Where are the safe spaces for our young trans and non-binary people?

Brian Smyth (Green Party rep. for Lisnasharragh)

International Youth Day was Sunday 12 August and the theme this year is, “Safe spaces for youth”. There seems to be an International Day for everything, but as a Youth Worker, I believe it’s important to use these opportunities to tune into the issues that affect young people growing up, particularly those disadvantaged by poverty and inequality.

The notion of safe spaces got me thinking about my safe spaces growing up. It made me think about how segregated and unsafe our city was. Safe spaces came behind the dividing lines that zig zagged across Belfast. My mates and myself knew the safe spaces like the back of our hands and knew exactly where we should and should not venture into. Not knowing your safe spaces meant a guaranteed beating at best, serious injury or death at worst.

Thankfully society has moved on and although Belfast remains a divided city there has been a widening of the shared spaces that young people can use together. The City Centre has become a safer place that we all use when we need to – once a no go for a night out and heavily militarised for Saturday shoppers, City Centre bars, restaurants and retail now thrive and the space isn’t owned or dominated by any single section of our society.

But what about if you are growing up in Northern Ireland today as a trans & non-binary young person? Where are your safe spaces and is Northern Ireland a safe where you feel proud of your identity and are treated as an equal?

Probably not because the reality is that there are large parts of our society which are inaccessible or hostile to trans & non-binary young people. It’s 2018 and here in Northern Ireland we’ve managed to replace overt sectarianism with overt transphobia.

Even our schools are very often hostile and unsafe spaces for trans & non-binary young people. Single sex schools are common in Northern Ireland along with boys and girls toilets, boy and girls changing rooms and boys and girls school uniforms the norm.

No wonder so many trans and non-binary young people have very difficult experiences in our school system, with poor educational attainment and life chances as a result.

Help and support does exist, with Gender Jam NI leading the way locally. I’m very proud to say that Ellen Murray from Gender Jam NI stood for the Green Party as the first trans candidate for either part of this island.

There is so much we can do on a policy level to create safe spaces for trans and non-binary children. I delighted to work with visionary and pioneering organisations like Gender Jam to make that happen.

However, Gender Jam NI is woefully funded. So, I’m happy to give them a major plug and promote their excellent support services.

I attended a few events as part of Pride Week this year. Including Alternative Queer Ulster where I had my eyes opened to the issues faced by queer people at a time when we think that queer people have never had it so good. I also understand how important it is to be an ally for those people. They no longer want the crumbs of acceptance from wider society, they want the same as us.

So instead of letting another meaningness “International Day of ….” come and go, let’s tackle transphobia where we see it and support ground breaking groups like Gender Jam to carve out safe spaces for our trans and non-binary young people.

This is a guest slot to give a platform for new writers either as a one off, or a prelude to becoming part of the regular Slugger team.