By Rory Howard

On 20th April, a motion calling on the Minister for Communities to bring forward legislation to ban conversion therapy “in all its forms” was put to the Assembly. The motion argued that the medieval practice is “fundamentally wrong” for forcing LGBT+ persons to ‘become’ straight or cisgendered. Conversion therapy is religious forced assimilation through degrading ‘psychotherapy’ that leads to depression, social anxiety, further identity issues, and even suicide. Dr Gary Adair Gilliland, who took part in conversion therapy, says it is “brainwashing”.

This vote is a symbolic victory and we need to demand it translates into legislation which defends LGBT+ people from this barbaric practice. The fact this motion was passed overwhelmingly – and that it was put forward by two UUP MLAs – is significant, given that the Assembly only backed marriage equality for the first time six years ago. Even the DUP and TUV put their opposition in much softer terms than they would have in the past. This speaks volumes about the positive change in attitudes taking place in society. These are being driven from below – represented by the 20,000 people who marched for marriage equality – not by the politicians at Stormont.

Homophobia – it hasn’t gone away, y’know

But homophobia still remains very much a reality. Growing up gay in an all-boys’ grammar school on the north coast was its own form of conversion therapy. I didn’t know it was still practiced, and that ignorance is shared with a lot of my LGBT+ friends. What we feared wasn’t being stolen in the middle of the night and whisked off to a pray-the-gay-away camp. It was some of our peers. It took years to shake the fear of passing a group of men on the street.

LGBT+ youth are proportionately more likely to be homeless – 18% of homeless youth identify as LGBT+ while only making up 1.9% of the total population, according to a 2019 research paper by Pathways to Youth Homelessness, often because they have been rejected by their family. The Rainbow Project believes that 64% of homophobic hate crimes go unreported because of the stigma which remains, and fears that incidents won’t be taken seriously.

Decades of struggle have driven change

Homosexuality wasn’t decriminalised in Northern Ireland until 1982, after over a decade of struggle from the NI Gay Rights Association and other LGBT+ organisations. Of course, Ian Paisley and the DUP were leading the fight against decriminalisation, with their cry of “Save Ulster from Sodomy!” Paisley Jnr has called gay relationships “immoral, offensive and obnoxious.” Of course, he stresses he doesn’t hate us, he just hates what we do – the same way I hate it when public representatives take luxury holidays worth £50,000 from brutal, authoritarian regimes.

While the DUP remain the key political opponents of LGBT+ rights, many others who now style themselves as progressives were silent at best on our rights until it became politically popular. Half a century of struggle has forced the politicians to bite their tongues, back peddle on their offensive vitriol, and acknowledge us as more than perverted criminals.

Remember Mark Ashton – fight homophobia and the system it is rooted in

Times are changing: a memorial in Portrush for socialist and gay rights activist Mark Ashton has passed the committee stage at Causeway Coast & Glens District Council. A true local hero, Mark was an influential figure in Lesbians & Gays Support the Miners, whose story is depicted in the award-winning movie Pride

Mark understood that homophobia is rooted in the capitalist system which exploits the entire working class while sowing bigotry and division to defend its interests. He understood that the antidote was solidarity of the working class and all the oppressed against this rotten system. That is the kind of struggle we need to really consign homophobia and transphobia in all its forms to the history books.