A National Union of Teachers delegation to the six counties in February was shocked by the state of affairs, writes Annette Pryce
EQUAL marriage, the repeal of Section 28, adoption, equal age of consent, the Equality Act are all things we as LGBT+ people, as trade unionists, fought long and hard for and feel very proud of. The LGBT+ legislative strategy seems all but complete if you ignore survivor pensions, (don’t ignore that), and a few other important things.
But while we’ve won these rights in Britain, in Northern Irealnd they’re almost totally absent.
When our delegation of 14 NUT LGBT+ teachers arrived in Belfast for our four-day trip we didn’t know what to expect. Growing up hearing about “the Troubles” doesn’t make for a lived experience or a good understanding about what Northern Ireland is like.
Our first meeting with the LGBT+ organisation the Rainbow Project was a crash course in Northern Ireland politics.
Delegates, with their mouths gaping open in shock, demonstrated that our ignorance was just as shocking as the terrible, fragile reality being laid before us.
Despite a clear majority of parties agreeing on equal marriage — and let’s face it, a public that isn’t opposed to the idea — the Democratic Unionist Party use what are supposed to be exceptional veto powers to prevent equal marriage proposals and anything progressively LGBT+ from happening.
Civil partnerships are legal in Northern Ireland — because the Assembly was suspended when the 2004 Civil Partnership Act was passed in Westminster — but there are no equal marriage rights and if you and a same-sex partner got married in Britain, it would not be recognised in Northern Ireland.
But marriage isn’t the most important recognition a state can give you and our delegation wanted to understand what the experience was like for LGBT+ children, teenagers and adults.
With the highest rate of LGBT suicide in the UK, the Rainbow Project told us that 40 per cent of their young service-users had attempted suicide. It was a startling statistic that even with my years of activism and teaching stunned me. “Isolation” was cited as one of the key elements to the statistics as well as school-based bullying.
We headed over to Stormont’s Department of Education to better understand what was being done to protect young LGBT+ people and teachers and received yet more bad news. The department is powerless to intervene in school provision of sex and relationship education and given that every school in Northern Ireland is a faith-based school that often means such education is utterly inadequate, making LGBT+ people invisible.
When we asked the department about protections for LGBT+ teachers we were told that they “didn’t look at the teacher element.” Given this was a room full of LGBT+ teachers you can imagine the cold reception.
There is no Equality Act and therefore no employment protections for LGBT+ teachers except for the vague section 75 of the 1998 Northern Ireland Act. And as for school governors, they have one member of the local clergy on each board and an appointments commission that openly LGBT+ people would have zero faith in.
There was some good movement on bullying in schools and it was demonstrated that recording and intervention programmes were being prioritised and promoted by the Education Minister.
We met our sister unions the Ulster Teachers Union and the Irish National Teachers Organisation to show some solidarity and to hear their take and what their organisations were doing in terms of organising LGBT+ teachers.
It was fantastic and inspiring to hear their efforts to challenge homophobia, biphobia and transphobia in the education system. We provided messages of support and promised to keep a channel open to work together and exchange best practice on organising LGBT+ teachers.
One beacon of hope was former Communication Workers Union official Chris Hudson, now a reverend at the Unitarian All Souls Church in Belfast. Chris’s church not just openly welcomes LGBT+ people of faith and refugees, it campaigns publicly for their rights. The church hosted us for an evening and lesbian congregation members performed music for us. It was a special moment after a bleak day for our delegation.
There is of course hope in Northern Ireland, with organisations like the Rainbow Project, teachers’ unions, churches like All Souls and the supportive and active spaces that are emerging for LGBT+ people. But the one hope that blew us all away was the irrefutable fact that out of all the parade marches that take place in Northern Ireland, the LGBT+ Pride parade was the largest.
Imagine, a place that has structural segregation and limited protections for LGBT+ people, the largest unifying demonstration is an LGBT+ rights march. That gives us all hope and that’s why our continuing support and solidarity towards our fellow LGBT+ teachers in Northern Ireland means so much.