I know this isn’t news, but listen; Northern Ireland is a backwards country. In saying that, there’s so much backwardness, regressive politics and socially conservative government policies that calling it “backwards” doesn’t really do it justice. This is no more evident than in the country’s treatment of the LGBTQ+ community.
A few weeks ago, I recorded the Top Table with Stephen Nolan, to be broadcast the next night on BBC One NI. In keeping with Nolan’s shows’ unproductive and inflammatory traditions, they found one of the most bigoted politicians in Northern Ireland and sat him directly across from myself. When the topic of LGBTQ+ rights was raised, naturally, Jim Allister and I clashed, it got ugly, and some disgusting and queerphobic statements were broadcast for a national audience to see.
This encompasses one aspect of what is wrong with Northern Ireland. LGBTQ+ lives and rights are treated as nothing more than a controversial topic for a debate show. Bigots and crypto-fascists are given the platform to spread their vile, dangerous views, the same ones who then go on to legislate on our bodies, our experiences and our lives. This is treated like a revenue generator by the media, something they can - and do - use to generate controversy, scandal, and increased viewer/listener-ship.
While on the show, I was completely blindsided by a question requesting that I explore the details of my personal experience with bullying. The latest Department of Education bullying guidelines removed the requirement for schools to record homophobic or transphobic bullying as homophobic or transphobic. The Department has no guidelines in place for supporting trans young people in school. There are no diversity workshops or education for either pupils or staff on the LGBTQ+ community. Due to those factors and others, of course I have a lot of personal experience with bullying to talk about; however I would’ve liked to have been informed that this would be a topic of discussion prior to the recording (I wasn’t). Throughout the discussion, Mairitin O’Muillieor had the audacity to sit and claim that his party championed and supported queer young people when they held the education ministry (they didn’t), while Jim Allister claimed that I was looking for special attention. All in all, not an excellent response from the esteemed politicians.
The issue of anti-LGBTQ+ bullying and institutional neglect within the education system was truly brought to the fore with the release of a Department of Education report (17 months after its completion). It showed that successive ministers, including Sinn Féin’s own “progressive” and “equality-focused” representatives, have allowed anti-LGBTQ+ rules, biases, and attitudes to not only survive but thrive within post-primary educational facilities. According to this report, around half of LGBTQ+ pupils experienced bullying specifically as a result of their gender identity and/or sexual orientation. Of those who reported the bullying (38%) over half were unsatisfied with the school’s response - which, unfortunately, isn’t shocking in the slightest. Pastoral care in Northern Irish schools is nothing more than an joke; in my school, after reporting bullying, I experienced victim blaming and relative inaction from many of the staff who are supposedly there to support victims of bullying. It should come as no surprise, then, that around two thirds of respondents reported a negative impact on their emotional well-being as a result of their school’s hostile environment towards LGBTQ+ folks. These educational spaces are filled with abuse, hatred, both subtle and entirely obvious erasure, and so many other forms of queer neglect and oppression.
School syllabuses completely inadequately handle LGBTQ+ issues - if they touch on them at all. Most pupils said that, if and when the LGBTQ+ community was mentioned, it was in Religious Education. Having been through these classes I can tell you: they’re awful. Our identities and rights are put up for a hearty debate with the facilitator - the teacher - generally coming down on the queer-bashing side of the argument. Our right to marriage and a family is treated as an affront to the religious liberties of classmates, our right to use the toilet which corresponds with our gender is treated as a threat to others’ safety. Like in the national media, queer rights and identities are debated and scorned like they aren’t literally an issue of life and death to so many people in the country or in the classroom. When you treat us as hypotheticals, you are actively harming and erasing us. When you refuse to acknowledge our presence in your classrooms, your schools, your society, you are actively making us unsafe in those spaces.
Here’s my recommendations, for what it’s worth - although given that the Executive Committee prevented the aforementioned report from including any recommendations whatsoever, mine aren’t likely to be worth much.
The education system requires a drastic overhaul to ensure that it is much more accommodating of the LGBTQ+ community. Guidelines for supporting trans youth in education would be a helpful start which should be drawn up in collaboration with trans community organisations like GenderJam NI and SAIL NI, or adopted wholesale from their comprehensive guidelines. LGBTQ+ community organisations - like the two mentioned previously - urgently need funding to continue the vital work they do; as it stands, we are the only group protected under Section 75 of the Northern Ireland Act to not receive core funding from the NI Executive. Comprehensive, LGBTQ+ inclusive sex and relationships education must be delivered in every school in the region (here’s a sexual health guide for trans people that might be useful, in lieu of such inclusive education). Love For Life is an abstinence-based, cishetero-normative programme which is not fit for purpose; it must be relinquished of the government contract which facilitates it entering schools and miseducating young people.
Alongside queer-exclusionary sex-ed and actively homophobic/transphobic religion lessons, an overarching system of oppression exists within post-primary education. Groups including Precious Life - the ones who hurl vitriolic abuse at those who attempt to acquire an abortion - are invited in to instil social conservatism within children, further protecting the systemic oppression of minorities which exists in the north. While LGBTQ+ community groups are deemed “inappropriate” for an educational environment, abusive and anti-choice activists are welcomed with open arms. There needs to be intersectional support from feminists and queer-rights activists (two massively overlapping groups) for a drastic overhaul in how the education system supports minorities and vulnerable groups, and how it handles social issues. Without this, oppression will continue to replicate itself within the young for years to come.
A proactive approach to bullying - possibly taking the form of diversity workshops for the student body, and constant reinforcement of values of accepting difference - is an absolute necessity. Bullying in the education system is generally tackled retroactively, if reported, often to an incredibly poor standard especially when it affects the LGBTQ+ community. In my own experience, victim blaming is rife, and sufficient action is not taken. The mental health of the LGBTQ+ community is incredibly poor, and this is a massively contributing factor.
Outside the education system, in the health service, the LGBTQ+ community is systemically oppressed and adequate services are not provided for us. Trans people are pathologised within the health service and require a mental health diagnosis to be treated. Gender identity clinics are fundamentally flawed - non binary trans people are often excluded, as are trans people who don’t strictly follow the “proper gender roles”. Waiting lists are incredibly long, and trans folks often wait years before being prescribed hormones/blockers. CAMHS is unfit to handle trans young people - staff are untrained in the area and sometimes do more harm than good. There is no legal protection for intersex babies against doctors performing non-consensual operations on them, the likes of which can have hugely negative impacts for them as they grow. Clearly, provision of care for trans and intersex people is fundamentally unfit for purpose, and is yet another facet of how Northern Ireland treats the LGBTQ+ community unjustly.
Recommendations? Pretty simple, really. Unnecessary cosmetic operations should not be conducted on intersex babies at birth. Hormone blockers and/or hormone replacement therapy should be prescribed on the basis of informed consent through a trans person’s GP. Mental health practitioners should be trained to adequately support trans people. Three simple steps which could drastically improve the lives of trans and intersex people in Northern Ireland.
There are a plethora of issues in the way Northern Ireland accommodates (or fails to accommodate) the LGBTQ+ community, and there are so many which this piece hasn't even touched on; sex workers’ rights, benefits, police oppression, provision of abortion to trans men, non binary people, and cis queer women, among others. Taking the fight to the political establishment and the oppressive state is essential in achieving queer liberation.
Alex is a 17 year old non-binary trans rights activist from Newry, Co. Down. They are joint Equalities Officer in the Green Party NI, and a committee member of GenderJam NI and of the Northern Ireland Youth Forum