20 February 1997 Edition

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Respecting differences

By Martha McClelland

Another step on the road towards a pluralistic and democratic society was taken at the weekend in Derry at a conference organised by Foyle Friend, an information and befriending service for gay men, lesbian women and bisexuals in the city. ``Respecting Difference in a Changing Society'' packed St Columb's Park Recreation Centre with community activists and leaders of all kinds, from trade unionists, womens' activists, counsellors, various clergy of differing denominations, statutory bodies, and a number of political parties ranging from the PUP to Sinn Féin. They all talked to each other, and there was the sort of buzz that characterises a group when people are learning, discovering new allies and appreciating new people and viewpoints.

There was a range of speakers including Luton University professor Ian Rivers, whose research revealed the type of bullying gay and lesbian school pupils were subjected to, which results in 50% of gay students considering suicide, and 40% actually attempting suicide. He called for a wide-ranging education policy to educate all school pupils, and end such bullying.

Jesuit priest Donal Godfrey challenged the churches on their response to the lesbian and gay community, and called for a special ministry to the gay and lesbian communities to be established.

Frank Bunting, Chair of the Northern Ireland Committee of ICTU, spoke on implementing fair representation within the trade union movement.

Sinn Féin representative Daisy Mules generated a great deal of very positive interest with Sinn Féin's document ``Moving On'' - all copies went with requests for more. Delegates were also impressed with Sinn Féin's commitment to raising awareness about the rights and need of gay and lesbian people, particularly with the workshops for councillors on this issue.

Describing it as ``an energising conference'', Mules welcomed Foyle Friend's initiative and creativity in ``challenging organisations to reflect on their own policies and consider how they can progress them.''

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