents, including the children being interviewed about having two mums. The children seemed very happy, and when asked what the difference would be if they had two fathers instead, they replied with “the décor would be different.” Which goes to show that the children were very happy with having two mums and that there’s nothing wrong with it.

Personal life

The people Marcel made friends with when she came out around 18/19 years old are still her closest friends and there’s a little joke of people in her age group. You have your “gay family” as well as the people you grew up with. And usually it’s the gay family that gave a sense of identity and support from young adult to adult life when those other adults were supposed to support you but had no idea what to do and how to support you.

In the 80’s Marcel’s first job was working as a student nurse, and she met a gay man and they’d been talking about how to protect themselves as student nurses against this “gay disease” otherwise known as AIDS, and she’d been cringing as she wasn’t out. The man walked out, he was beside himself, and Marcel chased after him. He said “I don’t know how you can sit in there and listen to all of that. I’m a gay man and it’s so insulting. How on earth do you understand.” Marcel then realised the power that being out meant. She said, “I do get it.” The guy replied, “how do you get it?” and Marcel said, “I am a Lesbian.” And the guy replied, “no you’re not.” And Marcel then said, “how is it okay for you to come out as gay but for me not to come out?”

After this, Marcel and her friend then became a joint force on lectures and argued back with what they were teaching. Marcel then became quite ill and went into hospital and her friend was the one who went with her to get some tests done and the nursing staff all assumed he was her boyfriend, she felt bad but couldn’t stop laughing. He was quite camp, and Marcel practically had a shaved head and had a “proper Lesbian look” going on and it was “the funniest thing.”

Marcel and her partner have experienced hate crime over the years. When they were first dating, they were walking down a street holding hands and they got jumped by a group of lads.m They didn’t report it to the police as it was very early 90’s and you didn’t go to the police for things like that. A few years later, her partner had a work van, and someone spray painted various gay insults and slur all over the van in permanent paint, and this was when they had their children. They didn’t let the children look out at the front of the house until they removed the van. This incident they did report to the police as it was just after they had their first hate crime training and they had two police officers come round, and they were trying really hard to put their training to use and to be really good about the language they used, the way they spoke, being understanding, and they took it very seriously. Unfortunately, they never found out who did it, but Marcel assumed it was one of their neighbours, as no one else knew that they were a gay couple living in their house. It was a good experience that the police did come, they took it seriously and they were understanding at how upset and angry Marcel and her partner were.

Marcel and her partner had a civil partnership in 2008, they had been together for 20 years at this point, over 30 years this day and age. She could have cried all day, everyone she cared about was there celebrating her having a female partner and that it’s legal.

Marcel was brought up by a mum and dad with siblings and they went to church. Like a middle-class family with expectations. That was all ruined when Marcel came out and she was kicked out of church, but thankfully her parents didn’t have the same attitude. She used to babysit for a lot of people who went to church and suddenly that wasn’t an option. To go from that, to having a room full of people celebrating and sending you love and acceptance, it was a very odd sensation.

Coming out in the care system

In the 90’s, during Marcel’s early professional life, her company had a Lesbian and Gay staff network, where one of the individuals worked in residentials all of his life as a Gay man. However, he hid who he was and one of the reasons he hid was because he was scared of allegations or other professionals seeing this as a problem.

Some of the young people in the residential home went to a pride event and bumped into this man. They were surprised and admitted that they were very sad that he had not been out in the residential home because they would have welcomed having that kind of role model around and they could have been open with their sexuality.

Marcel works with a various amount of LGBTQIA+ people who aren’t “out” due to the stereotypes of this community, which means that they can’t really connect with young people. And for Care Experienced Young People (CEYP), there’s added level around trust and wondering if their residential workers or foster parents, as well as other professionals, will be accepting of them. In a family environment it’s hard anyway, but being care experienced it could be the one thing that could break the placement.

