The event was broadcast over Facebook, arranged by the media outlet Pink News, was sponsored by the corporate finance giant CitiGroup, and was hosted by John O’Doherty of the Rainbow Project.
The Rainbow Project is arguably Northern Ireland’s most influential gay / gender group; it got roughly £456,000 in public grants last year, including over £34,000 from the PSNI.
The online meeting involved Doug Beattie, UUP leader, Mary Lou McDonald, president of Sinn Fein, Colm Eastwood, SDLP leader, Naomi Long, Alliance leader and justice minister, and Mal O’Hara, a Green Party councillor in Belfast.
Here, the News Letter is focussing on Paula Bradley in particular, because of the DUP’s historic association with anti-gay beliefs.
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A great deal of the discussion did not focus on gay rights per se; for example, the words ‘gay’ or ‘homosexual’ were seldom used.
Instead, much of the roughly 90-minute online gathering focussed on transgender and “non-binary” rights.
Transgender is taken by activists to mean anyone who feels they are a different gender to the one they were born into, and they think these people should be “affirmed” (that is, believed and accepted) regardless of whether they have undergone any hormone treatment, surgery, or how they dress or behave.
Non-binary is more complicated; it means someone who says they are not male or female, but some other gender, of which there are a multitude.
Trans Pride NI has defined “trans people” as something which “includes, and is not limited to: Transgender, Transsexual, Gender-queer, Gender-fluid, Non-binary, Gender-variant, Crossdresser, Genderless, Agender, Nongender, Third gender, Two-spirit, Bi-gender, Trans man, Trans woman, Trans masculine, Trans feminine and Neutrois”.
TRANS / NON-BINARY GENDERS AT THE FOREFRONT:
The initial part of the discussion was centred on what John O’Doherty of the Rainbow Project described as “one of the most important problems for LGBTQI+ people in Northern Ireland – that’s trans healthcare”.
Mr O’Doherty said that: “An ever-growing number of trans and non-binary people are not able to access the care that they need and deserve.
“This is happening during a period of increased transphobia and gender-critical movements, questioning the identities of our trans and non-binary community”.
He added that “trans and non-binary people aren’t as default likely to experience mental health problems; it’s transphobia, and homophobia and biphobia also, but also that lack of access to healthcare that’s causing these mental health issues”.
Naomi Long, Doug Beattie, and Green councillor Mal O’Hara spoke on the topic, and were all in agreement that current services are falling short.
And then the time came for Ms Bradley to speak.
On the specific questions of “is there more Stormont could be doing, is there more Stormont should be doing?” she said:
“Look thank you, and first of all can I just say, look, I am genuinely glad to be here with you tonight and thank you for the invite.
“As you said, I sat on the health committee for a number of years, and this issue came up time and time again.
“We have never done this right. It’s never been patient or person-focussed. It’s very much been finance-focussed.
“There’s been holes in the whole trans [unintelligible] transgender health for many, many years. And it has just steadily got worse.
“I know those years I did chair the sexual health all-party group, it was raised time and time again.
“I’ve represented people in person who are waiting on waiting lists.
“I absolutely agree with other people here, that this is an issue of equality - absolutely it is.
“People are entitled to healthcare, so they are, whatever that healthcare might be.
“They have an entitlement to it and I think that we’ve never done enough in NI to support transgender health.”
SELF ID LAWS:
The next portion of the discussion turned to the Gender Recognition Act, which Mr O’Doherty said was “not fit for purpose”.
Gender campaigners have been trying for years to overturn the Gender Recognition Act, which governs how people can legally change their identity.
For example, under the act no hormones or surgery are required to obtain a full legal change from male to female (or vice-versa).
Instead, an applicant must have a diagnosis of “gender dysphoria” (a medical term meaning deep psychological discomfort with one’s gender), must have lived as a woman (or man) for two years, and must pledge that their change of identity is permanent.
The Tory government initially signalled they would replace this with a system called Self ID.
That would have meant there are zero criteria for deciding what gender someone is – so if someone called themselves a woman, then they would be legally regarded as a woman, irrespective of any medical considerations.
To the surprise of activists, the government relented and decided not to adopt Self ID, sparking anger among activists.
Mr O’Doherty asked all participants for a commitment to “work collectively to address that huge inequality that currently exists within legislation”.
Mary Lou McDonald said “absolutely yes”, saying the current legislation “medicalises legitimate identity” and was nearly a case of “othering people in a way that is cruel and unequal”.
Naomi Long said “it was disappointing but not surprising the government are rowing back” .
Councillor O’Hara said “as cis-gender people, as another queer person, my role is as an ally, and I need to stand behind and beside trans people in this battle for liberation...
“The clarion call for all of us who believe in queer equality and liberation is to stand behind our trans siblings”.
And Ms Bradley said: “Could I just come in and say I absolutely agree.
“To use the word ‘disorder’ as if someone has an illness that can be cured in some way, or healed in some way [unintelligible]...
“I’m happy to work along with colleagues on this call on this issue.
“Because I think just this whole word disorder is just completely shocking to me, that that is being used.”
The NHS says: “Gender dysphoria is a term that describes a sense of unease that a person may have because of a mismatch between their biological sex and their gender identity.
“This sense of unease or dissatisfaction may be so intense it can lead to depression and anxiety and have a harmful impact on daily life.”
LGBTQ+ LESSONS FOR SCHOOLCHILDREN:
The conversation then moved on to schoolchildren.
