Just over a year after Marriage Equality was bestowed upon Northern Ireland, the city of Belfast may be getting a hub specifically for the LGBTQ+ community, following requests put forward to the local council. The request for a queer-friendly hub was directed at Belfast City Council Chief Executive Suzanne Wylie, and without conflict or contention, the council committee approved financial aid for the feasibility study. “The need for an LGBTQ+ Hub to support the LGBTQ+ community has been developed over many years,” reads the letter of request, signed by representatives from HERe NI, The Rainbow Project, Cara-Friend and Transgender NI.
The story so far
Northern Ireland is a complex part of the world that for many years no one really knew how to fix. With a difficult past, it still lives in the undertow of political and social history. Women and queer people across the country have lacked representation and for decades our voices have been ignored in favour of those who believe their religious beliefs grant them a monopoly on morality.
It is to no surprise then that the LGBTQ+ sector has received little government support or investment, with minimal resources to enhance its development, build capacity and reach its full potential. Trust has wavered as the Northern Ireland Assembly is still yet to develop a Sexual Orientation Strategy and, as the letter goes on to say, “…no central government funds have ever been dedicated to addressing the needs of, or inequalities experienced by, LGBTQ+ people in the last 20 years,” highlighting some of the many reasons why Belfast needs this LGBTQ+ hub.
Despite this lack of investment or support, the queer community in Belfast has developed a strong, resilient, and sustained community infrastructure. The sector organisations have grown to deliver life-saving services for our community and have created some of the largest and most vibrant community festivals on the island of Ireland.
Queer sector organisations have had to contend with buildings not fit for purpose, particularly due to an increase in demand and limited capacity as organisations have had to cope with little or no core funding to support their work. These conversations around providing an LGBTQ+ hub to support the community have been developing for many years. With the development of a fit for purpose LGBTQ+ Hub, the costs associated with rented premises could be invested in addressing the needs of LGBTQ+ people in the Belfast area.
Since being elected in 2019, Cllr Anthony Flynn, who represents the Ormiston area of East Belfast, has worked closely with Cllr O’Hara and De Faoite, as the three out elected queer reps to bring a higher level of representation for the community on council.
“We will know more about specifics after the feasibility study comes back. This should tell us if there is something available in the city currently which could meet the needs of the community, or, if we need something more purpose built, then it will come down to the issue of money. My hope is that the sexual orientation strategy will have significant funding attached that could be used to invest in a project as important as this.” Flynn commented having pioneered for such achievements as capacity building for the community through cultural funding and raising the trans flag above the city hall to mark Transgender Day of Visibility and Transgender Day of Remembrance.
He continued, “We have also met with sector organisations regarding the LGBTQ+ hub, fully support the feasibility study and are working with council officials to progress this work as we believe there is huge potential here to provide important support to the queer community in Northern Ireland.”
It is the belief of those involved that every single LGBTQ+ person should be able to access a safe and welcoming community space in Belfast which has driven their ambition. The Department of Trade and Investment estimates that around 6- 10% of the UK population identifies as LGBT. According to the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency the estimated population of Belfast Local Government District up to 30th June 2020 is 288, 306; that may equate to anything between 17,300- 28,830 LGBTQ+ residents in Belfast Local Government District.
But the benefits don’t stop there. It is also the belief of those who penned the letter that an LGBTQ+-friendly hub would be nothing but beneficial to Belfast city, directly impacting “tourism, city branding and international image, safety, inclusion, equality and promote Belfast as a city for all.”
“This building will also act as a shared space for everyone in Belfast to celebrate, engage with and learn about the LGBTQ+ community,” the letter declares.
“A dedicated LGBTQ+ space will be a landmark project relating to the ongoing regeneration of Belfast city centre and stand as a beacon of diversity in a city with a strong history of LGBTQ+ activism.”
It is the hope that the dedicated LGBTQ+ space will be a landmark project relating to the ongoing regeneration of Belfast city centre and form part of the wider Belfast Agenda initiative. The space would support the joint vision and long-term ambitions of the city and would be a key partner, standing as a beacon of diversity in a city with a strong history of LGBTQ+ activism.
Cllr Flynn continued, “In terms of creating a hub such as this, it will be the first of its kind in Northern Ireland, and could potentially include the single largest investment in Northern Ireland’s LGBTQ+ community. Hopefully, we can get to a stage where the community receives its fair share of government funding for support and development of the community”
They may have a long road ahead of them but the LGBTQ+ community of Belfast and indeed Northern Ireland are formidable in their vision and ambition. The feasibility study is due to start early next year but if I know the organisations involved, they will already be hard at work behind the scenes ensuring that this runs seamlessly, all corners of our community are heard and listened to, and no stone is left unturned.
It may be a little too early to call, but maybe, just for once, Christmas has come early for the LGBTQ+ community of Northern Ireland should we only dare to believe.