Schools Not Out with Orlean

With schools looking to return, more than likely in some phased capacity, after potentially 5 months away, Orlean shares with us the story behind her LGBTQ+ school group and how they’ve kept in touch since schools closed due to the pandemic.

Hi, my name is Orlean and I am a school counsellor at St Thomas More Roman Catholic Academy. I am in the very privileged position of running an LGBT+ group at school

When I applied for the job in April 2017, I was not sure if I really wanted it, would fit in or even if they would want me.

To my surprise I was offered an interview and thought I would go along and see what I thought.

I like to think that I am open minded, non-judgmental and do not make stereotypes however, I had made my own judgments and stereotypes about a Catholic school which to be honest were not positive.

I did not expect it to be progressive however it was far more progressive than many of the maintained schools I had worked in.

“It came as a pleasant surprise when one of the questions at interview asked was ‘How would you feel about working with transgender young people? …we are looking to gain rainbow status is this something you would be interested in?'” 

This was somewhere that I could work and fit in. I felt that pastoral care of pupils was taken seriously and given as much importance as academic success.

From being very ambivalent about the job I suddenly found myself really wanting it and my partner said they had never seen me so enthused after a job interview.

I was fortunate to gain the position and absolutely love working there. I was able to set up the first ever LGBT+ group. 

Here are some inspiring quotes from them.

  • I am proud because I have accepted me for me 
  • I am proud to have figured out my gender identity
  • I am proud because I had to courage to get help when I needed it and was able to admit that I need help.
  • I’m proud because I’m in one of the strongest, sweetest and most supportive communities ever.
  • I’m proud because I’ve learned to look out for myself as well as my friends 
  • I am proud because I cut my hair short and didn’t care what people thought 
  • I am proud because I’m a bisexual girl who just graduated from high school!

My co-worker is Debs Hickling-Walker from Trinity Youth and we expected a slow trickle of young people to attend. Hoping that it would gradually build over time. 

We set out a small circle of chairs but had to keep getting more chairs until eventually we had people sitting on tables.

We now have over 50 young people in the group who identify as LGBT+ making it the biggest youth group in the North East. 

“There is strength in numbers, as the more people who joined the happier and more ok you felt about being you.”

participant of the group

Our poor allies want to come along, but the group wanted is specifically for them. We will relent and have a bring your ally to group day!

I was very concerned for young people when school closed its doors to many students on Friday 20th March 2020. Even more so for Vegas young people as for some the group is the only safe space, they have to express themselves fully and be heard. Being at home 24/7 could be extremely difficult.

However, with some prompting from a Vegas group member we managed to conduct a virtual meeting which was a little chaotic at times as I had zero training however, we managed. 

The group was named Vegas after various suggestions from group members – some too controversial even to print! The name was unanimously agreed.

What’s said in Vegas stays in Vegas. The acronym being Varying Expressions of Gender and Sexuality.

School may have been out, but Vegas group is still ongoing which is brilliant. 

“I hadn’t spoken to anyone for weeks until virtual Vegas happened”  


“It was lovely to see my friends” 


I am proud to be part of such an incredible group and Covid-19 won’t stop us!!!

This wonderful photo was provided by a year 11 student of the park across the road from the Stonewall Inn. They are fortunate to have an amazing supportive mam who took them to this iconic place.

 “I thought this was really beautiful because someone had placed a flower between the two people. My claim to fame is that I was in there for about 30 seconds, the bartender asked what I wanted, I went along with it and essentially got kicked from New York’s most historical bar for trying to drink underage hahaha. But I got to wait by the door as she told my mam and friend the history of it though.”


My claim to fame was that I got to go to the toilet in Stonewall but this young person’s tale tops mine!!I 

I can’t wait to start school again in September and look forward to seeing Vegas group members in person.

Orlean Harbinson, is a highly experienced and knowledgeable practitioner having worked with young people and children for over twenty-five years. She started her working career as a teacher in Newcastle in 1990. Then moved to Edinburgh where she worked for 13 years qualifying as a Youth and Community worker, working in some of the most deprived areas of the city. Orlean returned to Newcastle in 2003 where she continued her work with homeless young people and teenage parents. She completed a Masters in Social Work in 2013 researching child protection within domestic abuse. She went on to work for both local (Streetwise, Children North East, Changing lives) and national children's charities (Barnardo’s as a senior practitioner). She currently works as a school counsellor in a large secondary school in North Shields