For this edition I have managed to grab Rob Wilson in-between his many volunteer activities which support the LGBT+ community throughout Leeds. We discuss the invaluable service provided by Angels of Freedom throughout the city and beyond.
Here is an abridged version of our conversation from 6th July 2021.
Deby: Tell me a bit about the Angels of Freedom?
Rob: I launched Angels of Freedom, which is an LGBT+ community safety and support group, based in the city centre in 2017. Initially, and the main thing that people know us for is we do street engagement, every Friday evening. There’s a team of us who are around Leeds in the Freedom Quarter area and Call Lane. We are there to be happy, friendly, smiley people within the community, and to have conversations with people to help to tackle some isolation, people that are out there by themselves. But there’s also quite a serious element to what we do as well, quite a lot of our volunteers are Mental Health First Aid trained, therefore able to provide in place crisis support for people which is becoming quite useful over the last few years. LGBT+ people are generally pushed towards the bar scene as part of their journey of discovery. And some have this image in their mind that we’re going to go down to the bar scene, and there’s going to be a fanfare and trumpets and, you know, everyone’s going to welcome them.
happy, friendly, smiley people
It’s not exactly that at all, it can be really isolating for people who’ve built up a level of expectation, and addressed their issues, their nerves of self-acceptance and coming out, their actual experience can be really difficult to deal with.
Regulars in the Freedom Quarter know us well, not just because of our raspberry jackets, we also carry a transparent backpack that’s packed full of sweets. It’s like a diabetic nightmare! Everyone jokes about it. But it’s effective, it provides a reason for people to approach us and talk to us. Instead of someone having to ask for help, they can ask for sweets instead. And similarly, it’s not us going over saying, “What’s wrong with you?” we’d say, “How’s your night? Do you want some sweets?” For us it’s really, important. So yes, that’s what we do every Friday night.
It’s brilliant to be back out in the community
We also have a great relationship with door staff and agencies, who often refer people to us for support.
It’s brilliant to be back out in the community, able to speak to people and be a part of their fun night out and just being there to talk to people and to hear about their experiences and just to be there.
Deby: There’s loads of other activities that people could go out and meet other LGBT+ people, it doesn’t have to be in a bar, it could be a in a social activity of any kind.
Rob: One of the priorities of the Angels of Freedom is about increasing awareness around the plethora of different social activity options. I run a group called The Bad Mittens – Badminton Group, it’s been going for about five years now, with nearly 800 members. It’s an LGBT+ inclusive environment, it’s LGBT+ led but not exclusively LGBT+, it’s open for anyone to attend. The Bad Mittens group provides LGBT+ people a safe social area, safe event to go to. And they’re not going to be judged on their skills for the game.
We focus on being fun, friendly, and sociable. If people are coming along, and they’re expecting a serious competitive game, then they are in the wrong place.
I also set up the Leeds Hunters, the rugby team in Leeds, several years ago. I’m not involved now. But back at the start of that, I’d hear repeatedly from people coming along, that the reason why they didn’t join any of the mainstream groups was because they were worried or concerned that they would be judged, not only for being rubbish, but the assumption that they were rubbish based on their sexuality. So, there was just this real fear. Sport in general, from a young LGBT+ person’s perspective, PE, and that environment in schools quite often was a place of bullying. Sport can trigger memories from that. The Bad Mittens and the Leeds Hunters are away from the bar scene and it takes people away from that reliance on socialising with alcohol.
tackling triggered memories of bullying
There’s loads of other kinds of social groups that people can get involved with and a wide range of different activities. Leeds has Lesbian Socials (www.meetup.com/lesbiansocials), and there’s the Leeds Gay Men’s Group (www.meetup.com/LGMGroup), and there’s all these different ones that you can get involved with. There’s loads of LGBT+ inclusive social events and activities in Leeds.
Deby: Angels of Freedom are involved in lots of other activities as well, tell me a bit about them.
Rob: I’m the Chair of the West Yorkshire Police, Leeds District, LGBT+ Hate Crime Panel. Basically, it’s like a case review group, we take cases of hate crime and look at what actions the police have taken, the issues around the hate crime and how you can prevent them.
safety for ‘leeds first friday’
We work with British Transport Police around safety on the rail network. Leeds is home to the largest regular Transgender social night in the North – Leeds First Friday, every first Friday of the month. Anywhere between 150 to 200 people come to Leeds just for that event from all over the UK. Safety and reassurance on the rail network is very important to us.
There’s Freedom Families- a group that we launched a couple of years ago. Freedom Families is about peer support for parents and guardians of LGBT+ children of any age. We create a safe space for parents and guardians with LGBT+ children, to be able to talk openly about any challenges, provide support or help answer any questions. It’s an important part of their acceptance. Very often it’s parents who don’t have any connections, or links, or friends within the LGBT+ community, just 1000s of questions. There’s a lot that is warped about what they see in the media, which can form quite a lot of their opinions and cause some concerns.
how you can help
Deby: Are you looking for volunteers to don the raspberry jackets?
Rob: We have started accepting new people now. People don’t need any experience with that. There are always people that are very experienced as volunteers there to support. We operate in a group, so no one’s left out on a limb. It’s great for confidence building, that feeling of belonging within the community, and to feel just that sense of being part of something can be quite liberating. Some new volunteers on a Friday evening might begin by standing at the back and kind of shying away from people. But, after being out with us a few times, they are the ones with the sack of sweets going out and starting up conversations, it’s good for tackling that social isolation, and getting comfortable around the bar scene. If you have any kind of social anxiety, it can help to overcome that. It’s a powerful thing and it’s really a very supported environment.
Also, we would love more people to get involved with Freedom Families If people are parents of LGBT+ children they could share their experiences.
We are relaunching our monthly café in September, basically there’s loads of opportunities for volunteers to get involved with.
coffee and cake cafe
Join Angels of Freedom at Priestley Hall of Mill Hill Chapel, LS1 5EB, for our LGBT+ social.
An accessible social space for the whole community to meet others for conversation, to play board games and enjoy cake!