With Belfast Pride on our doorstep, it’s time to start thinking about the way forward for our community.
This year’s Pride season has rolled in at a particularly poignant time for the LGBT community in Northern Ireland. The news of the monumental votes in the House of Commons on access to abortion and marriage equality marked the beginning of the end of two long fought battles for rights for the LGBTI and feminist movements in the North. With both the decriminalisation of abortion and same-gender marriage coming to NI, many activists within these movements may be left wondering; what’s next?
While these issues may have taken a spotlight in the past few years, they’re not the only areas where human rights aren’t being upheld here; access to healthcare, gender recognition, the decriminalisation of sex work and ending Intersex Genital Mutilation (IGM) are a few of the huge variety of areas where the human rights of LGBTI people are not being upheld.
Of course, abortion and marriage equality have not yet been implemented in NI, and we must remain vigilant and watchful to ensure that promises made and votes taken are followed through. However, there is also a need to focus on the way forward, to focus on the next set of issues that need tackled here in the North to ensure that our society is safe and open to all. For LGBTI activists, our priorities should lie in the healthcare system.
Access to healthcare and bodily autonomy are fights shared between feminist and LGBTI movements. Abortion access is an issue that affects LGBTI people in intersecting ways; many trans men and non-binary people who can get pregnant will need to access abortion care in NI. When they do, that care should be culturally competent, trans inclusive, and delivered locally. This also applies to fertility care, with many lesbian and bisexual women including members of the trans community often unable to access this care due to a lack of cultural competency and restrictive policies within services. Access to reproductive healthcare and justice is a fight that must be taken forward by the LGBTI & feminist movements together to ensure that that care is accessible to queer and trans individuals who need it.
Not only that, but specialised care for many LGBTI people in NI is not nearly up to global standards of best practice. The model of the Gender Identity Services here often acts in contravention of requirements under human rights law, impeding trans people’s access to their rights in healthcare. Trans people in the UK have some of the highest rates of suicidality and mental ill health; rather than treating and caring for vulnerable people, our Gender Identity Services are refusing them access to basic healthcare due to their lack of “reasonably well controlled mental health,” or because they may not yet feel safe or comfortable socially transitioning.
Trans people are having their lives put on hold for years because of a service that refuses to keep up with the times and with global best practice.
These significant human rights abuses are perpetrated within a service that trans people consider themselves lucky to be seen within — according to an FOI request submitted by TransgenderNI, the waiting list for the over 18s GIC hasn’t moved since at least April 2018, and as of March this year was sitting at over 280 people waiting to be seen.
It’s clear that, not only is the service model not working for trans patients, but it’s also not sustainable for the Health Service. Trans people are having their lives put on hold for years because of a service that refuses to keep up with the times and with global best practice. This is an issue of bodily autonomy, of a trans person’s right to healthcare and to pursue the transition that makes them feel most comfortable, and must be one of the main targets of any LGBTI campaign here in NI.
The continued practice of Intersex Genital Mutilation ties closely into the area of bodily autonomy, and demonstrates that this is one of the areas that most affects the LGBTI community. In the UK, intersex infants are routinely operated on to “normalise” their bodies where there is no medical need or justification: a clear breach of the bodily autonomy and human rights of intersex people. In addition, healthcare professionals have not been equipped with the cultural competency to adequately support intersex folks in other mainstream areas of healthcare, leading to poor experiences and barriers to accessing basic healthcare services.
Clearly, there are a huge variety of issues for LGBTI people in accessing healthcare, whether it be transition-related care, fertility treatment, or reproductive and sexual healthcare. The LGBTI community sector constantly fills the void where statutory services fail us — for instance through The Rainbow Project’s sexual health testing and counselling services, or TransgenderNI’s advocacy and support— but, faced with stretched funding and increased demand, that’s becoming harder to do. The state needs to step up, acknowledge its duties to uphold the human rights of our community, and act to ensure we are supported. That won’t happen without the momentum started with the marriage equality and abortion rights campaigns being maintained and put into our ongoing fight for liberation.
Similar kinds of issues and barriers to access also exist within our education system. LGBTI people are often discriminated against within their educational environment, and anti-LGBTI bullying and rhetoric is rife in our schools. Without equality legislation or a Bill of Rights that applies to schools, young people in our community are denied the opportunity to engage fully in their education and flourish as this discrimination is left unchecked. The lack of provision of LGBTI-inclusive, evidence-based sex education as a right across all schools in NI compounds this issue, with actively harmful ideals about sexuality and gender being preached to young people without any recourse to challenging this information. Ensuring the best practice treatment of trans pupils and their ability to access toilets, changing facilities, affirming uniforms and all aspects of their education should be a high priority to any LGBTI activist going forward.
We can’t let the huge movements behind both equal marriage and abortion decriminalisation fizzle away when these two issues are eventually won.
From a complete lack of access to gender recognition to the disastrous implementation of the welfare reform in Northern Ireland, the issues affecting LGBTI people are varied in their appearance and in the ways we have to organise against them. We need to work with organisations like End Deportations Belfast to tackle the hostile environment harming LGBTI migrants and asylum seekers, and with feminist organisations like Alliance for Choice to ensure trans people’s access to culturally competent abortion care. Through building a movement across sectors and groups in Northern Ireland we can ensure that equality and human rights are upheld here in this “backwater”, as we’re so affectionately referred to.
We can’t let the huge movements behind both equal marriage and abortion decriminalisation fizzle away when these two issues are eventually won; there are so many other areas that need our urgent attention. These changes have the potential to usher in a new era for LGBTI equality in our corner of the world, but our work isn’t done. We must push forward, and ensure no queer is left behind by the onward march of progress in the North.
If you’d like to attend TransgenderNI’s “The Future of Trans Healthcare” policy launch on July 31st at 1pm, email firstname.lastname@example.org for the location and to RSVP.