Sinn Fein Stormont leader Michelle O’Neill said Northern Ireland has “come a long long way” on LGBT issues but acknowledged that there is “so much more to be done”.
Ms O’Neill pointed to progress, despite challenges posed by the pandemic, on developing policies towards a ban on conversion therapy and legalising equal marriage.
DUP MLA Pam Cameron told those gathered at the PinkNews summer reception at Stormont: “We’re all on a journey here”, adding: “people are people … people need to live and be free to live”.
She said she understands that for many within the LGBT there is still a fear of not being accepted and being a target for abuse and violence which she said was “completely unacceptable”.
She also urged “respectful language” for all viewpoints, saying that she had been “slated” in the past, which she said had “come unfortunately from LGBT+ sources”.
“I think no matter where you are on this, language is really important, it’s really important that the language you use is respectful and that language does not cause harm,” she added.
The DUP has opposed gay marriage which was legalised in Northern Ireland in 2020 following legislation passed by Westminster while the Stormont Assembly was collapsed.
John O’Doherty, director of The Rainbow Project, who chaired the PinkNews event on Wednesday evening, responded saying there is a big difference between the actions by members of government and the criminalisation of the community, and something said by individual LGBTQ+ members who have experienced inequalities.
Alliance MLA Eoin Tennyson described the recent Stormont election as “landmark” electing three openly gay MLAs, making “historic” progress for “LGBTQ+ visibility in politics”.
“It was the first time that an openly gay MLA, in fact, three openly gay MLAs, were elected to the Assembly.
“And I think given Northern Ireland’s past, given that homosexuality was only decriminalised 40 years ago, for us to have come along that journey and to have LGBTQ people elected to the highest offices in this land I think is a real landmark,” he said.
UUP leader Doug Beattie also referred to progress, and pointed to his party’s Health Minister Robin Swann equalising blood donation.
He also spoke about leading to ban conversion therapy.
“It was a difficult debate that we had but it passed and that showed a real change in direction within this Assembly and this legislature, to be able to make those real changes and something we need to progress on in the future for all of our LGBT community,” he said.
“I’m hoping that in the months and years to come that we can actually progress that further to a degree of legislation so that we can actually ban this extremely harmful practice which is called conversion therapy.”
SDLP MLA Matthew O’Toole said while there has been progress, he called for a sexual orientation strategy, proposals for gender recognition and banning conversion therapy.
“We have seen a meaningful step forward in terms of rights for LGBTQ people in this place, but we shouldn’t kid ourselves that we’re at the cutting edge of rights, we’re not,” he said.
At the same event, which was held online last year, then DUP MLA Paula Bradley apologised to the LGBT community for some “absolutely atrocious” things said by members of her party over the years.
DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson backed her comments, adding that people can hold “deeply held views” on social issues in a respectful way.
The party’s former leader Ian Paisley previously led a Save Ulster From Sodomy campaign during the 1970s.
Benjamin Cohen, chief executive of PinkNews described last year as having “ended up being an important event”, adding: “a lot of change making conversations happened”.
He also described an important 40th anniversary this year, referring to the partial discrimination of homosexuality in Northern Ireland.
That came about after Jeffrey Dudgeon took a case to the European Court of Human Rights.