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A New Group For A Changed Country

In the wake of the successful result in the marriage referendum, it could be assumed Ireland has become a more welcoming place for its LGBT+ citizens. However, last year the findings of the LGBT+ Youth Strategy revealed that half of the young people surveyed identified ongoing discrimination, with one in five identifying bullying and harassment.

With so much support still needed, not just for our younger members, but across the community as a whole, and since the closure of GLEN, one of the country’s key advocacy organisations, last year, LGBT Ireland has formed to answer that call. Previously known as the LGBT Helpline, the organisation has expanded its remit to now provide training and advocacy support. CEO Paula Fagan describes it as “a national organisation set up to improve the visibility, inclusion and rights of LGBT people and their family members living in Ireland.”

LGBT Ireland’s plans to achieve this include partnering with key agencies to develop and deliver quality-assured training for those who work in support services for the community. In its advocacy role, the organisation aims to ensure LGBT+ people are heard and listened to at every level, in policy and practical levels, at national and regional levels, and with an emphasis of advocating on the needs of rural LGBT+ people. A key role will be to develop community-based supports regionally.

To facilitate this, the organisation will be overseen by a board made up of representatives from LGBT+ community organisations across the country. Fagan explains: “The LGBT Helpline was set up by local LGBT services coming together. The same groups got together and formed a board for this new national organisation.”

“People who contact us often come from areas where there is no other kind of visible LGBT support.

Described as network members, the board includes representatives from Outwest, Cork Community Development Company, Dundalk Outcomers and LINC. “Our network members would be part of the structure,” says Fagan, “so two thirds of our board will always be from the membership, making us very grass roots, and close to the issues in local communities.” For those members, “we will do support services, like Garda vetting; we’ll run volunteer training programs. We’re trying to add value, to add skills and knowledge and technical support.”

According to Fagan, the provision of training for support services is very important. “We know from the new strategy, we know from our own services, that there’s a real need for training for statutory workers and voluntary and community sector workers in LGBT awareness and LGBT inclusion. One of the goals in our plan is to try and work with other organisations to develop a national training programme.”

As well as the network board members, LGBT Ireland have partnered with other organisations to expand their reach. Those partners include BeLonG To, TENI, Samaritans Ireland, The National Traveller & Roma Action Group, EIR, and NiteLine. As Fagan says, “There is a lot of individual work going on around the country, but sometimes it’s really disheartening when you’re on you own trying to do it. We support our partners to develop and reach out in their own communities, to spread their nets wider, if that is through physical support, coming down to help them with the training, or making contact for them with people who might be able to do something for them in another town or another village.”

Photos: Opening spread: Left to right: Bernardine Quinn, Paula Fagan, Stuart Coleman This page: CEO of LGBT Ireland, Paula Fagan

“ One of the goals in our plan is to try and work with other organisations to develop a national training programme.

Bernadine Quinn, project co-ordinator with Dundalk Outcomers and the chair of the LGBT Ireland board, speaks more on rural areas. “There are few services around the country so that limits the amount of contact a person can make,” she says. “People who contact us often come from areas where there is no other kind of visible LGBT support, or where they don’t have a youth group where they can be out, or a school that’s particularly accepting of them.”

As a measure to combat this, Fagan says: “In places where there isn’t a ready membership organisation – one example would be Kilkenny – we’re working with the HSE down there to see can we set up a group. Our model is to put feet on the ground where there aren’t feet already.”

When asked about whether the needs of the community have changed over the years, Quinn says: “What we’re finding all these years later is that sometimes when you’re coming out, you want to sit in a room with somebody else who is going through the same experience. And that is so important. It’s not about going to a bar and going to a nightclub, it’s about having a space where you can find out who you are. You would think this was something we needed 20 or 30 years ago, when we didn’t have access to all the great stuff we have access to now, but no, it’s still very important, the face-to-face, the chats, the conversation.”

Stuart Coleman, voluntary manager of the Dublin branch of the LGBT Helpline, adds: “It’s still a very personal journey, it doesn’t matter how many other people have gone through the doors before you. What we’ve seen since the referendum is that it’s jumpstarted a lot of things, particularly for a lot of married people or people who might be in opposite-sex relationships – it’s made them face up to, ‘I actually can’t live like this anymore’.”

When asked if there are needs of the community that tend to get overlooked, Quinn says, “I think the closure of GLEN has left a lot of gaps in support. We don’t have a lot going on in the political world, where we need to be strategically thinking how to work with politicians. On a legal front, we’ll get a call to one of the helplines from somebody maybe needing an answer to a question about child custody, or about child protection, housing, those kind of things, so we need to grow our service to respond. We get calls from people who are blind or who are deaf, who need support and don’t live somewhere very close to [for instance] where the Greenbow service is, so how can we be up-skilled to work in that area?”

On the tendency for older members of the community to be overlooked, Fagan adds, “We’re talking to organisations like Age & Opportunity. How can we make them more LGBT aware? Ten per cent of the population is LGBT and everybody’s getting older. We need to make them more accepting and inclusive, and then we can get to the stage where people are celebrated. Like, if you’re in a nursing home and you’re showing pictures of your same-sex partner who maybe died before you, that the relationship could be equally celebrated, as much as anyone else’s would be.”

With an organisation created to help the community, how then can the community help LGBT Ireland in turn? According to Coleman: “A lot of our services are volunteer based, particularly our support groups and phone services, so we’re always looking for people to engage with us or volunteer in other capacities, like if they have other skillsets around marketing or web design.”

Quinn adds: “Encourage people to use us. If you know somebody who’s struggling, or a schoolteacher that knows a kid struggling in a school, or if you’re a GP and somebody comes into your service, have our information at hand and we can come back and support them in whatever way we can.”

To find out more about LGBT Ireland’s services, or to volunteer, visit www.lgbt.ie

This article appears in the 341 Issue of GCN

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This article appears in the 341 Issue of GCN