Robin Swann: LGBT pupils need to feel welcome at their schools

People at the PinkNews summer reception at Stormont last night listen to speakers, one of whom was Robin Swann. Photo: Rebecca Black/PA Wire
People at the PinkNews summer reception at Stormont last night listen to speakers, one of whom was Robin Swann. Photo: Rebecca Black/PA Wire
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Speech by Robin Swann MLA at the Pink News summer reception at Stormont, Parliament Buildings, last night

Thank you to Pink News for the invitation; it is a pleasure to be here again tonight.

Robin Swann MLA, who is leader of the Ulster Unionist Party, addressed the Pink News reception at Stormont last night

Robin Swann MLA, who is leader of the Ulster Unionist Party, addressed the Pink News reception at Stormont last night

This event is important to me as leader of a unionist party and I am glad I have been given the opportunity to speak tonight.

Can I congratulate The Rainbow Project on their 25th anniversary, thank them for their co-operation, and work in increasing our knowledge of the issues affecting the community and where we can do better.

It is disappointing that one year on since we last gathered here, this place still hasn’t met.

Although for the LGBT community, it is perhaps difficult to tell the difference as it’s not as if there was an avalanche of legislation that benefited you, passing through here in the last ten years.

If and when we restore devolution, Stormont must offer a platform, representation and legislation for our LGBT community.

Fifty years on from Stonewall, people should not have to take to the streets or go to the courts to secure their basic rights.

You must feel represented by democratic institutions that can and will deliver for you.

Tonight I want to focus on one area where my party wants to see change.

We believe that a new assembly and executive must grasp the nettle of the experience of LGBT youth in our schools and we call on other parties to join us in making this a priority for a new mandate.

When I spoke here last year, I reflected on the horrific statistics from surveys of LGBT youth in Northern Ireland:

Two out of three LGBT young people do not feel that school is the welcoming environment it should be.

Three out of five say they have had suicidal thoughts because of their sexual orientation and/or gender identity.

Young people should spend their years in the classroom gaining the knowledge and skills that will allow them to pursue the adult lives they want.

For many LGBT young people, it is where they first feel the isolation that leads to a life of poor mental health and wellbeing and loss of opportunity.

Quite simply, our schools need to be a place where our young people feel safe, accepted and understood as they come to understand and accept themselves.

There is a fairly simple solution to combatting prejudice and ignorance at its root: that is education.

Our children must be provided with adequate relationship and sex education.

We must introduce anti-bullying legislation that acknowledges homophobia and transphobia as aggravating factors.

Our teachers, both those in teacher training colleges and those within the current staff, must receive training on LGBT issues to help them feel supported and empowered to offer support to students.

As is too often the case in Northern Ireland, we know what the problems are but don’t have the courage to deal with them.

Let us at least start here.

So that we don’t condemn another generation to the poor experiences of their forebearers.

As a party work continues for us to become better advocates and a welcome home to members of the LGBT community, and we will continue to make progress.

I am here tonight not in spite of being a unionist; I am here because I am a unionist.

This nation is more than the sum of all its parts, and we are all better for embracing the diversity of the 21st century United Kingdom.

In the week I received the invitation from Pink News to speak at tonight’s event, I also received an invitation to speak at an Orange Order demonstration, I accepted both without a second thought.

For me there is no contradiction or conflict there; my unionism, Ulster Unionism, is open enough to recognise and embrace all.

There is space for us all.

I want a United Kingdom that is just that; united.

United against bigotry and intolerance.

United in mutual respect and understanding.

United in lifting each other up.

• Robin Swann is Ulster Unionist Party leader