To All The Stephens I’ve Loved Before

This is going to hurt a bit, but I need to get it off my chest.

I’ve been all different people all throughout my thirty-three years on this Earth. I’ve been a youth worker, a customer service rep, a politician, a guitarist, a photographer, a son, writer etc. I loved all the people that I used to be, they make up who I am today – so why can’t I love that person?

For a long time, longer than I can remember, there has been a deep seated self-loathing that I have struggled to contain. It manifests itself in the twisted reflections I catch of myself, in the way that I can’t make a decent meal, along the tattoos etched into body. I can’t tell you where it comes from, but I can tell you that it hurts.

I fundamentally don’t like myself, and I often wish that I could be someone else. That I could slip this skin and change who I am. Like the Doctor in Doctor Who, to completely regenerate my entire being into something new and different and untainted by the trauma and mental illness that has plagued me for so many years now; but that is not the reality that we inhabit, and so I must find ways of coping beyond taking a bath or trying yoga or depending on the kindness of strangers.

Strangers haven’t been very kind of late. As a non-binary person newly coming to terms with my gender identity, alongside my own sexual orientation, I have been deeply impacted by the increasing onslaught of media pressure on trans and non-binary people. I have never experienced such wanton and unchecked cruelty by some of the most powerful people against the most powerless. There is evil within that spectre that has infested our society, and most certainly has blood on its hands.

Following the publication of the Nolan Show podcast ‘investigation’ into Stonewall, I was so incredibly despondent and defeated that I finally broke. I had a stupid fight with my husband over something inconsequential, and had just come off a long stint of twelve hour shifts in work. I was exhausted both physically and mentally, and spending hours on Twitter and social media looking at the ever flowing vitriol against people like me tipped me over the waterfall.

I got in my car, I broke down in tears and I started driving. I started driving towards Black Mountain in West Belfast with the intention of doing something drastic and irreversible to myself. I could only think that there was no other way forward through the pain of the mental anguish and self-loathing which has been compounded by an uncaring and malevolent political and media class that has gender non-conforming people within its crosshairs.

Never ending waiting lists for treatment, the rising rates of deaths by suicide, the ever vicious headlines and column inches by the ‘silenced’ transphobes that never seem to shut the fuck up. Coupled with mental self-neglect and a need to have the noises in my head come to a close I found myself tumbling out of my own reach and towards a darkness that hasn’t visited me in a long, long time.

Thankfully there was a great big pair of arms waiting to catch me as I fell – the love of my husband and friends. I turned the car around and came home, the cheeks on my face stinging from the tears that wouldn’t stop. It’s an emptiness that’s filled with an ongoing monologue that tells me I’m useless, that I’m not a good person, that I don’t deserve the things I have worked for. It’s all total bullshit – but it’s loud bullshit.

Worst of all is that I believe those voices over the people in my life who would take a bullet for me. I’m safe now – I am working towards letting myself heal and reflect and restore my own energy to get back into this fight. “It’s our fight, not just yours.” as a very close friend of mine told me.

I’ll be okay, but I will be away for a wee while. Not sure how long that will be or in what capacity I’ll be back but promise me I will be back x

Uppity

President Higgins at the Quirinal Palace in Rome this week. Photograph: Maxwells/PA Wire

There has been a lot of heat, and rather little light, around the decision of the President of Ireland declining to attend an event commemorating the partition of Ireland, alongside his British counterpart, Queen Elizabeth II. Naturally, despite the measured and calm tone that has been so characteristically exuded from Uachtarán na hÉireann Michael D Higgins, the DUP and other Unionist voices have collectively thrown their toys out of the pram.

I speak on this as someone who up until very recently would have described themselves as a liberal Unionist. I no longer recognise that as an accurate reflection of my own evolving personal politics, and would be more assertive in stating that I am a socialist, and there is no war but the class war. Sectarian and imperialist issues seek only to divide the working class, and deflect from the real issues. But I digress.

