It’s been three months since I upped sticks and moved to Northern Ireland to become the Director of the Rainbow Project. While I may be new on this particular scene, I’m no newcomer to the fight for LGBTQ+ equality, having been involved in many of the campaigns for progress on LGBTQ+ issues in Scotland and the UK over (too) many years.
In lots of ways the Scottish and Irish LGBTQ+ journeys have plenty in common. Its fair to say, when it came to LGBTQ+ equality, we were the late starters. Decriminalisation in Scotland didn’t come until 1981, Northern Ireland was closely behind in 1982 and Ireland lagged even those slowest of starts, following in 1993.
From there, progress has been made in almost every area of our lives, from anti-discrimination laws to marriage equality. In recent years, securing LGBTQ+ equality and rights had begun to feel like a one way street with progress coming at what felt like an ever-increasing pace, still recognising that some had to fight harder than others to achieve it. So many of us had genuinely begun to dream that progress might have taken root, perhaps even become irreversible.
I’m still optimistic that full legal and social equality for all LGBTQ+ people will become a reality, but the hard lesson for me in recent months and years is that we still have so much more to do in order to keep pushing forward to achieve it.
As we see more protestors at our Pride events, inclusive education in our schools branded as ‘deviant’, drag story time and family events blockaded and our LGBTQ+ organisations facing levels of abuse and threat not seen since the ‘80s, it can be easy to think the ladders of progress have had their rungs cut.
At a time when one of the direct consequences of the increase in anti-LGBTQ+ sentiment has been a significant rise in the reporting of hate crime, both north and south of the border, progress on improved LGBTQ+ inclusive hate crime laws have stalled at Stormont and Leinster House.
At a time when the increasingly fork-tongued narrative is of LGBTQ+ people being the perpetrators of conversion therapy rather than its victims, we are making slower progress than needed on comprehensively banning conversion practices across this whole island.
At a time when increasingly hostile anti-trans narratives, which, by the way, look almost identical to the anti-gay narratives of the ‘70s and ‘80s, are being shipped across the Irish Sea in the red lane, all the lessons of progressive gender recognition laws south of the border have not been learned north of the border or in other parts of the UK.
The Scottish and Irish LGBTQ+ journeys have plenty in common because they are explicably linked, and that goes for other parts of these islands too. Progress for LGBTQ+ people in one part of these islands does have an impact in its other constituent parts. It was the lessons from the Scottish Equal Marriage Campaign that became useful in the Irish Marriage Equality Referendum. It was the knowledge of trans and LGBTQ+ organisations in Ireland that in some way helped secure the passing of Scotland’s Gender Recognition Reform Bill. These are just two examples.
As we seek progress in a challenging environment it’s important that everyone who believes in progress for LGBTQ+ people work together. As we fight for improved hate crime laws, better trans healthcare, a comprehensive ban on so called conversion therapy, inclusive education and social progress too, we must do it together. That too is progress.