Outburst is Belfast’s own Queer Arts Festival and this year I was delighted to be able to take part. ‘School’s Out’ was an event in the Black Box which had me reading from Widows’ Row and talking a bit about why I wrote it and how the story related to the work I do in running a high school Gay Straight Alliance youth group. It was such a pleasure to be able to share a little of my story relating to my writing and work, and I am always glad to speak of the GSA at Shimna Integrated College because they are an inspiration to me and I wish everyone could meet them and hear their passion for equality (we’re currently working on a short film so maybe that will happen soon!)
After my reading/talk I was joined by some others on a panel discussion, led by Seán from the NITC LGBT group, about promoting and ensuring LGBT equality and respect in schools. Phillip from PIPS talked about the reality of the horrendous suicide statistics we often hear about in NI and how homophobia is a major factor in causing depression in young people, Jacquie from the UTU spoke about the need for directives on LGBT equality to come from the highest levels of management in our school system, Gavin from the Rainbow Project spoke about the current reality of homophobia and sexism in schools and Helen spoke about what it was like to be a lesbian mother to a son who has suffered severe homophobic bullying.
Perhaps the most powerful speech was given by her young son, Michael, aged 12, who told us his story and spoke of his hope for the future, that all schools would speak out against homophobia and would be accepting and supportive of all kinds of difference. Michael’s speech was really moving and again, I wish everyone could have heard him. If you are one of those who think that LGBT activism is about being ‘PC’ or that it’s unnecessary for people to have Pride marches or if you think people who get offended at homophobic jokes are just overreacting, I wish you could have heard his experiences. But part of me thinks that they’re out there- those stories. They’re not hard to find. Maybe it’s just about being willing to listen and believe people.
Anyway, there wasn’t enough time to talk about everything and I think that’s a good sign- people are keen to talk about it and people want to do things. I have met a number of teachers now who want to start GSAs or who want to raise the issue of homophobia with their classes, or maybe they want to put up an anti-homophobia poster, and they’re not allowed, or their school says ‘Yes, but not now… later, maybe,’ and it never happens. There are many teachers who are afraid for their jobs if they speak out. To them I would say that the things they do that feel like tiny things- challenging homophobic language when they hear it in class, mentioning LGBT families or relationships when the topic comes up in class, encouraging children to look beyond gender binaries when they come up- those things really matter. Young people don’t often tell us the things we have said that mean a lot to them, but the GSA students have told me of times when things teachers said made them feel validated as human beings, and we can’t underestimate the power of that, particularly if your school if determined to ignore those students. I hope that people left feeling hopeful yesterday. For me the hope is in the fact that there are so many people in NI who want equality, there are those working towards it, there are those who will highlight it using the most amazing art, there are those who will eventually bring it. We need the support of one another so that we don’t lose hope, and I love Outburst for being one of the festivals that keeps us hoping. Keep on keepin’ on!