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Lesbian Line, Northern Ireland
The Experience of Lesbians & Bisexual Women
Lesbian Line celebrates its 30th anniversary next year as a ‘distinct’ organisation and its 35th anniversary as part of the CaraFriend organisation - set up 1974.
During that time we have been involved in Service delivery – Community Development initiatives - for / by / to Women who identify as Lesbian and Bisexual across N. Ireland (and indeed further afield).
This service delivery has involved the following:
Helpline, Befriending and Information services;
Social support and activities to reduce isolation, build self esteem and confidence, develop healthy relationships;
Mental Health Support and Counselling;
Education & Training of / for Statutory, Community and Voluntary Agencies;
Promotion of Equality and Human Rights for Lesbians and Bisexual Women through influencing policy / legislative developments nationally and internationally.
All of this frontline service delivery has been carried out by Volunteer Workers – Lesbian and Bisexual Women - (since 1974) from a diverse range of backgrounds and professions.
The expertise accrued by our Organisation is used to address the future policies, strategies and direction of Government, Government departments and all Public Bodies and relevant Agencies which impact on the significant numbers of Women in Northern Ireland who identify as Lesbians and Bisexual Women.
The Experience of Lesbians and Bisexual Women in Northern Ireland
As in every society, Lesbians and Bisexual Women suffer a ‘double discrimination’ in society i.e. gender and sexual orientation. The following summarises their experience of what I have termed the ‘violence of enforced invisibility’ as a result of homophobia in all aspects of their daily lives:
in relationship with others e.g. as partners, mothers, daughters, sisters, etc within and outside family structures;
in employment - in all fields and professions and at all levels;
in the heterosexist paradigm in which society is grounded;
in the institutional homophobia perpetuated by e.g. major religions and political institutions throughout the world;
in the structural homophobia in all aspects of public and political life which is reinforced by ‘enforced invisibility’;
in the experience of physical, mental and emotional violence;
in the experience of social isolation;
in the lack of resourced community development initiatives;
in ‘enforced migration’ due to intimidation;
in the ignorance / lack of understanding in aspects of public life and service delivery e.g. in the Health, Education and Justice Systems, participation in public and political life.
It is vital that we as organisations and lobbyists effectively address the issues highlighted above and to aid understanding / appreciation of the impact of such ‘violence’. Lesbian Line has worked to do just this via the various mechanisms available to us in N. Ireland. While we continue to develop legislative equality here, it is the changes in ‘hearts and minds’ which are crucial if we are to create a society where all are safe, valued and equal in a society ‘fit for the 21st century’.
In N. Ireland the Chair of our Assembly Health Committee (Iris Robinson of DUP) earlier this year, made statements widely reported in the media here and also outside N. Ireland which have deservedly provoked outrage across the spectrum of political life and civic society. Homophobic, dangerous and potentially life threatening – many see such comments as ‘hate crime’* i.e. tantamount to inciting hatred against People from the LGBT Community here. They have also been viewed - as Mrs Robinson is an MLA and MP – as an ‘abuse of public office’.
*‘Hate Crime’ is defined under the Criminal Justice (No 2) (Northern Ireland) Order 2004 as ‘offences motivated by hostility towards a person's race, religion, sexual orientation or disability.’ Section 3 further refers – ‘Inciting hatred or arousing fear on grounds of sexual orientation or disability’
Homophobia is the ‘mental illness’.
Ignorant and dangerous comments such as those suggesting ‘homosexuals’ could be ‘turned round’ with the aid of her ‘nice psychiatrist’ are not only insulting but also contrary to medical guidelines and understanding. The Royal College of Psychiatrists totally refuted such thinking:
‘ …there is now a large body of research evidence that indicates that being gay,
lesbian or bisexual is compatible with normal mental health and social
adjustment. However, the experiences of discrimination in society and possible
rejection by friends, families and others, such as employers, means that some
lesbian, gay and bisexual people experience a greater than expected
prevalence of mental health and substance misuse problems .
(Royal College of Psychiatrists response to comments on Nolan Show 6th June 2008)
As Chair of our Assembly Health Committee statements such as hers are incompatible with the promotion of a healthy society. Rather than trying to assert that ‘homosexuals’ may have mental health problems – it is incumbent on all of us to eradicate the ‘mental illness’ of homophobia which is a root cause of health problems.
Stop LGBT Child Abuse
Iris Robinson’s more recent dangerous and irresponsible statement – recorded in Hansard and then repeated in Belfast Telegraph – decries being gay as worse than the sexual abuse of children. To say that “there can be no viler act, apart from homosexuality and sodomy, than sexually abusing innocent children”. (Belfast Telegraph 21 July 2008) beggars belief in this day and age. One would have hoped that in the 21st century, we had become informed and educated enough to have eradicated such ludicrous nonsense. It has been malign slurs such as this which have prevented LGBT People feeling safe, comfortable and able to be open/out.
Rather what should be highlighted is the need to stop the abuse of LGBT children which is manifested in levels of depression, self harm, suicide attempts, bullying, isolation and emotional and psychological trauma, caused by the ‘violence of enforced invisibility’, and which we are only now coming to fully understand and appreciate.
Stop Abuse of Religion
It is always frustrating and indeed saddening to see people abusing religion in pursuance of their own particular and indeed selective interpretations of the Bible or other sources. Iris Robinson stated “... what I say I base on biblical pronouncements, based on God’s word.” (Belfast Telegraph 21 July 2008). However many Christians both within the LGBT Community and across society here do not support such ‘unchristian’ tenets or attempts to disenfranchise them!
Articles 9 and 10 of the Human Rights Act refer to the ‘freedom to manifest one’s religion or beliefs’ and ‘freedom of expression’ which is vital in an open, free and democratic society; it is also the case however, that with rights come responsibilities and therefore these rights ‘shall be subject only to such limitations as are prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society’ - ‘in the interests of public safety, for the protection of public order, health or morals, or for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others. This is something perhaps that many politicians would do well to remember.
MLAs and MPs should adhere to acceptable ‘codes of conduct’
The Committee for Standards and Privileges is responsible for overseeing the conduct of MLAs here and interestingly has currently been conducting a ‘Review of the MLA’s Code of Conduct’. One can only hope the new revised Code will improve confidence among all members of the general public by taking account of situations where Members may have to be called to account for their words / actions and where there are effective sanctions in place to be utilised as and when necessary. All public representatives should adhere to acceptable codes of conduct in recognition of the responsibility placed upon them when serving us in public office.
We need to continue to educate, to raise awareness and to do away with such ignorance, prejudice and discrimination. Political Party and Union participation in Belfast Pride 2008 was a visible sign of such support at this difficult time. Tackling prejudice and discrimination is a crucial element in educating our future generations and ensuring LGBT people feel safe, valued and equal through supporting ‘PRIDE’ i.e. - Promoting Respect, Inclusion, Dignity and Equality for ALL.
Lesbian Line N.Ireland
Lesbian Line, Northern Ireland