This week is the week of Belfast Pride. It is the 26th year of a festival that has grown to huge proportions. Little did the pioneers of 1991 (who were outnumbered by protestors), think that we would have come so far. Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Queer equality is now firmly in the mainstream. One of the greatest indicators of that being Cameron’s Tories bringing forward Equal Marriage in 2013.
There has been huge progress on LGBTQ liberation over those 26 years. That has been coupled with increasing acceptance and tolerance and ever-greater visibility for LGB people. We still have a significant way to go on Trans visibility and liberation, but I have every confidence that the grassroots movements leading that charge will see similar success. Unfortunately, zero of that legislative change can be attributed to our local Assembly. The keynote progress on LGBTQ equality came either through adoption of Westminster legislation or through the Courts forcing change. That’s an embarrassing and stark reality.
During the last full mandate, we had the first ever LGBTQ motion at the Assembly. At Belfast Pride Talks Back 2012, I publicly challenged the parties to do more than give our communities platitudes. We needed legislation and Ministerial action to progress our liberation. Thankfully, SF agreed to bring forward the Equal Marriage motion that Steven Agnew of the Greens had already lodged with the business committee. This was momentous as it was the first ever LGBTQ motion at the Assembly. It was narrowly defeated, with both Alliance and SDLP in disarray, abstaining and voting against party policy, and the DUP abusing the petition of concern. This debacle was repeated 4 more times culminating in a slim majority in 2015 on the 5th attempt. Thankfully, 5 years later it seems that Alliance and SDLP MLAs will be able to support Equality, and the current crop of UUP MLAs are closer to reflecting wider society’s opinions on this issue. For these parties, Equality is a conscience issue. There were other small shoots of progress, namely Culture Minister Ni Cuilin’s Sport NI charter against discrimination and Minister Farry’s funding of equality in employment project. However, this was piecemeal and not strategic.
There is a now a significant majority of legislators that support Equal Marriage and the wider LGBTQ equality agenda. Should we have a returned Assembly and a stop in the abuse of the Petition of Concern we can make progress on all fronts. Progress is coming; it’s a matter of when, not it.
Yet it’s not just about Marriage. You would be forgiven for thinking it was by the behaviour of some parties. Maybe it even suits them to have the discourse focused on Marriage.
LGBTQ people experience significant health and social inequalities. There is a growing body of evidence locally and from across these Islands which clearly articulate this disparity. Sexual health inequalities, poorer emotion health and wellbeing including greater rates of self-harm and suicide, higher levels of homelessness and risk of homelessness, higher rates of substance use and misuse including tobacco and increasing rates of hate crimes and incidents. Homophobic and transphobic bullying is endemic in our education system and exacerbated in faith schools. These are the headlines. So what has 10 years on an Executive done to ameliorate these poorer outcomes?
3 Sinn Fein Education Ministers failed to make schools safer or better for LGBTQ kids. The anti-bullying Bill that John O’Dowd had to be harangued into bringing () ended up defanged, with the duty of schools to record specific types of bullying removed. Relationship and sexual education received no revamp to make it LGBTQ inclusive or relevant and sexual orientation and gender identity remain absent from the revised curriculum.
With more than 50% of new diagnosis of HIV in Northern Ireland remain amongst Men who have sex with Men (MSM) the sexual health strategy expired in 2015. The only movement in relation to sexual health was the decimalisation of home testing kits for HIV. This allowed private companies to sell self-testing kits but was not matched with increased resource for chronically underfunded health services that would still have to conduct tests and provide aftercare and support to anyone experiencing a positive diagnosis.
IVF guidelines did change in the rest of the UK in 2013, allowing access to 3 cycles including for LGBTQ women. The neither 3 DUP Health Ministers nor, now SF leader in the North, Michelle O’Neill granted this provision here. When Equality cost money, it seems Sinn Fein had cold feet.
LGBTQ people experience greater incidences of poorer mental health and intolerable rates of attempted suicide and self-harm. The Suicide Prevention Strategy expired in 2015.
The most glaring of these failures however is the absence of a Sexual Orientation Strategy. This was promised in both the 2007-2011 and 2011-2015 mandates. It interestingly disappeared in the most recent programme for Government. While sexual orientation is a protected characteristic and Government is expected to consult with this Sector, it provides no resource to enable that Sector to respond. The last time the LGBTQ Sector had funding from the Government Department with responsibility was under Peter Hain in 2006. This strategy would provide the framework for beginning to redress some of these abhorrent inequalities experienced by LGBTQ people.
We may soon get Marriage and the small changes in equality and huge symbolism it brings. But it’s not some panacea. There is a hell of a long way to go. The next Executive, should we have one, must do much much better. That includes parties that emblazon their posters with cries for Equality or those that call themselves progressive while maintaining a conscience approach to equality. There is a nascent progressive alliance that can assure LGBTQ equality. Let’s us see the Assembly finally deliver some of it.
Malachai’ O’Hara is the former Vice-Chair of the Equal Marriage Campaign in Northern Ireland. He worked for Ireland’s largest LGBT organisation The Rainbow Project for over 7.5 years including managing health services. He is a board member of a local suicide prevention charity in North Belfast and has been the Green Party candidate in North Belfast since 2016.