Gay MLA hails progress, but says key issues still need addressed
The Alliance Party’s John Blair has opened up on his experiences as Northern Ireland's first openly gay politician, praising the progress that has been made for LGBTQ equality – but cautioning there is still much road to travel.
Born and raised in Newtownabbey, the 54-year-old has been involved in politics in some fashion since he was 17 and was first elected to the old Newtownabbey council in 1988.
He worked in Inland Fisheries for a time and has always had a interest in environmental issues, something which would colour his political career to date.
Deputy Mayor of Antrim and Newtownabbey Borough Council in 2015/16, he would later be co-opted to replace former party leader and justice minister David Ford as MLA for South Antrim in 2018.
Speaking ahead of Pride celebrations this weekend, John spoke to the Belfast Telegraph about his journey so far.
"Given my council background, I would probably be the first openly gay elected representative in Northern Ireland. In the regard, my 'coming out', if we call it that, within politics was more of a process of things evolving," he says.
"Some people asked, some were told, some became generally aware; that was at council level in the late 80s and early 90s. Coming to the Assembly in 2018 it was well known that I was openly gay and there was some media interest about that.
"I suppose the attention, while it was welcome and positive – and I enjoyed engaging with the media on the issue – to some degree it distracted from the work I wanted to do.
"For me it was finding a balance of addressing the issue, while also making it clear that my priority there was to be an Alliance Party representative for all of South Antrim. But I would never shy away from issues that are important to the LGBTQ+ community.
John says he came out as gay gradually to his family in his late teens and early 20s.
"I've been lucky in life. First of all politically, I am lucky to be party of a liberal, progressive and inclusive political party for virtually all of my political life. In my personal life, I have always enjoyed having a loving and supportive family, close friends who have been with me for a very long time, through all of the ups and all of the downs."
When he entered the Assembly, John says it was a very positive experience, with only a slightly negative reaction on social media, but he stresses that it was very minimal.
"In the 80s and 90s it was a very different experience compared to what it is now. There has been some negative impacts over the years from a small number of people, but I have always been of the view that the negative impact of a few people should not negate a lifetime of good experiences and people – that frankly matter more to me – than the narrow-minded minority."
John says it would be easy for him to say Northern Ireland has come such a long way in terms of rights and confidence for the LGBTQ+ community, which is demonstrated through the growing number of Pride events each year and marriage equality, but there is still a long way to go.
"First of all, conversion therapy, there is action required to stop this cruel practice. We need movement on the long-awaited sexual orientation strategy and we need all parties to work together to address this," he says.
"We also need a greater emphasis on addressing trans issues, such as trans healthcare. We need continued action on hate crime and we need all politicians and public services working with the police.
"Finally, we need to address issues around harassment and bullying, particularly in our schools. Frankly not enough has been done on this. It is very sad for me that issues are being dealt with at Westminster or through the courts, and not our locally democratically elected politicians. Societal change, in terms of inclusion and celebrating diversity, has moved a lot more rapidly than political change. That's a crucial point.
"Northern Ireland is a much more progressive place than it was even 10 years ago. There is a greater community awareness and appreciation of diversity that might sometimes be reflected in political commentary."
On Pride, the Glengormley man said it is unfortunate it cannot be celebrated as usual this year due to the pandemic, althoughhe praised the work of those able to put on some events this weekend.
"Pride is not just one day a year, it is an opportunity for excellent organisations, such as the Rainbow Project, to showcase what they do all the time for the LGBTQ+ community. I would sincerely pay tribute for the work that all these people do all year round.
"I hope that I will see, and see soon, a greater number of openly LGBTQ people involved in elected politics and other areas of public life."