No one can take anything away from the sheer sense of joy, love and happiness witnessed in the Republic last weekend when the people voted overwhelmingly in favour of changing the constitution to recognise same sex marriage.
The delightful scenes from Dublin Castle were broadcast all over the world but if you are gay and you live in Derry you are not entitled to the same rights as someone, who is also gay, but lives a few miles down the road in places like Muff, Bridgend or Buncrana.
Mel Bradley is a mum of two and she is also openly gay, or “queer”, as Mel likes to describe herself. Mel is a volunteer with the Rainbow Project in Derry and has helped to campaign for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Queer (LGBTQ) rights in the North.
Mel describes herself as “an openly queer performance poet, writer, actor and burlesque dancer”.
“Last year I was one of the actors in Hilary McCollum’s Lesbian Style that won the Eva Gore Booth Award for Best Female Performance (all four of us won the award).
“I’ve just finished writing my own script, which is a poetry-based drama. And please look out for my creative visuals next weekend June 6th in Little Tokyo down at The Play Trail for O-bon Japanese Festival of Light and Taiko. I’m a bit of a creative tech geek too,” she smiled.
Growing up in Derry had its challenges for Mel but despite everything she emerged with two children of her own that she loves deeply and managed to unearth a love for creativity through undertaking a degree in English and Theology.
“I was born in Derry at the tail end of the 70s, so I’m old enough to remember having a black and white TV without a remote control but not old enough to remember flares the first time round,” joked Mel.
“My primary school was First Derry, which is now the Verbal Arts Centre and my secondary school is also no longer there, it’s long gone. I was more the spacey kid that walked through the world one foot on earth and one foot in the clouds. There were certain things in school that I enjoyed but I don’t quite think it was the experience I would have wished. Growing up was difficult, trying to fit in and not really ever being able to make that happen.”
Mel continued: “Ah, my life after secondary school, now that’s a story that could fill a book and a bit. I had plans of A-levels and university but then found out I was pregnant at 16. I made some very difficult choices and none of them I regret.
“My son is now all grown up and a wonderful young man and his younger sister is a real treasure too, I’m a very lucky mum. I eventually did go back to education when the kids were a bit older. After completing the Access Diploma at the North West Regional College, I graduated from Queen’s University Belfast with a Joint Honours Bachelors Degree in English and Theology.”
Mel recalls the time she came out as gay as a “difficult thing” and praised the work of the Rainbow Project in Derry.
“I’ve been an LGBTQ rights activist for a few years and built up a great relationship with the guys at the Rainbow Project. I was one of the organisers of Foyle Pride in 2013 and the one who negotiated Derry getting the biggest rainbow flag in Ireland, and possibly one of the biggest flags in the UK. But my volunteering with the Rainbow Project is a recent thing and when the women’s group was re-launched earlier this year, I came on board to help out.
“It’s my way of giving something back into the community, sharing my skills and experience. Coming out for me was a difficult thing and it didn’t happen until I turned 30, so I know what it’s like to face that fear and how hard it can be. It was a sticking point for my parents, which was really tough. I think the Rainbow Project here has really affirmed itself as a positive support service for the LGBTQ community, in this city and indeed across Northern Ireland.
Gay rights activist Mel Bradley explains why she thinks the North needs to follow in the footsteps of the Republic when it comes to equalityGay rights activist - Mel Bradley
“It was a massive privilege to be involved in the creation of the Queer Timeline Project. I think we need, now more than ever, to be able to pass on our history to the generations coming up. There’s so little out there to identify with and we need something tangible.”
Mel, like millions of other people around the world watched with anticipation as the people in the Republic of Ireland went to the polls to vote in the referendum to change the Irish constitution to recognise marriage regardless of a person’s sex.
“Last weekend’s result was phenomenal, not just having that recognition of equality in law, but also in terms of the mental wellbeing of every person who identifies as LGBTQ.
“The fact that it was by popular vote pretty much across the board and some of the results were outstanding and in real working class areas too, spoke absolute volumes of good to our community.”
Mel went on to explain why she believes the same level of equality must now be extended to the LGBTQ community in the North.
“It was truly emotional. Here in the North it’s a tricky one because we don’t have a constitution and a referendum would be a huge drain on resources that are badly needed elsewhere. It’s an absolute disgrace that we are so far behind in terms of equality compared with the rest of the UK.
“My argument is always that I pay my taxes in the same way as my heterosexual counterparts in this country do, I work hard and therefore I should be entitled to the same access to the law as everyone else, I don’t get special dispensations for being queer.
“It’s really unfair that the decision makers of this country cannot get together and actually think about the human costs.
“They are so concerned with picking holes in each other, driven by hatreds of the past, that they forget that there are people out there depending on them to say, ‘Yes, you are a human being, here, now have access to the laws, healthcare and education that you need.’”
When asked for her hopes and ambitions for the future Mel said she would like to see a shift towards more equality and she believes that if it was to ever succeed it must begin with the education of young people.
“I think there are some brilliant people in Donegal and Derry that are making real progress in terms of LGBTQ rights, a lot of noise is stirring, which is fantastic to hear/see. I would love to see our young people having adequate access to education. That includes equal representation in history, literature, relationships, sexuality, sexual health and mental wellbeing.”
The Rainbow Project is based in Orlan House, 20 Strand Road, BT48 7AB. If you would like more information visit its website www.rainbow-project.org or telephone 028 7128 3030