The main issue in this entire saga is the attitude of Jeffrey Donaldson, and like-minded Unionists within the British establishment – that Ireland isn’t a sovereign, and independent nation with the same status and international footing as the United Kingdom – the Republic of Ireland is simply the one who got away. That dent in the imperial pride of certain sections of Unionism has never waned, and that manifests itself as a distinct lack of respect for the sovereignty and independence of Ireland as a nation state. They see the Irish President as being uppity, of being ungrateful, and of not giving the Queen her rightful place has his better, rather than his equal.

President Michael D Higgins pictured with Queen Elizabeth during his 2014 State visit to the UK

There have, of course, been more measured responses from Unionist commentators such as Sarah Creighton (please read her work, she is one of the few talking sense in a time of noise), as well as unhelpful interventions from Republican columnists so this is not a one-sided argument.

Michael D Higgins hasn’t “snubbed” the Queen – he is a democratically elected head of state who has a mandate through universal suffrage – and as such he has the right as head of state to determine his own mind, and to reflect the wishes of his people. The official title of Michael D Higgins is ‘President of Ireland’, not of the Republic of Ireland. He is the head of state for the 26 counties of the Republic, yes, but Ireland is not a land mass defined by borders. Ireland is an idea, and an identity that is alive in the millions of Irish diaspora living across the globe, and in Northern Ireland where Britishness and Irishness live side by side, and intrinsically linked with one another. As a holder of an Irish passport, and someone who was brought up in a Loyalist community, Michael D Higgins is also my Presdient as much as Boris Johnson is also my Prime Minister (this is not, by any means, an endorsement of the Tories.)

President Higgins has made it clear that his issue was with the wording of the invite, by referring to him as the President of the Republic of Ireland, rather than giving him his official and internationally recognised title. This has now been clarified to have been a mistake on the part of the President as the invite below demonstrates.

Furthermore, what would compel the elected head of state for the Irish state and diaspora to attend an event marking the deliberate carving up of his own country? This isn’t by any means an interpretation in favour or against partition, but a reflection of the facts to which the DUP and British establishment are willfully ignorant and insensitive.

An example of the anti-Irish Sea border graffiti in Belfast

Jeffrey Donaldson would do well to reflect on the arrogance, and entitlement of his party, and the mindset they aspire to represent. The DUP have threatened to pull down the fragile, and democratically elected devolved institutions should the NI Protocol remain as is (it will, and it won’t be changed), and have withdrawn from the North-South bodies that aim to facilitate reconciliation, co-operation and participation in the ongoing and evolving peace process on this island. This is the same party who has refused to engage in discussions about what a new Ireland would look like, should a border-poll be successful, have referred to the Taoiseach and the Tainaiste as their opponents, and continue to denigrate and disrespect the mandated position of Irish Nationalism within the devolved mechanisms that were endorsed by a majority of people on this island.

If anyone is being uppity here, and acting above their station, it certainly isn’t President Higgins.

Block them – don’t engage

If you follow me then you’ll know I like to run my mouth, and as a result I have both a decent sized following as well as a decent sized group of people who would like to see me disappear completely. I have literally hundreds of thousands of accounts blocked on my Twitter – I use a number of tools to do this (all free) and I’ll talk about them here.

Being the target of a Twitter pile-on (someone with a big platform quote-tweets you or screenshots your tweet and then the trolls start rolling into your mentions with falsehoods, slurs etc etc) is a horrible experience, particularly if it’s at the hands of Transphobes, anti-choicers, Neo-Nazis or those Anti-Vax fruit loops. You wouldn’t let these people have your phone number, or let them into your house and I treat my social media the exact same way.

Think of it as a type of Online Hygine – I don’t engage with people who wish me or minorities harm or offense, I don’t reply to them or even try and dunk on them (much), I simply block and move on. But it can be incredibly difficult to go through every single account that’s joined in with a targeted attack and block them, their followers, and the people who have liked or shared their abuse of you one by one.

