Two Northern Ireland LGBTQ (Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and Queer) cultural activists are off to the Americas today to learn, share and develop LGBTQ experiences.
Creative Director of Belfast's Outburst Queer Arts Festival Ruth McCarthy, and the organisation’s Chair, Cian Smyth, are heading to Brazil, Venezuela and Jamaica through the British Council.
They will spend an intensive two weeks sharing expertise as LGBTQ cultural activists in Northern Ireland as well as their skills in creative entrepreneurship and festival development. The pair hopes to also demonstrate the role of the arts in exploring issues of human rights and diversity — in a region with its own documented problems and violence directed at LGBTQ communities.
Highlights of the visit include meetings with government policy makers including the Secretary of Human Rights in Sao Paulo, Brazil; learning from social enterprises in Caracas, Venezuela and visiting the On the Edge arts festival in Kingston, Jamaica.
Outburst Queer Arts Festival is Northern Ireland’s only, and rapidly growing LGBTQ arts festival. This year it returns for its ninth year aiming to support, encourage and inspire local LGBTQ creativity, in addition to bringing the best in international queer arts to the city of Belfast.
Through this visit, the organisation is hoping to be inspired and bring an even bigger international outlook to their programme.
Speaking ahead of the visit, Ruth said: “Since our first festival in 2007 Outburst has grown far beyond anything we could have imagined, and we’ve become more ambitious about what we do here with both local and international artists. Travelling with the British Council will hopefully widen our world view, while also allowing us to connect with people around the world – and see that our issues are actually quite similar.
“As an organisation, we want to get to that level where we are producing events each year that have a global feel, but also get the excitement of the new. It will be a great learning experience and because Brazil, Venezuela and Jamaica are all at different stages in the LGBTQ movement, I think we can learn an awful lot from them.”
Ruth is fascinated with how people deal with LGBTQ issues in other countries and how artists respond to that.
She said: “We know that our experience in Northern Ireland is probably mirrored across the world – so I'm fascinated to see how people deal with issues in their own countries. You only know what’s going on through news snippets and life isn’t always so black and white — so it will be interesting to see what’s actually going on in all three of these countries.
“In Northern Ireland there is an institutionalised homophobia and it has been there for a long time. No doubt other countries experience similar issues too – especially somewhere like Jamaica where they get a lot of homophobic and transphobic violence including corrective rape. We know people go through similar issues here, but it’s a lot more hidden.
“It will be interesting to find out how people live with it on an everyday level and also how that can be changed especially through something like the arts. For example, how do audiences respond to work, especially work that is peripheral and from a marginal voice? Finding answers to these questions excites me a lot.”
For Ruth, she hopes the experience will give her the confidence to take on new challenges with Outburst.
She said: “I’ve never travelled to a city as big as Sao Paulo before, so I‘m not quite sure what to expect. But if we are truly queer it’s about seeing things from other people’s perspectives and taking that on board and seeing how it can impact here. Being queer is not about becoming redundant in your own thinking — half the time it’s about challenging audience and creating spaces – and with any sort of shift in your comfort zone you’re going to learn something.”
Cian, who has over 20 years of international experience working in film and arts projects, is most looking forward to their time in Jamaica.
He said: “I think Jamaica will be an interesting place to visit. There are many similarities between Irish culture and that of islands like Jamaica. Regarding LGBT life, I think they are currently experiencing quite a lot of hostility or at least that is what is being reported. I'm keen to understand the reality.
“The truth is right up to May of this year you wouldn't ever have found me guessing over 60% of the Irish population would vote to enshrine lesbian and gay rights in its national constitution. So, radical change is possible. The first wave of that kind of change, I believe, is expressed by artists and having the opportunity to witness the work of Jamaican artists first hand will be thrilling.
“I’m really excited to meet people who are like us out there and understand what LGBT life is like. The change Ruth and I have seen since the 70s in Ireland will probably reflect what our future friends in the Americas have experienced or what they are experiencing presently.
“For us, we are living in a strange limbo too, being from Northern Ireland where none of the advances in Rep of Ireland or GB regarding LGBT rights have been legislated for, beyond civil partnership. We're excited to find our common ground and allies in Brazil, Venezuela and Jamaica."
The visit comes as pressure grows for equal rights for the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community in Northern Ireland after the momentous Irish referendum, as well as gaining momentum in Northern Ireland for marriage equality.
Ruth said: “Marriage equality is only one of many issues the LGBT community in Northern Ireland face. Whether you’re talking about mental health, homophobia or the blood ban — there are still many problems that still need to be addressed. The recent success in Ireland however highlights the desire for change and Outburst has its place in helping to address and challenge this.
“Northern Ireland is certainly behind the times in terms of legislation — but we see that as a challenge and a way to express ourselves more loudly. Through the arts we connect people at the heart level, rather than just in a dry political way and this can capture peoples’ imaginations and see what’s really possible.”
Speaking about the visit, David Alderdice, Director of British Council Northern Ireland said:
“Initiatives such as this are important to help us move towards a more equal, inclusive and just society. The British Council’s job is to connect people around the world and it’s important for us to explore the diversity, freedom of expression and celebration of difference that characterise Northern Ireland.
“We believe passionately in the power of culture and the arts to change people’s lives and we hope that this initiative has a long lasting, far reaching and positive impact.”
British Council Northern helps local students, academics, teachers, artists, and others connect with people around the world. For more information visit our website http://nireland.britsihcouncil.org or follow on Twitter BCouncil_NI.