A couple of years ago Michael Barron, the director of Belong To, the national organisation for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgendered (LGBT) young people, was driving through Buncrana with his husband, when he saw some teenagers graffiti-ing a wall. "One of the guys was writing the word 'gay'. I don't know what came over us, but we decided to stop. We assumed it was an act of homophobia." He laughs. "When we went over the guy was writing 'Being Gay is Okay'.'"
Things are changing for gay teenagers in Ireland. Belong To has had a lot to do with that. Ten years ago, it began as a one-man operation run from a small desk-less office on Dublin's Capel Street. Since then they have gone from dealing with 52 young people in north Dublin to 3,500 across 24 LGBT groups countrywide and have become a model of good practice for Unesco, working closely with other LGBT organisations internationally. The aforementioned graffiti artists were working with an LGBT group and local gardaí.
"I had been working in Focus Ireland, " says Barron, sitting in Belong To's more spacious headquarters on Parliament Street, recalling the group's origins. "I was the only out gay member of staff so when a gay or lesbian person would come in I was asked to work with them . . . It was clear that there were a disproportionate number of young homeless people who identified as gay or lesbian.
“If we were working with a young migrant or a young Traveller there were organisations to link in with, but when it came to the LGBT young people there was nothing.”
From the start, Belong To was committed to working with marginalised young LGBT people from all strata of society.
The most powerful thing, says Barron, was young people getting to meet others who were going through the same things. But the remit has changed over the years.
“At the very beginning we were very much a local youth project, but it was quickly clear that young people were travelling really long distances to come to us. One young guy used to travel from outside Westport every Sunday, a round trip of 10 hours door to door.”
Another turning point came when Belong To arranged a youth exchange to Manchester. “[We had to] ask if there was any medication they needed. Seven out of the 12 of them were being medicated for depression. That was a real eye-opener . . . We got a lot more serious about policy and social change work. How could seven out of these 12 teenagers be medicated?”
Belong To began to focus more on the mental-health needs of LGBT teenagers, who are disproportionately likely to self-harm and to use drugs. A lot of things were driven by frustration, says Barron. “I would visit this young trans woman who was committed to [a mental health institution]. Her family, her community, her school and the institution were awful to her. She was being treated terribly . . . This was around the time we were negotiating for the inclusion of LGBT people in the National Suicide Prevention Strategy. I was really upset for her but it was motivating.”
LGBT people’s needs were highlighted in the National Suicide Prevention Strategy and this led to a huge growth in LGBT services in Ireland.
Attitudes have changed a lot. The organisation now works closely with schools on their “Stand Up” anti-homophobic- bullying campaign, but initially their work with schools caused uproar. “I was called into the Department of Education to explain myself . . . There was actual paranoia about turning kids gay.”
LGBT people are now coming out younger and younger, and generally, says Barron, they have very positive experiences. He cites RTE's Growing Up Gay documentary series as a turning point. In the months after it aired, the number of people coming to Belong To doubled. "The kids who were here before called them the Growing Up Gay babies."
They get a lot of calls from concerned parents wanting to do the right thing. "I remember one mother told us she thought her daughter was gay so she'd left a copy of Gay Community News on her bed. A few days later the daughter rang and said "Oh my God! My mother left GCN on my bed?'"
If Ireland is a better place for LGBT people than it was 10 years ago, this is partly because Belong To has helped convince everyone from the Department of Education to the HSE that the rights and welfare of LGBT young people are our collective concern. They are currently recruiting businesses for their Superhero Network, to help fund their anti-bullying campaign.
Things are far from perfect. Barron attended a recent meeting of LGBT young people where a third of those present had been bullied out of school. And there are still, he says, horrible incidents of homophobic violence. But in general he believes Ireland is becoming a more accepting place.
“The biggest single shift that’s happened in gay rights is that tens of thousands of gay teenagers are coming out,” he says. “We’re in a very important moment with gay marriage and trans rights, but I’d guess we’ll look back and say the biggest thing that happened is that all these tens of thousands of teenagers came out. If a young person comes out as gay in a family in 2013 that will transform the family in a positive way. Then it goes on to transform neighbours and aunts and uncles and friends. Eventually it transforms the country.”
To find out more about Belong To's Superhero Network go to belongto.org