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Stories of LGBTQ coming of age & fighting for equality in Northern Ireland

People from across NI, the only place in the UK where same-sex marriage is illegal, describe their struggles, triumphs, lives, and loves

“Northern Irish society publicises being gay as something that is politically and socially abhorrent,” says Jonathon Wright, a 22 year-old gay man and English Literature graduate from Bangor, a seaside town near Belfast.

Like many LGBTQ+ people in Northern Ireland, Jonathon struggled to come to terms with his sexuality after years of hearing queer people being associated with sin and deviance. “I remember taking a long look at myself in the mirror when I was about 16, and making the conscious decision to say ‘I am gay’ out loud,” he says. “It was tough, but the physical action of doing that helped.”

In the aftermath of the 2017 General Election, Theresa May’s confidence and supply deal with Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) was heavily scrutinised. Critics warned that the Conservatives were in danger of violating the Good Friday Agreement, which states that the UK government must remain politically neutral between Northern Ireland’s leading unionist and republican parties. As negotiations began, the DUP’s socially conservative positions on abortion and same-sex marriage were thrust into the spotlight, and a torrent of homophobic, racist, and misogynistic remarks from DUP politicians surfaced online.

Some senior DUP figures have described homosexuality as evil, wicked, sinful, and abhorrent. Others have publicly defended anti-gay discrimination, blamed gay people for HIV/AIDS, and compared gay sex to incest and paedophilia.

With this kind of rhetoric, it is unsurprising that Jonathon, like so many queer people in Northern Ireland, has struggled with mental health issues. “It all revolved around the realisation of being gay,” he explains.

These shocking quotes suddenly appearing in the headlines forced DUP leader Arlene Foster to somewhat awkwardly defend her party’s stance on LGBTQ+ rights. Yet the Scottish Government revealed that in 2013, Foster personally intervened to request that they block Northern Irish citizens from accessing Scottish same-sex marriages.

“The DUP make it very clear they have little intention on changing their views,” says Jonathon. “It will be impossible for change while the DUP reign supreme. I just knew I had to leave to be able to truly flourish.”

In 2015 the DUP tabled a petition of concern, a parliamentary mechanism that requires legislation to receive majority support from both unionist and republican MLAs, to scupper a motion that would have allowed same-sex marriages in Northern Ireland. As long as the DUP have over 30 seats in the Northern Irish Assembly, they can abuse this mechanism to block pro-LGBTQ+ legislation.

Though in the most recent Stormont elections, the DUP lost their majority, falling below the crucial number of 30 seats needed to table a petition of concern. Not only this, but with Stormont negotiations at a permanent standstill, direct rule from Westminster seems inevitable. Last month, Labour MP Conor McGinn introduced a Private Members Bill in an attempt to trigger a vote in Westminster on equal marriage in Northern Ireland. But with Theresa May’s ever-fragile government seemingly at the mercy of the anti-LGBTQ+ DUP, the result is far from certain.

The deal between the Tories and the DUP has forced people across the UK to take notice of the divisive and hateful rhetoric that has long been part of Northern Ireland’s political culture. But this problem runs far deeper than nasty words. LGBTQ+ people in Northern Ireland still live as second-class citizens, with a combination of religious social conservatism, political insecurity and inherent sectarianism allowing systemic queerphobia to thrive.

Jonathon was raised Protestant and attended church in Bangor until he came out. Interestingly, his church shares a building with a Roman Catholic and Church of Ireland congregation, which causes regular conflict. “They don’t get on at all,” he explains. “It’s the most bizarre thing having two groups of people share a space to worship the same God, yet still find so many differences in each other.”

This miniature clash symbolises a divide that is indelibly stained into the fabric of Northern Irish society. Communities remain so split along religious and constitutional lines that people vote tactically to stop ‘others’ from gaining ground. This means that families of LGBTQ+ people, and even queer people themselves, often end up voting for parties like the DUP who oppose their rights. “My family consistently vote for DUP to hinder Sinn Féin, simply out of support for the Protestant v Catholic divide,” says Jonathon. “It hurts, but this pattern occurs throughout the country. People don’t form their own opinions.”

It might be easy to assume that the years of conflict in Northern Ireland are long gone, but the nation remains deeply polarised. With Brexit renewing old tensions and power-sharing negotiations at a standstill, the bitter divorce limps on. This partly explains why, despite public support for same-sex marriage, LGBTQ+ rights have progressed so slowly in Northern Ireland compared to other parts of the UK. Although Sinn Féin and the SDLP now support same-sex marriage, the DUP and the Traditional Unionist Voice Party remain firmly opposed.