Mr O’Doherty said that “recent research commissioned by the Department for Education found that 66.5% of our kids do not feel welcome or valued within schools.
It also found that 45% of LGBTQIA+ do not feel safe within our schools”.
This is a reference to a 2017 study carried out by a firm called PACEC, which has since gone into liquidation, which surveyed 532 sixteen-to-21-year-olds online, as well as a focus group of 26 people.
Gender campaigners have long been pushing for LGBTQ+ education to be mandatory for schools.
Colm Eastwood said: “Many kids, the only sex education they get is 30 minutes of a grainy VHS tape where some biology teacher is telling them about their changing bodies.
“I mean, that’s what a lot of kids are getting in schools!
“And there’s very, very little kind of LGBT+-affirming education within our schools.
“We need to bake equality and inclusion into the curriculum.
“That cannot be optional for schools.”
Ms Bradley said: “Not only we should have a response, again this is something I have been championing for a number of years, is our relationship education in schools.
“And I know my party are not as one on this. I know that for some there are major issues there.
“But I know certainly from my own perspective it’s something I see as a positive move forward.
“That all of our young people have that space and have that chance to explore and to learn about each other.
“I think that our children, very much this generation of children’s very different to my generation.
“The bullying does not stop in school. It continues on through social media. So those children never get away from that.
“They go home to their homes, their bedrooms, wherever that may be, their places of sanctuary, and they continue to be bullied.
“That just can’t be allowed to happen. I think if our young people learnt at an earlier age just to accept difference and to accept that we’re not all the same, but we are the same.
“We’re all human beings and we all have the same emotions and the same feelings.
“Everything that I’m hearing here I’m taking notes and I will feed that back and I certainly will speak to the education minister.
“Because as I say, over the years certainly even the sexual health strategy and other things I’ve been deeply involved in, and I know we’re going to talk about it at some stage during this.
“But we’ve also got the LGBTQ+ strategy, so that is something I know we’re going to speak about.
“It’s something that very much that a lot of the issues that have already been spoken about here can be fed into that strategy, which will mean that all departments within government, the strategy will overarch that.
“So, I know as I say we’re going to talk about it later. But I think it’s worth saying that.”
Ms Bradley was asked about a DUP amendment on “conversion therapy”, on which she abstained.
In April, the DUP had attempted to amend an existing motion which said that it was “fundamentally wrong” to view LGBTQ+ people as needing a “fix or cure”, and replace it with different wording.
“I actually didn’t support the motion,” said Ms Bradley.
“I abstained on our party’s motion as well as the main motion.
“I think on reflection it was wrong to remove that line out of there.
“As a party we absolutely agree that conversion therapy should be banned.
“Absolutely, 100%. Albeit as a party we still believe there should be certain protections for religious freedom, whether that is prayer or whatever that might look like.
“But certainly not that conversion therapy.
“I’ve spoken to people who have been through that journey and that journey affected them greatly throughout their life, just the mental health and effects of going through that type of therapy.
“It’s absolutely wrong. It’s barbaric.
“Just on the issue to do with the conversion therapy, minister Hargey is going to tag that in again to the LGBTQ+ strategy, which will come through the committee that I chair, so that we know there is going to be some movement on it.
“It will be done in tandem with the strategy.
“So that will give us the opportunity then to look more closely on it and for it to be tailored in a way, again, and that’s going to be through co-design [meaning, it will involve LGBTQ+ groups in the drafting of its wording].
“Mal talked about co-design earlier when it came to trans health.
“So it is there, it is coming to us and it will be with us probably in the autumn time.”
DUP MLA APOLOGISES FOR OTHER PEOPLE:
Mr O’Doherty asked her, without raking over old examples of things said by DUP members: “Do you think there would ever be a time that the DUP would, and do you think they should, apologise for the hurt and harm caused to LGBTQIA+ people over the last 50 years?”
She replied: “I’m not going to defend some of the things that have been said over the years, because they have been absolutely atrocious. They’ve been shocking, so they have.
“I certainly couldn’t stand by many of those comments - in fact all of those comments.
“Because I know that the hurt they have caused people and I know that fed in to the hatred some people have had to endure in their life, and I think that’s absolutely wrong.
“I think the vast majority of those people that made those comments are no longer there, and the ones that are there have said that they have learned their lessons, that their language at times has not been right.
“It’s something I’ve brought up on numerous occasions with my own party because I think not sometimes, all the time, our language very much that we use as elected representatives has an impact in wider society.
“I can certainly say I apologise for what others have said and done in the past because I do think that there has been some very hurtful comments and some language that really should not have been used.”
Her closing remarks were: “Thank you, and can I thank also Pink News, Citi, and yourself John at Rainbow.
“I’ve known you John and Mal for a number of years.
“We’ve always had very respectful debate, we haven’t always agreed on things.
“But I’ve always been very open to listen and hear what you have to say, and try my little bit to bring about change and to make things better.
“I’ll be going back with lots of notes here and lots of offers of meetings for various people and I give you my word that I will do that and I will pass that on.
“I just was thinking here that I probably maybe have gone further than some of my party colleagues would have liked but that’s me, I do that all the time anyway.
“I may well not be in the position to come back next year after this. But look I just will continue to do my bit, so I will, within my party, and I hope that we can continue that respectful debate that we have between each-other.
“Because I think that the only way forward is to continue with that so thank you very much for inviting me tonight, it has been a real pleasure to be here.”
Read more on these topics from the News Letter, the only outlet in Northern Ireland covering these issues in detail:
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