Lou was at the NLFG’s Outing Exclusion Conference
On the 16th of February, the National Gay and Lesbian Federation of Ireland (NGLF) held Ireland’s first ever conference focusing specifically on the social exclusion of LGBT people. Social exclusion is not exactly easy to define. The International Lesbian and Gay Youth Organisation’ 2006 research on social exclusion and young LGBT people in Europe notes that there are many varied understandings of the term social exclusion. It makes reference to the EU definition that social exclusion occurs where certain individuals are pushed to the edges of society and therefore cannot participate fully in many aspects of social life, for example community activities or employment. It is often linked with poverty though not determined by it: those who live in poverty are most certainly socially excluded; however those who experience social exclusion do not necessarily live in poverty.
Life on the margins
It is also important to recognise that social exclusion often occurs at intersecting points. For example, LGBTQ people may experience social exclusion as a result of their sexuality or gender, and people who are LGBTQ may also be marginalised for other reasons such as ethnicity, meaning they face exclusion in many arenas of life; for each individual reason and also where these intersect.
While, on one hand social exclusion is a complex and multidimensional process to grasp, in another it is quite simple – people can be marginalised due to certain characteristics, and this means they do not have the opportunity to participate fully in all the areas of social life, which can be anything from access to housing and employment to not being able to safely and comfortably express their gender or sexuality.
Being LGBT or Q is not a guarantee one will be faced with social exclusion, although it is accepted that almost all transgender people will experience it at some stage. There is little current research on LGBTQ people’s day to day experiences and social exclusion, the only existing study regarding lesbian and gay people living in Ireland was conducted by GLEN in 1995 shortly after homosexuality was decriminalised, which nowhere mentions bisexual or transgender people, nor are the LGBTQ population given specific attention by the Central Statistics Office either in the Census or the Quarterly National Household Survey.
However, it is evident in certain laws and legislation that LGBTQ people are prevented from achieving equal citizenship and, therefore, are excluded from participating in certain aspects of social life that the majority of other citizens can.
The Outing Exclusion Conference opened with an empowering speech from keynote speaker; the remarkable Anna Grodska from Poland, who is the first transgender parliament member in the history of Europe. Anna encouraged people to no longer stand for the term ‘tolerate’, that by allowing LGBTQ people to be referred to as ‘tolerated’, we are perpetuating the cycle of social exclusion and legitimising inequality.
Throughout the rest of the day there were speakers focusing briefly on particular elements of social exclusion; the lack of acknowledgement of sexuality of those with disabilities, the exclusion of transgender people from many aspects of life, through official policies and societal ignorance, the struggles that LGBT asylum seekers have both within institutional and legal settings and day to day life. There was also a great representation of two of the most prominent yet neglected demographics of LGBT people in Ireland – those who are LGBT and ageing, and those who are living in rural and isolated areas.
A reoccurring theme amongst all of these was how social exclusion not only occurs within wider society but is often prevalent within the ‘gay community’; leading to people facing not only multiple intersections of exclusion but also becoming doubly excluded from the community in which they are assumed by general society to be accepted by and from the other communities of which they are a part.
The word ‘community’ implies a shared acceptance and belonging that is often not present. The diversity that exists amongst LGBT people can be hidden not only from those who are not LGBT but also amongst the community.
There were repeated references to how the ‘T’ in LGBT is often a ‘little t’, with transgender people sort of being added to the term LGB as an afterthought, with no real understanding of the varying issues that affect transgender people. To how there is a complete lack of recognition of older LGBT people within the community, almost as if people lose their gender and sexuality as they grow older, simply becoming ‘old’. To the limited supports and services, and lack of support to existing services, to those living in rural areas.
The responsibility of inclusion does not only fall on those who work in community organisations, it is also on those who identify as LGBT to create an actual community, where LGBT is not just a convenient banner that glosses over the diversity of the people under it, but an inclusive community that no longer tolerates the exclusion of those who do not fit into their own ideals of what it is to be ‘gay’, or who are transgender.
It is easy to argue that social exclusion is the issue of non-LGBT people, as they are the ones who exclude, who discriminate, who either actively encourage or passively observe the marginalisation of LGBT people. However there is no doubt that this exists within the community also.
