Former Nayland student honoured by Queen for community work

22-year-old LGBT advocate Tabby Besley is the only New Zealander to have won an inaugural Queen's Young Leader award.
Maarten Holl

22-year-old LGBT advocate Tabby Besley is the only New Zealander to have won an inaugural Queen's Young Leader award.

Former Nayland College student Tabitha Besley has been honoured by the Queen for her work in promoting acceptance of lesbian, gay, bi-sexual and transgender young people through New Zealand. Charles Anderson reports.

And then the Queen asked Tabby Besley what it was that she did.

"I work with lesbian, bisexual, transgender young people," Besley replied.

"How wonderful," the Queen said.

And then Besley, the purple haired community worker formerly of Nayland College, smiled and moved on.

It was a strange experience being at Buckingham Palace last week and unclear whether the Queen really knew what Besley was talking about. The Queen had long been silent on the issue of the rights of the LGBT community. But still it was a profile that Besley's cause and her organisation could not have dreamed of.

"It felt like a big deal to be saying those things to her and imagining what she actually thought of it," Besley said from England.

Besley had been invited there after winning a Young Leaders Award that brought together 60 people from around the Commonwealth to acknowledge "exceptional young people" and the work they did in their respective countries. Besley was the only New Zealander. Some worked in poverty stricken areas. Others worked in mental health or performing arts. Some worked to improve the conditions of those living with disabilities. Others worked to help to promote environmental initiatives.

The Queen presents Tabby Besley with a Queen's Young Leader Award at Buckingham Palace.
Yui Mok

The Queen presents Tabby Besley with a Queen's Young Leader Award at Buckingham Palace.

"It was all quite a surreal experience when you appreciated what was going on."

It was encouraging to be acknowledged for the work that she had started when she was just a teenager who was struggling with her own identity. It was inspiring to be around like minded people and was able to spend time at Cambridge University to attend leadership courses. But more than that it was a great way to raise the profile of a cause that is all too often ignored.

When Besley and her family moved to Nelson from England she attended Nayland College and soon made friends with a group of people who were involved with an organisation called the Nayland Alliance of Gays and Straights or "NAGS".

It was a social support space that was about spreading awareness through the school and community but also about promoting acceptance and diversity. Besley went along for her friends.

"Being in that space and seeing people who were so confident in being themselves. That was very powerful."

She went to a hui in Wellington where she met other students dealing with similar issues - how to be safe at school while identifying as queer?

For some time Besley had felt like she did not fit what was deemed the traditional mould of teenage relationships. She was also attracted to females. But up until that hui she had not quite appreciated what that meant.

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When she came home her mother asked: "So were you the only straight person there?"

Besley's answer was almost an accident: "I think I might be bi-sexual."

Her mother's reaction was a common one. She thought her daughter was much too young to know that.

"But I had a boyfriend at the time. So there is an acceptance that I can be dating...why can't I know?"

Besley's mother was supportive and she says her experience in coming out was the exception rather than the rule.

In the last 10 years there has been little change in bullying. More than half of all LGBT teens experience physical violence, she said. The majority of them are bullied on a weekly basis.

"Mine is a rare story. Most don't have that experience."

For Besley it showed that there was still a huge way to go in the way schools deal with diverse student bodies.

"It is a specific kind of bullying and it's way more common than is often thought and has a specific response to it."

Even simple things, like students saying "that's so gay" was something that needed to be addressed.

"For a lot of young people who are struggling to accept themselves, to hear that over and over in a day really reinforces that their identity is wrong and something to be ashamed of."

She was receiving emails from schools asking for help in setting up their own groups but there was no go to body to respond to it. So she did.

Besley went to Wellington and created a charitable trust, InsideOut, and it went from there.

"It's been exciting to see how much it's grown."

Now, the organisation hosts hui with 100 students from all over the country who come to learn from those who have been there. They are working to provide resources and advice to how to set up groups in different schools. 

"We had big dreams and from there you work down to see what you can do with limited resources."

InsideOut relies on funding grants from charitable trusts but still it only allows Besley to be paid for 10 hours a week despite her often putting in more than a full time job into the work.

When Besley first joined NAGS it was thought of the only group of its kind in the country. Now she estimates there are between 40 and 60.

The end goal has always been the same though. She wants to create spaces where students can feel safe to be themselves. For too long they haven't been and while there have been big strides she says there is still a long way to go.

To find out more about Inside Out or to donate visit www.insideout.org.nz

 - Stuff

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