WHILE much has changed in Northern Ireland since The Rainbow Project was set up 25 years ago, the rights of LGBT people continue to lag behind their neighbours in Ireland and Great Britain.
Since its establishment in 1994, The Rainbow Project – a charity which works to improve the physical, mental and emotional health and wellbeing of LGBT people in Northern Ireland – has found that while there has been significant positive change in societal attitude, progressive change in other areas has remained frustratingly out of step.
Until October 2019, Northern Ireland remained the only place in the UK, and one of the few countries in Western Europe, to have maintained a ban on same sex marriage. The lag between other regions of the UK and Ireland continues when it comes to a lack of clear legislation in areas including adoption and human rights.
For Gavin Boyd, the policy and advocacy manager at The Rainbow Project (pictured above with the team), little has changed in the attitudes of many of the country’s public services, particularly in the education system.
“Schools are the only public institutions in Northern Ireland where there is no statutory guidance on equality and there has really been no change to how lessons are taught,” he said.
“I know of teachers that have been disciplined for teaching about LGBT issues. This is creating a hostile environment for young people to grow up in. It’s baffling to me that a child leaving school early and starting a job would have more legislative protection than they would in school.”
Research conducted by the Department of Education at the request of The Rainbow Project showed that two thirds of young LGBT people in Northern Ireland did not feel welcomed or valued in their school and almost half did not feel safe.
Working from offices in Belfast and Foyle, The Rainbow Project is the largest LGBT organisation in Northern Ireland and its 18-strong team offer care, support and guidance to hundreds of service users.
As the only dedicated policy and advocacy worker in his field, Gavin works to advocate for the LGBT community by taking people’s concerns directly to government bodies.
He works to shape public policy by first gathering data evidencing the different forms of inequality experienced by LGBT people in Northern Ireland, then building a suggested reform package and then working to generate political support. The approach has so far contributed to notable successes including new legislation disregarding historic convictions for consensual sex between men.
However, it is a process recently fraught with challenge: the uniquely complicated political landscape in Northern Ireland had included the absence of a devolved administration in Stormont, a Westminster government reluctant to intervene in the region and the overriding influence of politicians with traditionalist views.
“It’s a unique set of circumstances that creates a very difficult environment to progress LGBT issues,” Gavin said, explaining that there is widespread public support for legal reform.
“We want to ensure that Northern Ireland is no longer considered a place apart when it comes to LGBT equality.
“There has never been a more important time for The Rainbow Project to be able to articulate the needs of LGBT people, engage the public in campaigns for change and hold the government to account to redress ongoing, well evidenced inequalities.”
- The Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust makes a core grant to The Rainbow Project to support its policy and advocacy work. The grant is made as part of JRCT’s Northern Ireland programme.