I use a Chrome plug-in called Block Chain for this exact reason. Block Chain allows you to click on an account’s followers and select “run block chain” from the browser toolbar. Block Chain will then block every single account that you either haven’t already blocked, or aren’t following. This saves a lot of time and hassle and allows you to quickly eliminate like-minded people who have been sending abuse your way in one easy click.

The only downside to Block Chain is that once you run it you may be logged out of Twitter and will need to clear your cache in your settings in order to log in again but you’ll at least have dealt with the pile-on.

Another handy, and free tool that I use is called Likers Blocker – and it does exactly what it says. It’s available for most browsers including Chrome, Firefox and Opera – and works very well though it can be a little buggy so you may have to refresh the page.

Likers Blocker allows you to click on a Tweet that has been sent to you, or to anyone and nobody in particular, and click on the number of likes. Once you’ve done that Likers Blocker will display a “Block All” button which allows you to – yep! Block all of them. I use this feature for particularly heinous Tweets spewed out by some vile people on Twitter Dot Com.

The same thing can also be achieved by a free website called Mega Block. This website allows you to enter the URL of a Tweet and will block everyone who has liked, as well as the person who Tweeted it.

Lastly the best free tool I use to protect myself on Twitter, apart from Twitter itself – is a website called Block Party.

Block Party requires you to sign in to Twitter to authorise it, and will run in the background. It allows you set filters depending on what you want your experience to be like such as only getting mentions from people you follow, verified users etc. It will also allow you to be as open as you want and allow mentions and notifications from everyone.

Block Party will send you an email each week that highlights your Lockout Folder from which you can select who to block, who to whitelist, and who to mute etc.

As a queer writer and activist on Twitter, I get my fair share of abuse, nasty comments about my gender, sexual orientation, my appearance etc. It’s not OK, and it’s not part of a civilized society and we shouldn’t, as activists, have to constantly justify and explain ourselves to people who have zero interest in respecting our right to even exist. Block them – don’t engage.

HIV, COVID-19 and the Blameless Pandemics

A couple of days ago Martin Kulldorf MD, PhD – Professor of Medicine at Harvard University – Tweeted the following: For thousands of years, disease pathogens have spread from person to person. Never before have carriers been blamed for infecting the next sick person. That is a very dangerous ideology.

Now, it appears that Dr. Kulldorf has since backtracked and claimed he was just trying to provoke a reaction, as he doesn’t actually believe this. However given that Kulldorf himself is an anti-lockdown skeptic and has appeared on conspiracy theorist web-shows I have doubts as to the validity of his claims in general. Dr. Kulldorf’s Tweet prompted a severe backlash from angry users, myself included, that pointed to multiple examples of pandemics and outbreaks for which marginalised groups have bore the brunt of societal ire for their spread, and lethality, from smallpox to leprosy to HIV & AIDS. In fact, Martin’s claims about COVID-19 being the only pandemic for which people have been ostracised for its spread touched a nerve for many of us within the LGBTQ+ community. 

Much of the societal and institutionalised homophobia that still informs the prejudices and machinations of anti-gay legislators and public figures to this day was justified, and reinforced by the rapid and deadly spread of AIDS in the early 1980s in the Western world. The fact that only within the last six weeks has the law been changed in Northern Ireland to allow men who have sex with men (hereafter referred to as MSM) to donate blood without having to abstain from sexual intercouse is a testament to the blame and the horrors that were meted out against gay and bisexual men, sex workers, and trans women during the height of the AIDS moral panic.

And The Band Played On – One of the most impactful, and important pieces of literature ever written about the AIDS pandemic – was written in 1987 by Randy Shilts, himself dying soon after publication from HIV related complications. In the book Shitls levels accusations against the then US Presidential administration of Ronald Reagan, arguing that the intransigence and uncaring attitude of Government officials, and that of other Conservative western governments, not only allowed the virus to spread unchecked and without proper funding to fight it, but also condemned thousands of gay and bisexual men to a lonely, isolated and undignified death. 

