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Matthew Hulbert Talks to Stephen Donnan

Mathew Hulbert talks to Stephen Donnan, Convener of the LGBT group in the Alliance Party of Northern Ireland.

Mathew Hulbert talks to Stephen Donnan, Convener of the LGBT group in the Alliance Party of Northern Ireland.

Stephen Donnan, Convenor LGBT Group Alliance Party of Northern Ireland

So, Stephen, you head up the LGBT group in the Alliance Party of Northern Ireland. How did you first get involved in politics?

Well that's a bit of a complex story. I first got involved in politics in 2010 after the General Election. I saw how Naomi Long unseated Peter Robinson in Belfast East and realised that change was possible so I joined the Greens because I knew a few people involved and headed up an LGBT policy group there until I joined the Alliance Party in March 2012.

Ah, OK, so me and you are both former Greens who joined liberal parties?

Yeah that's right. I left because of a number of reasons, none of them personal. My views on the economy differed from theirs somewhat and also I was attracted to the Alliance party's message on a shared future.
 

OK, so before we talk about LGBT politics and how that relates to Northern Ireland, can I ask you when you first realised you were Gay and how it was for you growing up as a Gay young man in Northern Ireland?

Of course. Without going into the specifics I knew I was different when I was about 11 or 12. I just wasn't interested in girls at all but I always had a curiosity for guys. It wasn't until I was 19 that I had my first experience with a guy and from then I identified as gay, at least to myself. It took me about 7 months before I came out to my family and it was hell. You have to understand that I love my family a lot so the reactions they had towards my coming out do not make them bad people. Things were said by both myself and my family and it was hard, almost impossible at points. In November of 2008 I tried to take my own life because I couldn't handle it.

It was the shame and knowing that I had lied to them and myself for so long as well as being brought up in a very religious household that made me think that I had nobody to turn to.

I appreciate you being so honest about what must have been an incredibly difficult time in your life. If I can ask who or what was it that saw you through? Did you have people supporting you?

Without sounding like I'm blowing my own trumpet the only person I really had was myself at that time. My family didn't understand so I didn't want to talk to them and I had friends but they didn't know how to help or what to say. It wasn't until an old school friend of mine, Adam, told me he was gay and took me to GLYNI (Gay Lesbian Youth NI) that I began to meet people who were like me and get help. I also put myself in touch with The Rainbow Project and Youth Action and they really helped me more than I can say. They saved my life.

That's great to hear. And, how are things with you now? You have a partner and are pretty settled?

Yes indeed! Things with my family are never better. My partner and I have been together 2 and a half years now and got engaged in July and moved into a new house together just last week!

Many congrats on all of that, Stephen. So, have your experiences helped inform your politics?

Most definitely. Had I not been through that then I wouldn't be involved. It took me to understand that I am actually a minority to realise just how hard things can be for LGBT people in Northern Ireland.

I believe that as an out and confident gay man I have a responsibility to do as much as I can to highlight the issues faced by young people that don't have access the resources and support that I did. Rural LGBT people, elderly and disabled LGBT people are often overlooked and it's up to those who can press the change makers to actually do it for them
 
You're so right, Stephen. So, you're now in a prime role to help affect change. When did you become head of the LGBT group in Alliance and what are your plans in the role?
 
The group was only started up around November 2012 and without the help of Cllr Andrew Muir and a few others it wouldn't have been possible. I was elected Convenor in January and have loved it. We had a massive turnout for Belfast Pride and we took part in Newry and Foyle Pride for the first time ever this year, too. My plans in the role are to advise and shape LGBT policy within the party and to challenge the stigma and prejudice that out community faces from other corners of the political spectrum. I have a duty to lobby for change on all angles for people, not just LGBT, and I plan on doing just that with the dedicated team that we have in Alliance LGBT.
 
Excellent. From my limited knowledge, your Party is one of the better ones on LGBT rights in NI but, like with the Lib Dems, you have elected representatives who haven't voted in the 'right' way on some of these issues. Can you influence them?
 
We are a liberal party and to that end I have to respect and appreciate the views of other members of my party. It's true that we may not agree on everything but it is that difference of views that is essential to understanding one another. I will of course try to advise and influence as much as I can but if I want them to take my views seriously then I have to afford them the same respect.

