‘Pride Comes Before Social Change’ by Fidelma Carolan

fidelma coralanFidelma Carolan is a Regional Officer with UNISON whose primary focus is on lifelong learning. A former President of the University of Ulster Student’s Union, she has over 15 years experience working with the women’s and youth sectors in a variety of managerial and consultancy roles. She has been an active advocate for lesbian, gay, bi and trans rights over many years and is co-author of the ‘Shout – The Needs of Young LGBT People in Northern Ireland’ report.

For me Pride is an opportunity to be visible within wider society, highlight the diversity within our community and enable friends and families to show their support. I was involved in the Pride committee in the mid 90s and there are now more stewards walking than we had in the entire parade. We ducked the odd bottle and suffered verbal abuse from people on the sidelines and saw so many LGB&T people watching, perhaps wishing they could be part of it, perhaps wishing we wouldn’t draw attention to us and to them.

Through the 90s I volunteered with the AIDS helpline, was on committees about lesbian health and setting up an LGB&T centre, graffitied ‘lesbians are lovely’ around Belfast, learned how to eat fire with the lesbian avengers, delivered anti-homophobia training to the RUC, responded to over one hundred Section 75 equality schemes and danced a lot at the Duke of York. HIV+ is now a condition you live with, not die from, the Public Health Agency included lesbians and bisexual women in their most recent screening booklet, there are LGB&T Centres in Belfast, Newry and Strabane, the Policing Board launched their thematic LGB&T action plan, Section 75 has forced public authorities to respond to our existence, lesbians are still lovely and I still dance.

In 2003, I co-authored the Shout report with Sharon Redmond, which looked at the needs of young LGB&T people in Northern Ireland. It was the largest sample size at the time and even I was shocked at the statistics which highlighted significant levels of self harm and having been medicated for depression linked directly to their experience of growing up in a society which told them they were deviant, perverse and not normal. The stories which participants shared about the isolation and bullying they endured in school, often with tacit and sometimes overt consent from those charged with their care, was heartbreaking.

Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people are still generally invisible in workplaces, within families, in sport, in politics, in the media, in schools, in business and in the public sector. This makes it easy for us to be pigeon holed, it is easy for critics to focus on what we do in bed and they don’t mean sleep, read the papers and occasional breakfasts. We are defined by sexual practices, not the holistic nature of our lives. I am lucky, I have always worked for organisations where I felt it was safe to be out, perhaps I chose that career pathway for that reason. It is essential for me to be able to talk about what myself and my partner Eileen did at the weekend, about the puppy we fostered who is now a permanent feature, about what our nieces said and about concerns for elderly parents. Though as well as being important for me, it is also an incredibly effective way of challenging people’s ideas of who we are and how we live. Try having a conversation in work about rows over housework if you want to get people on your side. Recently on twitter I started a series of tweets about conversations between myself and my wife to demonstrate the banality of lesbian life.

But still too many people censor themselves and the impact on someone’s wellbeing cannot be underestimated. The Rainbow Project’s research indicated that around one quarter of people were not out at work, some smaller scale research within the health service here found that 52% of staff were not completely out in the workplace. Surely with the leaps in legislative change where we are now have civil partnerships and protection in employment, training, goods and services, this is startling? Perhaps not when this year the Equality Commission’s research exposed that 27% of people didn’t want an LGB person living beside them rising to 40% if you are transgender. This increased again in the question about having a LGB person as an in-law where 42% would be unhappy and 53% if their in-law was transgender. I contended on the Stephen Nolan show that it was likely that many of those who responded negatively had certainly never met a trans person and had limited real life exposure to lesbian, gay or bisexual people. Lord Maginnis who was also on the Show albeit by phone, commented that gay people were dangerous to children. The only danger I would be to a child is if they ate something I cooked.
This is why visibility is so important. We need more role models, we need those in senior positions in business and public sector to be out, so people don’t pick the organisation where they will be safe, but the job which they can contribute to most, we need sports people, so aspiring competitors don’t live in fear of being outed, we need teachers and youth leaders to be able to be themselves because of the influence they can have on the environment young people grow up in and we need more people in a range of media roles so they can reach entire populations.

Pride is an important part of that visibility, it may be just once a year but it is not just one day, it is an entire programme of political, educational, social and cultural activities. It stimulates debate within our own community and provides an interface to engage with others. While the media photos will probably be of the effervescent drag queens, who as always bring fabulous colour and feathers to every parade, there will lesbian and gay couples walking with their children, sports groups, faith organisations, staff from the Health & Social Care, trade unions, Amnesty International supporters, in fact people walking from every facet of life. Many will be walking for those who can’t. I walk for that young person who feels isolated, different and alone, for the person in a workplace who feels forced to lie about who they are, for the transgender person who doesn’t feel part of our community and for those who are no longer with us.

“Pride makes us long for a solution to things – a solution, a purpose, a final cause; but the better telescopes become, the more stars appear.” — Julian Barnes, Flaubert’s Parrot

Fidelma Carolan is a Regional Organiser with UNISON and an Equality Commissioner. You can follow her on twitter @fid1dec.

References for Research
Matthew McDermott, Rainbow Project (2011) ‘Through Our Eyes – Experiences of Lesbian, Gay and Bisexual People in the Workplace.
Equality Commission (2012) Do You Mean Me?
There is no published report from the staff survey carried out by the Public Health Agency on LGB&T people’s experience working in Trusts and regional health organisation, it was used to inform a response to issues raised by Trade Unions. However, as a consequence, there is now a forum for staff who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender. You can join the confidential email list by sending details to lgbtstaff@hscni.net or follow them on twitter @LGBT_StaffForum