Hadley Stewart sits down for a chat with Liam Hackett, author of Fearless, an inclusive book about seeing the light at the end of the tunnel.
Fearless might be the title of Liam Hackett’s new book, but the notion of being fearless doesn’t stop there. He hasn’t always considered himself to be fearless, he tells me, when we sit down at the Bluebird Café in London’s White City, to discuss his recently published book. Hackett grew up in a former mining town in the North, was bullied at school for ten years, and struggled with parts of his identity. Today, he’s considered to be one of the most influential people in the fight against bullying, has various accolades to his name, and is a proud trans ally.
“It’s been quite a journey,” Hackett tells me of what prompted him to write Fearless. Having started out by posting on his MySpace page at the age of 15 about his experiences of being bullied, his idea for an anti-bullying charity came to fruition once Hackett had graduated from the University of Sussex in 2012. It didn’t take the Business graduate long to establish the Brighton-based organisation as a registered charity, providing young people with resources on how to cope with bullying, as well as influencing various industries by carrying out in-depth research. But he didn’t stop there. Ditch the Label now has a base in the United States, allowing the charity to have a truly global reach when it comes to tackling bullying and discrimination.
“I think we all have our own individual journeys, and that’s sort of where the idea for the book came from,” Hackett says. Fearless is aimed at a younger audience, who might be struggling with various aspects of being a young person. The book is a go-to survival guide for navigating this notoriously challenging time in a person’s life. And although its author is a gay man, the book is all-inclusive, looking at broader issues than solely focusing on sexuality and gender.
“I think Fearless represents the journey that I’ve been on over the past fifteen years or so,” Hackett continues. “From a little kid who has been bullied for ten years, who tried to desperately hide parts of who I was, and change parts of who I was, to who I am now.” How would he describe himself now? “I’m unapologetic, I’m confident, and I don’t really care of what other people think of me. I follow my dreams and aspirations, and I really put myself out there without fear of what people think or say.”
In fact, his fearlessness and passion for his work has caught the eye of many. An honorary doctorate from his alma mater, the youngest to receive such an award from the university, as well as being appointed Fellow of the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce, are just two of the several awards and honours Hackett has received. An impressive list for somebody who is only in their late twenties.
I wonder, though, is it easy for him to be fearless? “It’s not easy to be fearless no, it requires a lot of work from yourself, a great support network, and a lot of patience,” Hackett says. “Sometimes you have to go through difficult and hard experiences, and I do believe that from those experiences you can emerge stronger and more courageous.” It’s these difficult experiences that Hackett thought about when it came to writing his book. Young people today, he explains, go through various challenges. “It could be their confidence, their support network, how they feeling about how they look, their body image, stereotypes, or feeling like they have to fit a certain mould. All of these things are things that hold people back from fearlessness.”
Hackett’s work is clearly driven by his own personal experiences of bullying, something that unfortunately many young people will go through. “We know from our research that young people will experience bullying at some stage of their lives and they will deal with it in different ways,” he explains. “My bullying was extreme, and it took me to really dark places. I think my coping mechanism is to help other people who are going through similar things, and to create positive change.”
Change, however, is slow and Hackett certainly has a few ideas about what more could be done to support LGBT+ young people. “People’s sexuality shouldn’t ever be assumed and conversations need to be more gender neutral, especially when it comes to the language that’s used in schools,” says Hackett. “Young LGBT+ kids are the highest risk category for experiencing bullying and to be rejected from their peer group, and this book tackles all of those issues. It talks about finding your tribe and figuring out who you are.” He thinks that society as a whole has a long way to go. “Unfortunately, we still live in a society where homophobia, transphobia and sexism are rife, it’s such a massive problem.”
He adds that for young people experiencing any form of bullying, it can be a lot to deal with; something which he hopes his new book will help with. But what impact is such bullying having on young people who find themselves on the receiving end? “As a LGBT young person, I think you sort of see yourself as a problem. And it inevitably creates a lot of resentment towards a part of your identity,” he says. “Growing up as a gay kid, an ex-mining town in the North, it was a difficult experience for me. I desperately tried to change who I was. If I’d had a book like this, to help me on my journey, I really do think that I would have felt more confident in myself.”
The book comes out at the tail end of a lengthy political battle, Brexit. In fact, you could argue that the political turmoil is far from over. So it’s unsurprising that politics makes its way into our conversation. Hackett refers to the fact that hate crimes have gone up, referencing Brexit and Trump as possible causes. But he stops short from going into detail about specific political parties. “I’m always hesitant to talk about politics,” he replies when I ask about this. “But I do see that there’s a huge divide.”
Does he think people aren’t being listened to? “I couldn’t really say. It’s not my world. I’m liberal,” he pauses. “I think people are quite mislead by the media and that concerns me. Part of the reason why media literacy is weaved around this book, is to counteract some of those issues, so that at least young people will have the critical thinking to form their own opinions.” But why are minorities specifically targeted at a time of division? “Whenever there’s political unrest, minorities are often the scapegoat,” he argues. “Again you look at the media headlines towards migrant workers or Europeans who live here, it’s quite defamatory, and it leads to higher rates of xenophobia. And in turn, that leads to higher rates of sexism, and transphobia, and homophobia.”
Speaking of the media, Hackett’s passion to tackle transphobia comes at a time where headlines and articles from certain corners of the press continue to threaten the rights and safety of trans people on a daily basis. He’s a self-described “trans ally”, something which has come at a cost to him. “I’ve been very vocal as a result I’ve had thousands of abusive tweets, had my phone number leaked, my address leaked, and I’ve had defamation posted about me only.” It hasn’t put him off, though. “I still stand as an ally to the trans community.” He’s also keen to encourage others from within the LGBT community to follow his lead. “I think sometimes the LGBT community lacks community,” he argues. “We’ve all experienced oppression and we’ve all been discriminated against. It’s so important that we bound together and we all support each other.”
For many young people across the country, Fearless, isn’t arriving a day too soon. It might appear that Hackett and his team at Ditch the Label have a mountain to climb, yet he seems optimistic about their ability to galvanise, educate and support young people. As I bring our interview together to a close, Hackett takes some time to chat to me about what he’s watching on Netflix at the moment. I’m glad somebody with such a busy schedule is able to take some time out for himself. Changing the world wouldn’t be the same without having a Netflix boxset to come home to.
Fearless: How To Be Your Confident Self is out now.
Photo provided by Liam Hackett.
Follow Hadley on Twitter (@wordsbyhadley)