Last week, we asked Rachel Bunting to pop over to the Duncairn Arts Centre to report on the panel discussion that was organised by the Queer Greens as part of Pride week. Here Rachel gives us the low down on what went down as well as some of her own thoughts.
A breath of fresh air. That’s the best way to describe the panel discussion organised by the Queer Greens for Belfast Pride Week on Thursday 4 August in Duncairn Cultural Arts Centre.
Honestly, I didn’t know what to expect from the evening. With ‘Pride Talks Back’ having already been cancelled earlier that week, the event promised to be an opportunity for queer politicos to engage with political representatives, grass-roots activists and leading public sector figures. Moreover, too often the issue of marriage equality is the focal point of LGBTQ+ activism and the thought of a night dedicated to other, more pressing, issues which face our community intrigued me.
I was not to be disappointed.
Chaired by the remarkable queer activist Ruth McCarthy, Director of Outburst Queer Arts Festival, the panel teased out a nuanced, insightful conversation in a safe, non-partisan space.
The panel itself consisted of inspiring figures who reflected the diverse views and backgrounds within the queer community and its allies:
Carál Ní Chuilín – North Belfast Sinn Fein MLA and former Culture Minister
Thomas McCluskey – Cara-Friend Youth
Gavin Boyd – Policy Advocacy at the Rainbow Project
Julie-Anne Corr – PUP councillor, Belfast City Council
From the outset, the atmosphere was welcoming, warm and vibrant. Throughout the evening, though many challenging questions were asked, the panel spoke with ease, offering thoughtful comments and encouraged the audience to participate in a healthy debate.
The event was not to deny the issue of marriage equality, indeed Carál ni Chuilín argued during the panel that once marriage equality was achieved it would open the door to fighting further campaigns.
Still, marriage equality remains a ‘soft issue’, which pales in comparison to issues of violence and survival that face our global queer community. The issues that truly challenge the status quo aren’t sexy or easy to understand, rather they challenge the intrinsic nature of our current society, one based on ignorance and patriarchy. This event increased the visibility of those issues.
Over the course of the discussion, a myriad of concerns were discussed, highlighting just how far the queer community has to go and the variety of campaigns that people can become involved with.
Ellen Murray brought to attention the lack of understanding both the LGBTQ+ and wider community have in relation to trans and non-binary issues. She argued that while the community are very good on ‘big ticket items’ like marriage equality and the recently overturned blood ban, they fail to give enough time to survival issues. Individuals within the queer community have their lives wrecked by poor education, which creates an environment where young people grow up with poor mental health.
Carál highlighted the need to challenge both the mainstream media narrative and the use of “balance” on panels to justify non-progressive opinions. Ellen agreed with Carál that there needs to be increased visibility of LGBTQ+ individuals on the media, who can challenge the existing reductive messages, which often originate from a privileged point of view. Thomas McCluskey argued that improving sex and relationship education within schools is paramount. For him, providing more comprehensive education would mean that young queer people would not be shamed or isolated by their schools, rather their personal development would be supported.
Gavin Boyd emphasised that it was a huge detriment to society that the quietest voices are often not heard. He was surprised by the conservative push back from the media on the issue of PrEP, while Councillor Julie-Ann Corr focused on the need for strengthening and protecting parental rights for LGBTQ+ couples. Julie-Ann, the first openly unionist lesbian councillor at Belfast City Council also spoke during the event about unionism, historically seen as a cold-house for LGBTQ+ individuals, as slowly becoming more progressive.
Issues including mental health, training of healthcare staff particularly on trans-specific issues, inter-generational dialogue, tackling erasure, improving intersectionality of our campaigns and our shared spaces, and ensuring we have a diverse range of queer spokespeople, were all tackled. An impassioned Gavin stressed that the time for “nice words” was over when fighting for these campaigns, which sparked applause in the audience.
The final part of the event heard questions from the audience including the impact of Brexit, the challenges of limited resources, training within the NHS on trans issues, the role of the courts and ways in which we can ensure queer voices are heard. Thomas McCluskey sees Brexit as a chance for young and more experienced activists alike to regroup and repoliticise. Carál agreed that we may have lost our “bolshiness” and called for a rejuvenation of activism to protect everyone.
Moving forward, we need to continue showing the nuance of these issues and not dilute our community in all our complexities. As Ellen Murray said, “sound bites lose the intricacy of our queerness”.
Still, we must go further, as Ruth McCarthy touched upon, than just “fire fighting” issues, and instead look at the nature of oppression. It is time to redefine the patriarchal nature of marriage, challenge the faith based nature of our education system and overthrow the exploitative nature of our employment laws. By forming alliances across communities, with all sexual orientations, races, class and gender, we can build a better society for all.
A special thanks should go to the Queer Greens, we need many more events like this one! The queer community should not settle for easy wins, but fight for our human rights. We need to ensure that these conversations continue to happen all year around, not just at Pride, while fostering new queer spokespeople. Our immediate concern is to ensure queer voices are being heard and that our community is safe and strong, loud and proud.