However I am very proud that my party supports equal marriage, we are one of only 2 parties in NI with openly gay elected reps and LGBT people continue to influence policy and direction of the party and have done for many years. I have always been welcomed and my views appreciated by the party leader and Justice Minister and Deputy Leader Naomi Long MP who have both advocated for equal marriage rights and greater equality for LGBT people.
 
You're right, we certainly need respectful discourse. How important is the LGBT community and LGBT rights in creating the shared future which is the aim of so many people in Northern Ireland?
 
So often the issue is framed as a sectarian one of Protestants and Catholics when in fact LGBT people, ex-prisoners, foreign nationals, people of other denominations and none have always been there, too. There can be no society without LGBT people and there can be no shared future without being able to move forward with us, too. Gay people are portrayed as outside of society when we have always been a part of it.

We drive your buses, man your shops, teach kids, we are doctors, lawyers, policemen and women, politicians, soldiers. We are society.
 
And, of course, you (we) are taxpayers and voters.
 
Absolutely. I am a law abiding citizen, tax payer and voter. Our MPs and MLAs could do with remembering the last part.
 
So, Steve, lets get down to brass tacks. There are a number of issues which LGBT people face in Northern Ireland, from adoption to the Gay blood ban, including NI still not having Equal Marriage. Does this make LGBT people feel ostracized and what's your take on these issues?
 
Definitely. I can't donate blood, I can't get married, I can't adopt. Yet I am a UK citizen and i don't have the same rights as gay people in England or Wales or Scotland

Often I think that organisations like Stonewall or Out4Marriage forget about us in NI. The debate around Equal Marriage was framed as a victory for equality when it passed the Commons and the Lords and rightly so however the LGBT community in NI is on the outside looking in on that victory, we can't share in it just yet. I would like the Coalition to do more to press the issue here.
 
I entirely agree and will press Lib Dem Ministers to do just that. So, how long before some of these issues are resolved, do you think?
 
Honestly? Not soon enough. We have already seen judicial action on the blood ban and adoption however our own health minister is being obstinate for the sake of his own prejudiced views. Change won't come via the Assembly and I believe that gay marriage will only come about via a legal challenge. Hopefully in the next 5 years.
 
So, you guys have a tough battle on your hands. Are there LGBT groups in the other NI parties?
 
I know that Sinn Fein have one and the Green Party however I don't know of any others. I know that there are openly gay members of other parties doing stellar work in pushing the boundaries for us and I work closely with them as we all understand that this isn't a political issue but a personal one.

For example I talked about my friend Adam earlier, he is in fact a member of NI21 and has his head screwed on and just yesterday my friend Julieanne Corr of the PUP helped push the party to accept a policy in support of equal marriage rights for same sex couples which is no easy task.
 
Awesome. So, just a couple more questions. I know from your social media contributions how much you love your city and country. Do people in the rest of the UK still have the wrong impression of Northern Ireland?
 
Maybe not as much as they used to. Don't get me wrong we still have our own issues that will take time to resolve but Belfast and NI has moved on so much in the last 15 years. We have a vibrant music scene, we hosted the MTV awards in 2011, Game of Thrones is filmed here, we hosted the G8 just a few moths ago as well as the World Police and Fire Games and US President Obama came to visit in summer too. NI has a rich history and culture and the people here are voted the friendliest in the UK every time!
 
So, finally, Stephen, what about your own future? Do you hope to enter elected politics? For the record, I think you'd make a first-rate MLA.
 
Thanks Mathew but ultimately that will be for the party and the electorate to decide. I will be putting my name forward but if I get in or I don't then you can guarantee that I'll be lobbying for change regardless. Politics is only one avenue to affect change and I hope to see more and more openly LGBT people being elected and standing for election right across the political spectrum.
 
Well, whatever happens I know you'll continue to be a fantastic young leader and role model in Northern Ireland and I'd like to thank you for your being a great friend too.
 
Right back at you Mat! Hope to see you on the green benches one day soon!
 
Mathew Hulbert is a Liberal Democrat Councillor in Leicestershire and an LGBT rights activist.

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