“My coach said: ‘Kyle, I don't care what sort of sin you get up to outside of school, but it can’t be brought in here’” – Kyle Greene

Other parties, such as the Ulster Unionist Party and Alliance Party, allow their MLAs to vote with their conscience with mixed support. After years of conflict, taking an unmoving stance is encouraged in Northern Irish politics, so progress is painstakingly slow. This means that Northern Irish unionists have little choice but to vote against LGBTQ+ rights, even if they support them.

Growing up queer in a society where religious conservatism is so widespread can be challenging. Dylan Young* was raised in a small rural community near Banbridge, county Down, which strongly supports the DUP. As a child, he endured homophobic rants from his father at the breakfast table and church sermons that described homosexuality as an abomination. “As I grew up we were constantly reminded that being gay was morally futile,” he explains.

After a friend outed him at school, Dylan was bullied relentlessly. He still remembers reading graffiti calling him a “bender”, a “dirty queer” and a “faggot” scrawled across the school grounds. Dylan’s parents offered him little support during this time, and were appalled when he came out. Sadly, their beliefs haven’t changed. “I know there will be no contact between us once I meet someone and consider settling down,” he admits. “I wish things could change with my parents, but I’m not going to tell them what they want to hear.”

Thankfully this level of parental rejection is no longer the norm, but Dylan’s experience of homophobic bullying in school is still infuriatingly common. With politicians and religious figures spouting such hateful rhetoric, it’s no surprise that a culture of systemic homophobia exists within the Northern Irish school system. A report by Belfast-based LGBTQ+ charity The Rainbow Project concluded that homophobic bullying; combined with a lack of LGBTQ+ inclusive education and teacher training, creates an environment that discriminately and illegally disadvantages LGBTQ+ people. After all, queer teens still have to study and sit exams, just like everyone else.

Bullying is too often ignored or condoned by people in positions of power. A staggering 75 per cent of LGBTQ+ young people in Northern Ireland who reported bullying claim that their school did nothing to help. 24-year-old Kyle Greene* went to school in Larne, county Antrim, where he felt pressured to conform to the hyper-masculine and competitive culture. After he was outed, Kyle was taken aside by his rugby coach. “My coach said: ‘Kyle, I don't care what sort of sin you get up to outside of school, but it can’t be brought in here. Everyone on the team would be a lot more comfortable if you left, quietly,’” he explains. “I'm still angry at myself for not being less of a coward and standing up to this.”

24-year-old Cliff Carter was verbally abused on a daily basis before coming out. After he was outed this escalated, and his possessions were routinely stolen or destroyed. The bullying peaked in a surreal few weeks where fellow pupils sniggered that it “smelled like piss around here”. He eventually realised that two boys had urinated in his locker. The deputy head of Cliff’s school let the culprits off with a slap on the wrist because they were on the school rugby team, dismissing the incident as a harmless prank. “I have never felt more disappointed or disenfranchised,” explains Cliff. “The school was definitely complicit. That man’s decision both saddens and sickens me to this day.”

“We look to the government to set a standard for society. If that standard is homophobia, then it’s validated and little will change” – Katie Goh

Like many queer people, being bullied throughout school had a corrosive effect on Cliff’s mental health. After being repeatedly urged to kill himself and burn in hell following his outing, he began having suicidal thoughts and eventually attempted suicide. With the culture of outing creating a climate of fear and emotional suppression, particularly at school, Cliff’s experience isn’t unusual. 84 per cent of LGBTQ+ young people in Northern Ireland who have experienced bullying have had suicidal thoughts, and 35 per cent of these pupils attempt suicide at least once. In fact, Northern Ireland is deep in a suicide epidemic. More young men have died by suicide in the last 17 years than people killed in over 30 years of violent conflict during civil conflict the Troubles.

But the hyper-masculine culture, which discourages any visible displays of emotion, also affects women. Patriarchy marginalises queer women in particular, with laws not only prohibiting them from marrying who they love, but also controlling their reproductive rights. “As a lesbian, knowing that a majority of the people I will interact with or encounter on a daily basis will vote for parties that deny my right to marry my partner, as well as my right to bodily autonomy should I never need to access an abortion, is hard to make amends with,” explains Rebecca Toolan, a 22 year-old student from Belfast. “Living in a society where dangerous patriarchal ideals are embedded in so many peoples' lives sometimes makes you feel hopeless about the prospect of any social progress.”

When understanding of female sexuality is scarce, lesbian and bisexual women can be erased, making them vulnerable to sexual violence. Rebecca experienced this first-hand at 18-years-old when, despite frequently insisting that she is a lesbian, a man pushed her against a wall and forced himself on her at a friend’s birthday party.

