Know Who You Are, Be Who You Are is the title of Rainbow Youth and Auckland Libraries’ recent interactive exhibition. This week I visited their drop-in centre on Edinburgh Street to check it out, and it was worth the visit.

One of the many events that make up the 2017 Auckland Pride Festival, the exhibition explores the 28-year history of Rainbow Youth, and the organisation’s impact on the Rainbow Community in New Zealand.

When I walked into the centre, it didn’t take long for me to notice the exhibition. Posters adorned the left side of the room, in all colours of the rainbow, and between them were cards with personalised messages, both from Rainbow Youth members, and from visitors sharing their own experiences with the organisation.

One set of posters was dedicated to the history of Rainbow Youth, something I found interesting since I wasn’t aware of the organisation until a few years ago. I discovered Rainbow Youth was started up as a small group in the 1980s, originally named ALGY, for ‘Auckland Lesbian Gay Youth’. At the time, the LGBTIQ community in New Zealand were isolated and mainly used clubbing as a way of meeting up with each other. While this led to a sense of community in many adults, it wasn’t much use to young people struggling to come to terms with their identity.

In the 1990s, the group began to visit a select number of secondary schools and give talks, though not every school was accepting enough to allow them to visit. They also worked alongside Youthline, giving the members telephone counselling skills which would prove invaluable to the organisation. While they were small, the group gained support from the AIDS Foundation, and worked with Family Planning.

The 2000s saw more young people get involved with the group, and it was in 2009 that Tamaki Coffrey brought Rainbow Youth more recognition when he used them as his charity of choice during his time on Dancing With The Stars.

Now Rainbow Youth is an official organisation, with a board and chairperson, Duncan Matthews. They visit schools and give talks on identity, sexuality and gender to young people. They also now have the use of the internet to be able to reach out to a wider audience, providing support for those who are less local.

The goals for the future of Rainbow Youth were also covered in the exhibition, and it seems many of the members and visitors have a similar goal for the organisation; to expand to other cities, and continue to thrive and grow as a way of uniting queer youth in New Zealand.

The other set of posters was dedicated to the different aspects of being part of the Rainbow Community, as spoken through the experience of Rainbow Youth members, covering ‘Growing up’, ‘Identity’, ‘Coming Out’, ‘Challenges’, ‘Purpose/Joining Rainbow Youth’, and ‘Value+1st Impression’.

A common theme for all aspects was experiencing a feeling of isolation, in some cases bullying and the loss of support from friends and families, some struggling to overcome the pressures placed on them by their parents. There were many stories of people overcoming this, finding support from other members of the community, coming to explore and accept their own identities, and being united in their goal to support queer youth, leading to their roles as part of Rainbow Youth.

‘Value+1st Impression’ was something that I thought was especially relevant, given that it described the wide range of help and support Rainbow Youth provides for a variety of issues. Homelessness – as many LGBTIQ youth face being kicked out; people wanting to visit a place where they can dress to affirm who they are; parents and professionals seeking a way of finding out how to support queer youth; people raised in religious circumstances who have been taught that there is something wrong with them; refugees who have left their home countries because they would have been put to death for being queer; these are just a few issues covered.

The work Rainbow Youth have done is monumental to the community in New Zealand, something that’s clear to see from the significance of the messages pinned to the wall:

“Meeting some of the raddest queers in NZ.”

“When I came to Rainbow Youth I felt I could be me.”

“I love the fire Rainbow Youth gives me to make a difference.”

I personally learnt a lot from my visit to the exhibition and it’s given me even more of an appreciation for the work Rainbow Youth do for New Zealand. For over twenty years they’ve supported and united young people who face the same struggles and provide them with something that’s so needed – acceptance and the understanding that they aren’t alone.


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