Pink News Summer Reception Speech, Belfast – 28 June 2018
Can I thank Pink News for the invitation to attend and speak at this event this evening and I am glad that I have been given this opportunity.
When I became leader of the Ulster Unionist Party last year, there was much made of my traditional background and what that might mean.
But I said then that I am confident in who I am and where I come from and that I wouldn’t be placed inside any box or fit any stereotype.
This evening let me say - who I am doesn’t mean that I can’t or won’t embrace who you are.
At our Party’s Annual General Meeting earlier this year I made two statements to our membership.
The first was that as a pro-union party I want to reflect the diversity of our nation.
The second was that I would not stand by and allow unionism to become a by-word for intolerance.
I recognise that the relationship between the LGBT community in Northern Ireland and elements of political unionism has often not been an easy one.
For my party’s part I want us to be a comfortable home for LGBT members of our society, whether activist or elected representative and one they can be proud to vote for.
Whilst there have been huge leaps taken in societal attitudes towards the LGBT community, we also cannot escape the fact that this building has not delivered for them.
Just one piece of legislation to the direct benefit of the LGBT community has been passed since devolution.
That was to right a historic wrong and grant pardons to gay and bisexual men who were criminalised by laws now seen for being unfair and unjust.
Laws that were contested and ultimately repealed thanks to people like Jeff Dudgeon at a time when it was unpopular and came with great risk.
I am proud that Jeff represents our party on Belfast City Council and continues his great service both to the LGBT community and to this country.
While we may have advanced as a society, the reality is that many members of our society still feel a chill.
I deplore that 66% of LGBT young people, do not feel that school is the welcoming environment that it should be.
And that 61% of those surveyed as part of the “still shouting” research said that they’d had suicidal thoughts because of their sexual orientation and/or gender identity with 25% making a suicide attempt.
None of us who are elected to this place can close our eyes to the fact that for those young people their school days are anything but the best days of their lives.
Add to that the high levels of depression, anxiety and substance abuse.
And then there is the scourge of loneliness amongst older members of our society who still deal with the legacy of living during the time of pre-decriminalisation.
When an entire section of society is let down by poor policy making and political sham fighting, is it any wonder we then see the exodus of some of our best and brightest talents who leave our shores at the first opportunity to settle down in a society where they feel they can live a full life?
But I won’t stand here tonight and claim to be an expert on the LGBT community in Northern Ireland, but I will tell you that I want to learn.
I’m not prepared to just claim that my party represents everyone, we must actually do it – through our deeds as well as our words.
A number of months ago I established a working group within the Ulster Unionist Party and tasked them to go out and engage across all corners of the LGBT community and report back to me on what the issues are that affect you, whether that is in education, in the workplace, in healthcare or socially and then most importantly – tell me how we can improve inclusiveness and quality of life.
While their work remains ongoing as a Party we have already made progress in a number of areas.
The team have been out establishing links and engaging with groups such as Rainbow Project, Cara-Friend, Here Ni and Outburst to increase knowledge, forge new relationships and enable us to develop evidence based policy that serves your needs.
I want us to build and expand on existing policies such as seeing an Executive finally bring forward a sexual orientation strategy, introducing a gender-neutral HPV vaccine and bringing Northern Ireland in line with Great Britain on the MSM blood donation deferral period.
We were the first party since devolution to host the Rainbow Project to carry out a training session on LGBT awareness with our Assembly Group giving us a deep insight into the health and wellbeing of the community.
And in the coming weeks, our MLAs and constituency office staff will soon undergo training with Cara-Friend in LGBT awareness because I want to know that we offer a fully comprehensive service for people who contact our Ulster Unionist team across the country.
Life can be difficult enough sometimes. Yours has wrongly been made harder through prejudice and ignorance.
It is to all our benefit for Northern Ireland to be a society where everyone can live a full life and feel valued as a member of society.
I know that respect is not a given, it is something that is earned. I and my Party will continue our work and I ask you to work with us.