A Mighty Silence. A Report on the Needs of Lesbians and Bisexual Women in Northern Ireland

Author(s): Marie Quiery
Commissioned by: The Lesbian Advocacy Services Initiative (LASI)
Document Type: Report
Year: 2002
Publisher: LASI
Place of Publication: Ballymena
Subject Area(s): Equality Issues; Community; Community Relations; Health; Drugs; Lifestyle
Client Group(s) : Women, Lesbian/Gay/Bisexual/Transgendered

Abbreviations: NI - Northern Ireland, LASI - Lesbian Advocacy Services Initiative

Background to the Research

  • This report is the product of a consultation process within the lesbian and bisexual community in NI. LASI is an ad hoc group of lesbian women who are concerned about the need for the voice of lesbian women to be heard in the current equality debate.
  • The consultation exercise aimed to assess the current needs and services available within the lesbian community in NI and to generate options/models for a potential organisation to meet these needs.

Research Approach

  • The consultation was conducted over a 5 month period, during which over 160 lesbian and bisexual women and a number of gay men were interviewed, with 56 individual interviews and 9 interviews conducted with groups and organisations.

Main Findings

  • Despite minor changes in society, the experience of work, leisure, family and education for many lesbians was a story of vilification, isolation, ostracism and abuse.
  • Homophobia manifests itself in NI in a variety of ways, ranging from violent assaults through to verbal abuse and discrimination at work. Approximately 20% of interviewees had experienced violent assaults and none had reported these to the police. Incidents of women being intimidated from their homes by harassment were also noted.
  • The interviews revealed that many women are still not 'out' in the wider community due to the fear of the repercussions including rejection, discrimination and harassment.
  • There appear to be very few improvements in the situation of young lesbian and bisexual women in exploring and stating their sexual orientation. They continue to face rejection, discrimination and harassment. The young women felt that the youth services should take their needs into consideration.
  • In the first instance, many women responded in the negative when asked if they had experience of discrimination due to their sexual orientation. Further discussion revealed that women were either so closeted that their work colleagues and families were not aware of their sexual orientation or that they had minimised the discrimination they had experienced. Those who were 'out' had mixed experiences, with 46% of those who were at work reporting discrimination at work.
  • 10% of the women interviewed were lesbian parents of children ranging in age from 12 months to 25 years. Many were concerned at the hostility towards the notion of lesbian parenting and felt aggrieved that donor insemination services are not available to them.
  • Many had their children while married and live in fear of losing custody of their children. Sympathetic and experienced legal advice in relation to custody issues was difficult to access.
  • Homophobia was felt to have had an impact on their health, with problems related to alcohol and drug abuse, domestic violence and emotional problems remaining undocumented and ignored by mainstream health services. GPs were largely seen to be ignorant and unsympathetic to the health needs of lesbian and bisexual women.
  • A number of interviewees emphasised the need for free counselling.
  • Lesbian relationships are not acknowledged in relation to pension rights, housing, bereavement, custody of children, tenancy agreements or family tickets for travel and leisure facilities.
  • Lesbian women with a disability face a double oppression in terms of discrimination. Few, if any, lesbian social venues have disabled access and there are no services provided by disability organisations. Also, the sexuality of disabled people is regarded as a taboo subject.
  • Racism and homophobia were reported as a double burden for the small number of black lesbians interviewed.
  • There is currently no organised lesbian and bisexual women's group in a rural area; an issue of interest to the interviewees in rural areas.
  • The strength of family ties has served to restrict the development of a lesbian identity and community, with many women not wanting to hurt their family or limiting their involvement in public campaigns. Young women were sympathetic to the reactions of their straight parents and felt that information and support were lacking.
  • Interviewees believed that the media and political institutions do not actively tackle homophobic attitudes that exist on the streets.
  • Some felt that the community had maintained cohesion despite the impact of the Troubles, while others felt that the existence of a politicised community had exacerbated splits.
  • Very few services are currently directed at the lesbian and bisexual women's community, with the existing Lesbian Line existing on a very small budget and no staff members.
  • In anticipation of an increased need for expert legal services following the implementation of proposed legislation, interviewees expressed an urgent need for lesbian friendly legal advice.
  • There was broad agreement on the need for further research, particularly if policy and decision making are to be influenced.
  • Political support is vital if both attitudes and legislation around sexual orientation are to change. There was general agreement that, in the main, nationalist political parties had better and more progressive policies on lesbian and bisexual issues than the unionist parties. Interviewees did feel that policies were not being implemented on the ground and were thus reduced to tokenism.


  • The consultation exercise revealed that there is clearly a need for an organisation to represent the voice of lesbian and bisexual women. As in other areas of society, women's voices tend to be subsumed in gender mixed organisations.
  • The report ends with a series of recommendations concerning: diversity and difference; accountability; support; level of involvement; acting as a catalyst; development of leadership; and personal development.

Please see the report on the LASI website.


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