Clippings from newspapers in the UK are staggering when looked at within the context of what was happening – Gay Related Immune Disease, the scourge of AIDS broadcast on prime time British television, striking fear and stigma into the hearts and minds of an unwitting, heterosexual public. 

An entire generation of sons, brothers, fathers, lovers, artists, dancers, doctors, teachers, playwrights, authors, painters, singers, activists, leaders was left to die, alone and afraid and young – looking like famine victims on wards that orderlys and cleaners refused to enter – because of the intolerance and viscousness of a society that just didn’t care. It took community activists and those who had been diagnosed with AIDS to advocate for themselves and challenge the status quo for access to medical treatment, enrollment in experimental drug trials, a platform in the media, and the ears of decision makers. As of 2018, 700,000 people in the US alone have died from HIV/AIDS, and that number would have been a Hell of a lot higher if it wasn’t for the sacrifices made by the hundreds and thousands of queer activists and our allies who acted up, fought back and demanded that something be done. 

So when Doctor Kulldorf talks about blameless pandemics, we don’t know what he’s talking about. 

All The Times The DUP Stood Up For The Gays

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The DUP’s Paul Givan claimed on the Nolan Show last week that the DUP aren’t against gay people. Let’s take a look back at all the times the DUP has stood up for the rights of LGBT people in Northern Ireland.

1977 – MP Rev Ian Paisley launches the ‘Save Ulster from Sodomy’ campaign in an effort to retain the ban on homosexuality in Northern Ireland.

1982 – DUP submits a response to the NI Office in respect of the proposed decriminalisation of homosexuality, claiming that The effect of the law as a restraint on bestiality, incest and rape will be further reduced.” and goes on to say the change will lead to “inevitable demands for a further lowering”, giving “impetus to the paedophile movement which is rampant within the homosexual movement today”.

22nd June 1998 – DUP MPs vote against the Government to lower the age of consent for gay sex from 18 to 16.

10th Feb 2000 – DUP MPs vote again to reject the Sexual Offences Bill to lower the age of consent for gay sex.

24th Oct 2001 – DUP MPs vote against a motion to bring forward a gender neutral Civil Registration Bill.

4th Nov 2002 – DUP MPs vote against an amendment to the Adoption & Children Bill to allow unmarried straight and gay couples to adopt children.

23rd Feb 2004 – DUP MPs vote against the second reading of the Gender Recognition Bill.

25th May 2004 – DUP MPs vote against the third reading of the Gender Recognition Bill.

12th Oct 2004 – DUP MPs vote against the second reading of the Civil Partnerships Bill

9th Nov 2004 – DUP MPs vote in favour of a wrecking motion to enable siblings to become Civil Partners under proposed legislation. They later vote against the third reading of the Civil Partnerships Bill.

18th Nov 2005 – Ballymena DUP Cllr Maurice Mills claims that gay people are to blame for Hurricane Katrina.

9th Jan 2007 – DUP’s Lord Morrow proposes a motion to defeat the Equality Act (Sexual Orientation) Regulations (Northern Ireland).

21st March 2007 – DUP MPs vote against a Government Bill to prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.

21st Jan 2008 – DUP Peers vote to prevent a clause demanding the need for a ‘father’ from being removed in the Human Fertilisation & Embryology Bill. If this clause had remained then lesbian couples would have been unable to access IVF treatment.

20th Feb 2008 – DUP Culture Minister Edwin Poots MLA calls the establishment of a gay rugby team in Belfast a form of ‘apartheid’.

20th May 2008 – DUP MPs vote against Government proposals to allow single mothers and lesbian couples access to IVF treatment – twice.

June 2008 – DUP MP & MLA Iris Robinson claims that homosexuality can be ‘cured’.

21st July 2008 – DUP MP & MLA Iris Robinson claims that homosexuality is ‘viler’ than child abuse in a speech to Parliament.

26th July 2011 – DUP MLA Jim Wells calls Belfast Pride ‘repugnant’.

