Jacob Thomas: Authenticity
Jacob Thomas: Authenticity
Queen’s Young Leader, Jacob Thomas tells Leading Change about LGBT rights, and quoting the-then Meghan Markle when she voiced her support.
As a non-binary person, Jacob uses the pronoun “they”.
“I was scared I was going to get attacked,” says Jacob Thomas. “I got spat on in the street. Me – and so many other people across Australia – had to deal with permission from our government for people to hate us and to tell us that we weren’t good enough”.
Jacob is describing Australia one year ago – the autumn of 2017 – in the run up to the vote on legalising same-sex marriage.
In November 2017, the result was overwhelmingly in favour at 61.6%. The media reported “jubilant scenes across Australia” with people dancing in the streets to celebrate.
But the previous three months were toxic.
“For months we were put through the rigmarole of hate speech,” says Jacob. “There was no regulation about what could and couldn’t be said.”
Legitimising hate speech
Like many LGBT people in Australia, Jacob has since questioned whether it was worth it. They recall how parents of transgender children were demonised in television advertisements.
“A bunch of people last year who were part of the LGBT community got attacked, hate crimes went up. People died by suicide last year because they couldn’t handle it.”
Jacob says people were afraid to be themselves in public, to hold hands or show affection to loved ones. People worried about appearing too effeminate or too butch. Jacob too modified their appearance, stopped wearing earrings and false nails, stopped dressing like the real Jacob Thomas.
“Which is the experience of you know LGBT people in 75% of countries around the world who criminalise people like us. That’s their daily experience.”
Most Commonwealth countries – currently 35 out of 53 – criminalise same-sex activity through laws that date back to British colonisation.
The Royal Commonwealth Society has described this discrimination as a “Commonwealth problem”. India is the most recent country to have repealed these outdated laws, decriminalising homosexuality on 5 September 2018.
Under the rainbow. Image credit: Michael Coghlan
But progress is slow and for many, unendurably painful.
“For me I got to leave for a couple of weeks. I got to leave Australia to go to London. I got to be my fancy queer self. I got to hang around with people who just didn’t care,” says Jacob.
As the Programme Lead for the Commonwealth Youth Taskforce, Jacob came to London in October 2017 for a weeklong meeting of the Commonwealth Youth Forum (CYF). The taskforce met to plan the youth agenda for the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) the following April (2018).
And it was while they were in the UK for the CHOGM that Jacob made an important ally – someone who would help promote the LGBT rights instantly, around the world, by saying just a few words.
Meeting Meghan Markle
It happened at a CYF event.
“I was with a group of LGBT activists from across the Commonwealth, many of whom I knew. And we were just making sure that they were listening to us and getting on board, and we had something to take to the media afterwards,” says Jacob.
That something was an endorsement of LGBT rights. The future Duchess of Sussex – Ms Meghan Markle as she was known at the time – said, “This is a basic human rights issue, not one about sexuality.”
The world’s media went wild, not just reporting the quote across the globe but often using it in the headline.
“And that’s how you do it. You play that game. You listen very carefully to what they say. And you do not misquote the royals!” says Jacob.
“That has an impact! People pay attention to the royals whether they’re royalists, monarchists or just reading the news. It’s not going to be a rapid change and make people switch their opinions overnight. But people will look at that and go, ‘maybe I should care’.”
Jacob has spent years working strategically to meet people with influence and says it is important to find a way of being in the right place at the right time.
“We can be incredibly passionate about what we’re working on and what we care about. But if we’re not going to meet people where they are to bring them on board, we’re not going to be where we need to be.”
When you do meet someone of influence, Jacob stresses that it is important to be “your most authentic self” and quotes Maya Angelou. They add that it is important to relax, perhaps tell a joke, “see that person as a person” whether you like them or not.
After a positive interaction, connect on social media and get in touch – even if it’s years later – when you happen to be in their country or city, or at the same event.
“If I had to sum it up it would be find opportunities, take opportunities and make opportunities,” says Jacob, “but you need to remember that that takes years. It takes years of work for that five minutes.”