Growing up in this environment creates long-lasting harm. “When you’re raised in a society that doesn't trust you, and actively seeks to punish you for seeking body autonomy, that messes with your head,” says Katie Goh, a 23-year-old journalist from Newtownards, county Down. “You feel dehumanised,” she adds.

Katie asserts that the ban on same-sex marriage is immensely damaging to Northern Ireland’s queer population. “It means that politicians are telling Northern Irish young people that they are ‘right’ if they’re straight and ‘wrong’ if they're anything else,” she explains. Until politicians start treating LGBTQ+ people with more respect, and laws are changed, Katie feels that meaningful progress is unlikely. “We look to the government to set a standard for society,” she says. “If that standard is homophobia, then it’s validated and little will change.”

With understanding of gay, lesbian and bisexual issues lagging behind other parts of the UK, trans and non-binary issues are even less understood. People who do not conform to traditional gender norms are often ridiculed, bullied and rejected, even by their own families and friends. 24 year-old youth worker Aaron Quigg realised that they were non-binary four years ago, after discovering they were not heterosexual in 2007. At the time, only some houses had broadband and YouTube had only just been created.

“I was so uneducated about queer identities and so was everyone around me,” says Aaron. But the internet soon connected Aaron with communities across the world. “I quickly realised I am non-binary, and got to meet other wonderful trans and non-binary people.” Yet while public views of LGB people were beginning to change, the public still didn’t understand trans and non-binary people. “Over the past few years as we have gained more visibility,” Aaron explains. “But we still have a long way to go.”

“At Pride I actually felt proud, accepted and welcomed for the first time, but it should be like that all the time” – Daniel McConaghy

Aaron believes that politicians being queerphobic makes it easier for people in positions of power, but also the public, to be discriminatory. “Politicians debating whether or not you have the right to be treated equally to other people makes you feel inferior,” they explain.

At school, Aaron was told “boys don’t wear nail polish”, when they attempted to experiment. After the school found out that Aaron had kissed a boy at the local disco, their parents were told before they had a chance to come out to them. This caused daily mocking and homophobic abuse, which was not dealt with by the school.

Though working with trans, non-binary and intersex charity GenderJam NI has helped Aaron to feel more comfortable with their gender identity. Organisations including SAIL NI, The Rainbow Project, and Belfast Trans Resource Centre also support Northern Ireland’s trans population.

But the fact remains that Northern Ireland can still be an incredibly difficult place to be LGBTQ+. “Being gay in Northern Ireland has definitely made me a more cautious person,” says 21 year-old Gareth Clarke. “I'm scared to be affectionate to my current boyfriend in public, or even when I'm with friends.” Yet Gareth’s family were incredibly supportive. Kyle also describes how coming out helped to change the views of his parents and grandparents. While school remains a battleground for LGBTQ+ teens, there are some friendly faces, like Jonathon Wright’s school nurse who helped him plan how he would come out. Several of Cliff’s teachers also offered him support. These stories suggest that, despite significant political and cultural challenges, attitudes are progressing.

44-year-old Liam Hamilton* has witnessed this shift. “Things are definitely changing,” he says. “If I was 20 years younger now, I don't think I'd need to run away to London to lead a fulfilled life.” This year’s Belfast Pride was the biggest on record, although the next test is maintaining this momentum after the Pride floats disappear. “At Pride I actually felt proud, accepted and welcomed for the first time,” says Daniel McConaghy, a financial analyst from Belfast. “But it should be like that all the time.”

After a disastrous performance in 2017’s Northern Irish Assembly elections, which saw their lead over Sinn Féin cut to just one seat, the DUP no longer look unbeatable. With the deal in Westminster drawing attention to the vitriolic oppression faced by LGBTQ+ people in Northern Ireland, new allies are appearing across the UK. With broad support across the House of Commons, equal marriage seems inevitable if direct rule was enforced. But whether this happens or not, Northern Ireland is still a challenging environment to grow up queer.

An overwhelming majority of people in Northern Ireland now back same-sex marriage, with different polls putting the number believing in the cause between 68 and 76 per cent. It is also heartening that the both the Northern Irish and Irish feminist movements – its abortion rights and domestic and sexual violence campaign groups – are overwhelmingly trans-inclusive, which cannot always be said for the rest of the UK.

Building on the struggles of previous generations, Northern Ireland’s young people will never stop fighting for change. “I love Northern Ireland, I love Ireland and I love the United Kingdom. But I also love men,” says Dylan Young. “And until I’m seen as equal to my heterosexual counterparts, I’m not going to accept being treated differently.”