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Finding Resilience Within a Rainbow: Conner in Northern Ireland

A pride flag runs across the entirety of a bridge in Northern Ireland

Conner Suddick is a senior at Hamline University majoring in Legal Studies and Social Justice. He participated in HECUA’s Democracy and Social Change Program in Northern Ireland in the spring of 2018, and was generous enough to share this reflection with us of his time as an intern at the Foyle LGBTQ+ Centre in Derry/Londonderry, Northern Ireland.

A teenage boy wearing a rainbow tutu sprints past me, knocking me aside. After regaining my balance, I watched a teenage girl struggle to keep up, wrapped in a glossy pastel pink, blue, and white flag. In southwest Belfast, we were walking up to a pristine white building called the Malone House. I turned around to see over 35 other youth, some adorned with rainbows, and others wearing plain clothes. I saw my supervisor, Shauna, hurriedly herding the youth from the bus toward the building, scrambling to keep things on schedule. I turned back around and smiled to myself. We were at the most exciting event I could ever imagine: the first-ever Northern Ireland LGBTQ+ Youth Forum. For the first time in the country’s history, LGBTQ+ youth would be coming together to talk about issues that matter to them, and identifying what they hope to see in their futures.

Our caravan from the other side of the country was the last to arrive to the forum due to unanticipated roadblocks (literally). I walked into a large room full of round tables. Each round table had numbers that indicated which age group could sit where. Toward the front, I saw the number “12,” meaning I needed to trudge to the back of the room to the table marked “20.” I sat down facing the back wall. When the introduction began, I turned around and saw the most exhilarating sight I’d ever witnessed: a room full of LGBTQ+ youth. Uncharacteristically emotional, I began to reflect on the beauty of that moment.

I grew up in northeast Wisconsin. In my experience, there was not a connected LGBTQ+ community. Being one of the more conservative areas of the state, homogeneity was celebrated while diversity was persecuted. I was typically treated with apathy or polite disdain. Even within the LGBTQ+ population in my hometown, we did not have the tools nor resources to survive. The nearest continuously-operating LGBTQ+ community center was over 173 miles away.

At the Forum, I realized how much I needed this space when I was 14. Instead of rejecting my identity, I wish I could have embraced it long ago. While talking with others in the room, many of the youth shared a part of my story. I was struck by the amazing role models from Cara-Friend, Gender Jam, and Shout Out. They were dedicated to supporting and empowering the LGBTQ+ youth they worked with. Seeing out and proud LGBTQ+ leaders would have changed my life back then. I did not see people like me who were thriving. This was an empowering space, the likes of which I had never previously encountered.

Seven months later, after returning to the United States, what remains with me the most from this event was the roundtable discussion. The event was organized by my supervisors at my internship at the Foyle LGBTQ+ Centre in Derry/Londonderry, Northern Ireland. Therefore, I was able to facilitate the table on LGBTQ+ visibility. The roundtable sessions were structured so that each table was given a facilitator, and after 5 or so minutes, the facilitator went to the next table to spark a discussion. I spoke to over 70 youth, each sharing with me their ideas about representation in the media, using inclusive language, and building awareness of LGBTQ+ people in their schools. One youth stood out to me as they snarkily told me their plan of bringing LGBTQ+ equity through espionage. More specifically, impersonating an anti-LGBTQ+ candidate to change one of the major political parties from the inside.

After our discussion, most of us went outside to partake in the gorgeous weather. I looked out at the green rolling hills. One of organizers brought a large pride flag. I watched as a large group of them reached for different edges of the flag. Some shoved their way in to grab their favorite color. After the rush, they all stood around it. They each shook the flag and watched the vibrant colors ripple.

Photo via: Conner Suddick

It was in this moment watching the swirl of colors that I felt prouder of my identity as an LGBTQ+ person. I think the rainbow is such an appropriate symbol for queer people; it takes a storm, blessed with the sun, for a rainbow to appear. For many LGBTQ+ people, we endure our own personal storms. By finding each other, we can see the light within one another.

Through my HECUA program, I learned that a rainbow represents a promise of a better future, where each color reflects an individually beautiful possibility. My community’s colors are a bold spectrum of difference that illustrate the diversity within our community. Together, we are stronger and cannot be ignored. In that moment, I saw that resilience is not something found at the end of a rainbow, but within it.

We’re not invisible now

We’re here to be counted

You’ll not be pushed to the ground

If you’re lost

You’ll be found

Do you hear me?

I won’t forget who you are

Just hold your head up

I’ll be the freak that’s unique

Be the Queer without fear

Can’t you see me?

~Niall Rea

A note from Conner:  I cannot thank his supervisors at the Foyle LGBTQ+ Centre Shauna, Eimear, and Colleen enough for their guidance, friendship, and kindness. Moreover, I am eternally grateful for HECUA faculty member, Nigel Glenny for connecting me with this internship opportunity, making me feel safe, and showing me the power of a story.

 

 

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