The majority of discussions centered on people and groups who were already at a social inclusion disadvantage, which can be quite disheartening, as unless one is a white, middle class, ‘Irish’, heterosexual, male, living in an urban setting and with superb mental health, it is likely that everybody else will encounter discrimination and marginalisation at some stage in their lives.
There are many groups working towards creating a more equal society for whoever they represent – women, ethnic minorities etc, however a specific effort to fight the social exclusion of LGBT people does not exist. Although almost all LGBT organisations are working towards social inclusion for LGBT people; tackling social exclusion needs to become a more solidified objective of every organisation in order to eliminate it.
The LGBT community has many great organisations and services working towards similar goals, yet working separately. Separately from each other and separately from the other organisations working on ending social exclusion because of other issues, for example poverty, that affect LGBT people also. This fragmentation only serves to weaken the voices of people who are working for change.
If a more cohesive effort could be formed, even for this one issue, the impact would be far greater than apart. In a way the LGBT community has an advantage that other socially excluded groups do not, in generating interest for social change, as political and important issues exist alongside general news and upcoming events on many LGBT social platforms; through magazines, websites, online forums etc.
There was much reminiscing in the room about how the LGBT community in Ireland used to be characterised by activism, how when an issue affected the community it was taken on board en masse. I am a little too young to recall the efforts of decades ago, but the same spirit for activism is evident in the recent fight for marriage equality. It was also a concurrent belief that the efforts to obtain equal rights for civil marriage amongst gay people while admirable, has overshadowed the other issues affecting the LGBT community and that is time to bring other issues alongside marriage equality to the forefront of the agenda and fight for social change.
There was also a consensus that there needs to be a more open dialogue between LGBT organisations and other community and state bodies. Sometimes, when people are put under the heading LGBTQ, it is almost ignored that the majority of people participate in many aspects of life unrelated to their sexuality, and therefore having services and organisations for the LGBTQ population existing solely within the realms of the LGBTQ community are not enough.
Broden Giambrone, Director of TENI, illustrated this need by discussing how there is not only a dire lack of understanding of issues relating to transgender people within the LGBTQ population, the services which transgender people need to access, such as very specific healthcare, are unavailable due to general service providers not having the information and training to treat each individual appropriately.
There needs to be a comprehensive effort on both the part of LGBT organisations and specific community and state bodies to integrate elements relating to the other and develop mutual understanding of the issues that affect all people, such as health, and also the issues that affect LGBTQ people disproportionately such as trans- and homophobic bullying.
Treacy Byrne, who works for Dublin City Council and is manager of Ballybough Community Centre, added an important dimension to this argument, being a gay woman who works in disadvantaged areas in Dublin. She promotes overall social inclusion within communities, and discussed how being an out gay woman in the service has allowed her to bring a unique perspective to the outreach projects she is a part of and improve the awareness of others around her.
This struck me as an essential component to increasing the social inclusion of LGBTQ people as much the same as there needs to be a greater understanding between LGBTQ and non-LGBTQ specific organisations and services overall, there needs to be LGBTQ people taking part in every type of community organisation, as there are LGBTQ people in every type of community, in every workplace, in every public space, not just the ones specifically labeled ‘gay’.
Those who are active in the LGBTQ community need to come forward and engage more in other community based initiatives, not only to benefit those working on them, but for the actual people these initiatives affect.
The inspiring event brought about new questions and proposals about how to go forward and create a more inclusive LGBTQ community and a more inclusive society in general. This conference was hopefully just the beginning. In the future the fight to end social exclusion of LGBTQ people should not just focus on LGBTQ people being excluded because of gender or sexuality, but the myriad of other intersecting aspects which contribute to the social exclusion of LGBTQ people in Ireland, including ones which were not discussed extensively on the day of the conference.
The day, which at times painted a very bleak picture of the lives socially excluded LGBTQ people in Ireland, concluded with a sense of empowerment amongst those who attended. I hope that this conference be the beginning of talks that will lead to action, inclusion and change. Where do we go from here? As Anna Grodska said: “I am a citizen of my own country and I demand equality”, and once people begin to believe that, then change is inevitable.