Marcel has worked with young people within the care system who might have come out if they were in a family environment but didn’t as professionals were worried in regard to safeguarding for the young people and who they were meeting with or mixing with, and the CEYP coming out in a way to protect themselves.

Sometimes you’re looking for a connection with people and one way to look for this is through the community that you identify with, with an individual reason for each CEYP. What Marcel has noticed is that if a CEYP “comes out” then there may be a referral even if one isn’t needed and they aren’t struggling with their identity. They’re completely happy with who they are, it’s the adults “running around waving their arms” saying that they should do something.

Part of the reason why there are referrals is because when a CYP decides about their identity, only the current professionals know and it’s not passed on properly and therefore the new social workers or IROs don’t feel that they are equipped enough to deal with something like this.

With Marcel’s personal coming out story, you tell somebody that you can trust, in order to acknowledge who are you, and there’s nothing really that you want to see happen or anything to be done. It’s about somebody holding that information and knowing, which is important.

Social workers aren’t well trained when it comes to the identity of a CEYP and around the LGBTQIA+ Community. When Marcel has tried to get involved with training Social Workers/ professionals in the Care System, the most she has been able to get is 2 hours on a 3-year course to talk about identity, which is ridiculous. There are so many issues around identity especially with CEYP in the Care System, which also impacts on relationships, friendships, emotional health, wellbeing and mental health. You can’t train someone on identity in 2 hours.

Many years ago, Marcel was involved in the Practice Teachers Award (which has a different name now), and you had to write an assignment before you could qualify. Marcel wrote an assignment on LGBTQ+ People in Social Work, and after a long time of researching, Marcel only managed to find 2 or 3 academic articles written about the LGBTQ+ lives in Social work. To Marcel, she felt like this wasn’t important to people in some ways, and it wasn’t “vital” of a Social Worker to understand Identity, which is the core of a person. If you couldn’t understand that, then how could you begin to understand the young people, the adults, or who they’re supporting. Marcel passed the Practice Teachers Award, as no one had ever written an assignment on the topic she did.

Unfortunately, this didn’t change an awful lot, apart from the Social Workers that Marcel helped train. So much of our society is managed by understanding data, you know how many Social Workers are needed due to the number of Children and Young People in care, and who need to be supported. You know a certain % of these CEYP are people of colour. There’s no data on CEYP’s sexual identity or gender identity, so if you were a young person in care and are “out,” there’s no data collected on that. How will Social Workers know what services are needed and their experiences within the system without this?

Present day and moving forward

It’s not taboo as it was in the past. We have a legal framework now to be able to have these conversations. Because Marcel is an Assistant Director, she line manages different services including one called the Children’s Rights Service, and being an advocate for the young people who are in the service, they do collect data on a young person and the sexual or gender identity. This has only been running a couple of years, which it took Marcel to convince the staff in the Children’s Right Service that it’s a good thing to collect this information and is meaningful to the young people – seeing them as a whole and not their problem. They collect it from the age of 14 onwards, as people are still wary of sexual and gender identity for those under 13.

When it’s not a big issue and that young people can identify a safe adult to talk to, it’ll be a better place. Or even just not treating somebody’s sexual and/or gender identity as a problem but as something to be proud of and celebrate.

Sexuality and gender identity are part of hate crime rules in the UK, so if someone is abused because of this, the judge must give them a harsher sentence.

A lot of people within the system or those who aren’t in the care system struggle with trusting the police enough to report a hate crime. Because of whom the police will tell, they’d have to inform the professionals involved with the young person. There’s a lot of issues surrounding this for the young person regarding telling the police. In the mid-90s if a young person came out to their social worker, it was recorded under child protection concerns. There’s still along way to go and a lot to do, even though there’s been changes already.

A few years ago, Marcel went to a Pride event and she watched a youth group turn up – they were confident and “out there.” They had the time of their lives, with friends and family members and Marcel was a tiny bit jealous that life wasn’t like that when she was a teenager. And that made her realise that things have changed, even though there’s still a lot to do.