2nd August 2012 – Lord Mayor of Belfast, the DUP Cllr Gavin Robinson, stands by his party’s opposition to gay rights at a panel debate during the Belfast Pride festival.

25th August 2012 – Magherafelt District DUP Cllr Paul McClean calls for homosexuality to be made illegal in Northern Ireland.

1st October 2012 – DUP MLAs block a motion brought forward to facilitate marriage equality in Northern Ireland.

25th October 2013 – DUP MLA Tom Buchanan tells school children attending a public event that homosexuality is an ‘abomination’.

October 2012 – DUP Health Minister Edwin Poots MLA lodges an appeal against the NI High Court Ruling overturning the ban on gay couples being allowed to adopt.

5th Feb 2013 – DUP MPs vote against the second reading of the Marriage (Same-Sex Couples) Bill and all technical motions to facilitate the passing of the Bill.

29th April 2013 – DUP MLAs block a second motion brought forward to facilitate marriage equality in Northern Ireland.

2st May 2013 – DUP MPs vote against the third reading of the Marriage (Same-Sex Couples) Bill.

11th Oct 2013 – Despite an NI High Court ruling, DUP Health Minister Edwin Poots MLA refuses to lift the lifetime ban on gay and bisexual men donating blood.

13th Nov 2013 – DUP Health Minister Edwin Poots MLA claims in the NI Assembly that the ‘natural order’ is for a child to be raised by a mother and father.

5th March 2014 (Busy day for the DUP) – DUP MPs vote against Government proposals to allow same-sex marriages to be annulled or for same-sex spouses to divorce. They also vote against plans to allow consenting places of worship being able to register and de-register their property as venues in which to conduct same-sex weddings. On the same day they vote against plans to allow the registration of Armed Forces chapels as venues in which to conduct same-sex weddings. That same day they vote against plans to allow same-sex weddings for British citizens to be conducted in UK Consulates in foreign nations, to allow same-sex marriages from England and Wales be recognised as Civil Partnerships in Scotland and against the right of UK Armed Forces personnel entering into a same-sex marriage whilst serving overseas. On a bit of a roll that day, weren’t they?

29th April 2014 – DUP MLAs block a third motion brought forward to facilitate marriage equality in Northern Ireland.

8th December 2014 – DUP MLA Paul Givan publishes a Bill (nicknamed the Conscience Clause) designed to allow religious people an opt out from equality legislation when providing goods and services to gay couples.

21st Jan 2015 – Health Minister Jim Wells MLA of the DUP announces that he will maintain the present ban on blood donations from gay and bisexual men.

23rd April 2015 – During a hustings event in South Down, DUP Health Minister Jim Wells claimed “You don’t bring a child up in a homosexual relationship. That the child is far more likely to be abused and neglected.” (This later led to his resignation as Health Minister 3 days later.)

27th April 2015 – The DUP use a Petition of Concern to block a motion calling for equal marriage in the NI Assembly.

28th April 2015 – DUP Cllr Paul McLean called for homosexuality to be made illegal.

30th April 2015 – DUP Leader and First Minister of NI claims that Cllr McLean is ‘entitled to his views’ and that if homosexuality was illegal he hopes people ‘would obey that law’.

30th April 2015 – MLA and Westminster candidate Jonathan Bell sets out his opposition to same-sex marriage and to 3-person marriage which he dubs ‘Thruples’ during a hustings debate in South Belfast.

2nd November 2015 – The NI Assembly debates equal marriage for a fifth time and the measure passes by 1 vote however the DUP again use the Petition of Concern to block it.

27th October 2016 – DUP Leader Arlene Foster says her party will continue blocking equal marriage for the next five years with the Petition of Concern.

29th November 2016 – DUP MLA Trevor Clarke claims he didn’t know straight people could contract HIV during an Assembly debate.

April 21st 2017 – DUP MLA Jim Wells claims that the party will split if the leadership agrees to allowing same sex marriage during NI Executive formation talks.