7 mins


Ireland’s national LGBTQ+ youth charity Belong To has been named the Grand Marshall of this year’s Dublin Pride Parade. Ahead of the march on June 29, Chris Rooke spoke to five young activists who will be at the forefront about the importance of community and how they hope to impact the future. All photos by Babs Daly.

“There was this huge eruption of cheers, and I can't even explain the feeling,” Barra John recalls of their experience at Dublin Pride last year. “There were people applauding and cheering, you just felt so loved and so seen and supported. If I could go back and relive that over and over again, I definitely would.”

They won’t have to wait long to experience it again: a member of Belong To’s Pride Youth Committee, they will be joining the national LGBTQ+ youth organisation’s group at the front of this year’s Dublin Pride march. After more than 20 years of service, Belong To is Grand Marshall of Dublin Pride. Throughout its lifespan, the charity has advocated for and championed the voices of young people through direct engagement via one-to-one support services and a network of youth groups; education of those working with LGBTQ+ young people through means such as workshops and programmes; and at a policy and research level, including significant ongoing research around young people’s experiences in school, and their mental health and wellbeing.

In the last 12 months, Belong To has created several initiatives to allow young LGBTQ+ people to have their voices heard, be more directly involved, and grow their networks. “The Pride Youth Committee is here to involve young people in the planning of Dublin Pride,” Barra John says. “I love going into my youth group and being within such a tight community but also being seen as an individual. So I was going into the committee with the main hope for Pride to be like that too: to be a huge community, but we recognise you as an individual too.”

“It was almost an instant connection because we all knew we have something in common,” explains Megan, another member of the Pride Youth Committee. “Being able to have this common ground to start off with really helped, especially for someone like meI really struggle with socialising and connecting with people. So it was really nice to be able to have people who wanted to connect with me, it's a really welcoming community.”

That sense of community was mirrored in the creation of the Youth Advisory Panel earlier this year, both internally and in the work that its members hope to carry out. “It’s a space for young people's voices to be heard, from a youth perspective,” says Beth, “And there's such an opportunity to make friends with people from the Pride community and Belong To youth clubs. A sense of community, and helping with activism in the community for the long term.”

The Youth Advisory Panel aims to give young LGBTQ+ people access to the tools, training and resources they may need to empower them to represent themselves and their community. A new initiative, the Panel aims to equip a new generation of advocates and activists, allowing them to bring issues affecting LGBTQ+ young people to the fore.

“I come from a more rural background, so we’re being given this golden opportunity to speak for the people that are around you and speak for the people in such a small area,” explains Declan. “It's great having such a diverse spread of people involved.”

It’s easy to see from listening and talking to them the passion that these groups have for continuing to change Ireland to make it more inclusive of LGTBQ+ people, but also the challenges they’ve faced that have lit that fire within them. “If you are an LGBTQ+ person, and you come out maybe when you're in first year or second year, you're going to face backlash. That is the truth of our society, that’s the truth of secondary schools in our lives,” Declan continues.

“I think from my personal experience, and being in an LGBTQ+ youth support group for years, I know that backlash we often face can have a severe impact on our mental health, and that can often be overlooked or ignored,” Ciara adds. “I've heard from other people their experiences of being told that no, you're just confused, this is a phase, you're gonna grow out of it, or you're too young to know. And I think sometimes, it can be underestimated how much of a negative impact that can have on the mental health of LGBTQ+ youth, so I think it's really valuable that we have an organisation like Belong To in Ireland that treats LGBTQ+ youth with the respect we deserve.”

Activism is important to me because I don't want to just sit around and do nothing. I want to make change....

Even when trying to make an impact, barriers are placed in the way. “I've always had a big interest in politics and I had an opportunity to actually email and speak with a certain politician,” recalls Barra John. “But I got very overlooked and almost shoved aside, a ‘just another kid’ kind of attitude. After that experience, I thought maybe youth activism would be a better way to go about this.

I think with activism you get to speak out, and I think activism has often made a much, much bigger difference than actual politics.”

These tough experiences haven’t dampened their hope, and the scale of their ambition is impressive. “Having your voice heard by people who are important in your community and in government is important,” Beth argues. “And I think activism is really important because a lot of people might say, ‘I want to change this’, but don't actually do anything about it. Activism is important to me because I don't want to just sit around and do nothing. I want to make a change.”

“I'm interested in advocating for making schools in Ireland more LGBTQ+ friendly,” says Ciara. “Along with that, definitely improving the trans healthcare system in Ireland. Those would be the two big issues I would most want to contribute to.”

“I would like to contribute to some research. Obviously there was the Being LGBTQI+ in Ireland report done just recently and that was huge,” explains Declan. “It is very instrumental having the numbers to back up what you're saying and being able to contribute to something like that is very, very exciting.”

In the immediate future, the Pride Youth Committee has been working on ideas for Pride this year. “A lot of what we're trying to focus more on is that, while the base of Pride is obviously the LGBTQ+ community, we’re a human rights march,” Megan says. “So we're also leaning towards the human rights part as well. We are trying to focus on accessibility and make more accessible areas during Pride; we brought up creating quiet areas or places to sit. And there will be more water stations there this year. So we’re definitely making a difference.”

Having Belong To’s backing and platform will be important to all five campaigners in achieving their goals, but the organisation’s support and community have clearly been impactful already. “The opportunity to work with Belong To meant a lot to me,” Ciara explains. “Especially because when I was younger and in the closet, Belong To’s information booklets really helped my parents understand how to better support me.”

“I joined a youth group in Bray that is in the Belong To network,” Barra John recalls. “Belong To has been a constant for the last two years. It’s always been a place that I can find support.”

Beth discussed how Belong To offers experiences that aren’t available elsewhere. “You get so many opportunities to do things and everyone is really nice and accepting and accommodating if you have any extra needs. So it was very fitting for me.”

“We got the Belong To LGBTQ+ Quality Mark in our school and that was a pretty big deal,” Declan recounts. “It was like, ‘Wow, we've come so far’, all the teachers are involved and everyone is so accepting.”

“I know I've had times where I felt that because of my age or because of me being different to others, I wouldn't be able to be heard the way that I needed to,” says Megan. “With Belong To, knowing that my voice is not only heard but projected, it makes me feel really seen. I know a lot of young people would really appreciate seeing someone like them: their age, their gender, their whatever. They feel that connection as they see better that they can be heard and they can make a difference.”

As they take pride of place in this year’s march, it’s hard not to be drawn in by the drive, dedication and determination that Belong To inspires in its members.

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