Celebrating The Freedom of Same-Sex Marriage & Abortion In Northern Ireland

As the clock struck one minute past midnight on the 22nd of October 2019, abortion and same sex marriage was legalised in Northern Ireland.

This arguably was the result of a long fought battle between grass roots activism and the DUP. The main factor behind the laws finally being passed in Northern Ireland is due to the collapse of their government in early 2017. This collapse meant the DUP could not veto decriminalisation as they’ve done before. With the affairs of Northern Ireland being shared with Conservatives as part of the coalition, these laws were passed.

Along with this, there was a high amount of political pressure placed on the government due to the Repeal the 8th movement which led to the Republic of Ireland legalising abortion in May 2018.

 

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However, the driving force behind the affairs being brought to Westminster was due to the overwhelming involvement of grassroots activism.  ‘Alliance for Choice’ and ‘Love Equality’ were among the organisations that fought heavily for the decriminalisation of abortion and same sex marriage. One notable protest took place on September 28th, 2019 by Alliance for Choice to mark International Safe Abortion Day. 21 women dragged suitcases through Belfast’s streets to represent the number of women who were forced to leave Northern Ireland weekly to access reproductive healthcare. Moreover, Love Equality organised a marriage equality march on the 18th.of May 2019 which was attended by roughly seven to eight thousand people.

 

Many Northern Irish citizens have moved on from traditional and old-fashioned mindsets which has helped with the legislation being passed. An opinion poll created by Amnesty International showed that almost 60% of Northern Ireland agreed abortion should be decriminalised. Moreover in 2018, a Sky Data poll recorded 76% of Northern Irish citizens were in support of same sex marriage.

Elly Makem, a conceptual illustrator now living in England, grew up in Northern Ireland with beliefs formed by school teachings. She shared the mindset that many others had that abortion was ‘black and white’ and homosexuality was ‘abnormal’. It was only after she left school at 18 that she managed to begin internally undoing their impact.

 “I didn’t think I would have sex until I was married, and it didn’t even come into my head that I could be gay, as our education was quite religious and very heteronormative.”

Elly agrees that Northern Ireland has moved on from traditional mindsets and that the country has seen a cultural shift in the past decade: “I think the societal revolution that’s happening in the western world at the minute with more ‘woke’ attitudes, has spoken to our more disadvantaged groups. Millennial culture is wholly more secular anyway, which has given us this opportunity to challenge the fundamentalism that exists in Northern Ireland in all of our communities.”

“Even though I went to two catholic schools, my understanding at the time was very similar to what the -mostly Protestant- DUP espouse now.”

School education can influence a person’s beliefs early on. Elly felt her teachers heavily influenced her mindset growing up: “I didn’t pay attention to politics much as a teenager, because I felt pretty disillusioned with the whole thing, however I completely took in what my teachers said. I didn’t think I would have sex until I was married, and it didn’t even come into my head that I could be gay, as our education was quite religious and very heteronormative. I also remember thinking abortion was a very black and white issue that was mostly caused by promiscuous women.”

She felt her beliefs were very close minded due to growing up in this incredibly polarized environment: “I think when you grow up in a place that’s so polarised, like Northern Ireland, you become a lot less flexible with your beliefs. Even though I went to two catholic schools, my understanding at the time was very similar to what the -mostly Protestant- DUP espouse now.”

Although Elly came out when she was 19, she had romantic feelings for women for around 7 years before that but felt she had to ‘stay in the closet’: “It didn’t come into my head that my feelings were homosexual because my idea of homosexuality was that it was a very strange thing that didn’t apply to me, so I forced myself into trying to be straight.” 

“I don’t know one gay person my age from back home who didn’t struggle with their mental health as a teenager”

Due to the lack of LGBT+ resources in school and non-accepting cultural attitudes. this incredibly impacted the mental health of LGBT+ people growing up in Northern Ireland. A number of people Elly knew growing up, experienced this impact: “I don’t know one gay person my age from back home who didn’t struggle with their mental health as a teenager, and I think that’s totally down to the restrictive and shaming attitudes we have towards queerness. If I was told how common homosexuality is and that it’s fine, then I don’t think I would have struggled so much.”

Elly Makem runs a conceptual art business. She created a design in the light of the decriminalisation of abortion and same sex marriage and after many requests, she made the design into prints, tote bags and t-shirts. She felt this particular design was close to her heart: “I’ve made posters and t shirt designs before, however when I was finalising this one, I definitely felt more passionate about it than any of those projects. I think it was only when I was writing to describe the image did I realise how important it felt to me.”

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Art by Elly Makem

A portion of the profits made from the products will be going to ‘The Rainbow Project’, a charity very important to her: “I chose to donate to this charity as for me, the individual needs for queer people often need to be tackled in a holistic way. I don’t think legislative reform is the end of our struggle, and TRP does a fantastic job at helping people in more personal ways that really should be offered by our schools.”

Despite the legalisation of same sex marriage being a big win for the LGBT+ community, Elly feels the fight isn’t over yet: “In regard to law-making I am over the moon about this result, however I feel education and exposure can do so much for young queer people even more so. Education reform is something we should continue to campaign for.”

There is already evidence of the new abortion law in Northern Ireland creating a safer and better future. Belfast’s Crown court has recently dropped charges against a mother who bought abortion pills for her daughter. A new framework providing safe and lawful access to abortion services in Northern Ireland will be in place by 31st March 2020.

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