While Northern Ireland has evolved in many positive and progressive ways over the past quarter of a century, the north remains stubbornly out of step with modern attitudes to the LGB&T community – Stormont's refusal to recognise same sex marriages being perhaps the most headline-grabbing barometer of this societal lag.

Campaigning on the equality issue is just one aspect of the work carried out by The Rainbow Project, Northern Ireland's largest pro-LGB&T charitable health organisation, which is celebrating its 25th anniversary throughout 2019.

Initially established in 1994 by a small group of volunteers determined to provide information and support to gay and bisexual men about threat of HIV, Aids and other sexually transmitted diseases, The Rainbow Project has since evolved into a source of information, support, counselling and advocacy for all sections of our LGB&T community.

Coordinated and delivered via its centres at Waring Street in Belfast and Strand Road in Derry as well as a network of rural support groups, their services cover health and wellbeing, counselling, sexual health – including free safer sex packs, rapid HIV and Syphilis testing in LGB&T venues and monthly 'outreach' GUM clinics – family support, crime and violence and LGB&T befriending.

"There's never been a better time to be LGBT in Northern Ireland and we just can't say that often enough," says Rainbow Project director John O'Doherty.

"In the 25 years Rainbow has existed, there has been a huge societal change in how LGBT people are viewed, and for most LGBT people that has changed their daily lives for the better.

"But so much of what we continue to campaign against is exactly what it was 50 years ago before Rainbow even existed – homophobia, based on the idea that either there's no such thing as gay people or that it's 'wrong' or 'sinful' to be gay.

"Thankfully people aren't as violent with it now and it isn't as widespread, but it hasn't gone away."

"And it's important to remember that change has not been equal across all institutions," adds policy and advocacy manager, Gavin Boyd.

Gavin Boyd, policy & advocacy manager at The Rainbow Project. Picture by Mal McCann

"For example, schools are still exactly the same as they were 25 years ago. They are the only public institutions in Northern Ireland that don't have to promote equality and there has really been no change to how lessons are taught or their regulations.

"That means young people coming to terms with their sexual orientation or gender are still doing it in a hostile environment, which means that they're still developing the same low self-esteem, poor coping skills, poor help-seeking behaviours and internalised homophobia."

This is just one of the reasons why The Rainbow Project are now firmly committed to addressing the physical, mental and emotional needs of all LGB&T people in Northern Ireland.

"For the first 15 years of our life we were only a gay and bisexual men's organisation," explains O'Doherty, who has overseen Rainbow's expansion from six full-time staff members to 18 since becoming director in 2010.

"Around 10 years ago, our board of trustees considered the fact that we were already working with women and trans people and that a lot of our representational work was already on a LGBT basis.

"After engaging with our staff, users and community and particularly with our partner organisations as well, we identified that our future was as an LGBT organisation."

This kind of evidence-led and user-driven approach continues to steer The Rainbow Project, which also acts as an advocate for our LGB&T community by taking their needs and concerns directly to government bodies.

Boyd tells me: "My side of things is co-ordinating some of the research that we do on the experiences of our service users and the broader community and then trying to translate that into how we interact with the state – the 'asks' we take to government departments and then the lobbying and campaigning that kind of flows from that as well.

"Everything that we do is directly led by what the community tells us and we try to amplify their voices as much as possible."

Perhaps the greatest testament to the positive impact The Rainbow Project has had in Northern Ireland over the past 25 years is that a large proportion of service users end up working with the organisation.

"I'd say it's two-thirds," says O'Doherty. "In fact, our chairperson often reflects that his first involvement with The Rainbow Project was as a service user."

Nuala Devenny is health and wellbeing manager at The Rainbow Project. Picture by Mal McCann

"You get a lot of people who've got support from us wanting to come back and give back to the community," confirms health and well-being manager Nuala Devenny, who manages the organisation's service teams.

"They've had their journey and they want to be able to support others on theirs as well. Our latest recruit is our volunteer co-ordinator [Marion Kerr]. The Rainbow Project started off as a group of volunteers and that ethos is still very much at the top of Rainbow."

"Volunteering in and of itself is like a service," agrees Boyd.

"It's an opportunity for people to have social interaction, to build relationships and to make friends. Often, it's about creating opportunities for people just to be together."

With social isolation currently one of the biggest issues affecting LGB&T people across the north, one of The Rainbow Project's key functions is just helping its users realise that they are not alone – that they actually can be part of an LGB&T community.

"I grew up in Maghera in Co Derry and, when I came out, I was the first openly LGBT person that I knew," O'Doherty tells me.

"It was only in Belfast at university that I actually got a chance to meet other LGBT people – so that level of isolation can be hugely impactful.

"We as LGBT people don't often come from families where people share our identity. If you're a black, Asian or minority ethnic person, the chances are your parents, your siblings and your wider community network all have that same lived experience of being a minority.

"Really, the only thing that would be comparable would be somebody living with a disability – but there's a lot more acceptance and support for people who are living with disabilities, it's not seen as 'a choice' as is so often the case for LGBT people.

"Finding people who have that understanding and to some extent know what it's like to be 'you' is so important for all of us in finding our identity and being most comfortable in our own skin."

He adds: "The most important thing for us is that LBGT people know that we're here. No matter what your issue, no matter what you want to talk about, contact us: if we can't help you, we'll find someone who can.

"There's nothing you can't talk to us about so please just lift the phone, send an email, Facebook us, tweet us, contact us anyway that you want to – because life is always better at the other side of the rainbow.

*Article printed in the Irish News,08 March 2019 and all Photographs by Mal McCann