One teen’s rise in NI Politics and his fight with religious education

SOUTH ARMAGH – Sitting in a required Religious Studies class, teenager Dermot Hamill had to listen to his classmates debate whether he, or anyone else, should have the right to love someone of the same gender. 

Hamill underwent years of bullying for being the gay kid at his Catholic school in a rural area of South Armagh in Northern Ireland. Then he had to take a religious morality class, where he and his peers were taught that same-sex relationships are sinful. 

In his final exam for the class, he had to write about how being gay is an abomination. He got an A. 

Hamill is one of around 30,000 LGBTQIA+ youth in Northern Ireland schools, according to the Rainbow Project. Since nearly all NI schools are either Catholic of Protestant, religious education isn’t terribly optional, though it differs from school-to-school. A 2016 report by the Northern Ireland Department of Education found that 67% of LGBTQIA+ youth between 16 and 21 felt unwelcome in their schools, 45% felt unsafe and 48% experienced bullying. The same report showed that for more than 70% of 532 respondents, sexual orientation and gender identity were only mentioned in their Religious Studies classes — a required part of Northren Irish curriculum that generally teaches Christian ethics and morality. Many of those students — like Hamill — only learned about LGBTQIA+ issues in a classroom that questioned their rights. 

Hamill knew he was gay at a fairly young age. At 12-years-old, he was outed to his entire school of mostly conservative Catholics and says they relentlessly bullied him until he moved schools at 16 to escape the harassment. It was around that same time that Hamill decided to be vocal. He started a podcast and blog, “Youth Voice NI: Giving Young People a Voice in Politics” to share his views and those of other young people across Northern Ireland. It covers topics such as politics, education, women’s and LGBTQIA+ rights and complicated economic policies related to Brexit. 

Fed up with politics that didn’t take into account the views of young people unable to cast a ballot, Hamill confronted the politicians who often ignored people like him and made a name for himself in the crowded NI political sphere. 

Since his debut interview with Naomi Long, leader of the Alliance Party, which aired on his podcast in December 2020, Hamill said he has been on television an estimated 10 to 15 times, he’s released more than 35 episodes and he was elected as one of 18 Northern Irish youth representatives to the United Kingdom’s Youth Parliament. 

Sometimes when he’s out with friends enjoying a pint — or two or three — people will approach him and ask if he’s the politics kid from TV. He’s not quite used to being recognized. 

“It’s really weird, because like, I see myself as a kid,” Hamill said. “I do it, because I love it. And because I really care about it.”

The politics of Northern Ireland have long been dominated by the divisions of Green and Orange, nationalist and unionist, Catholic and Protestant, though modern politics are far more complicated and fractured than those centuries-old lines. Most people know of the bloody conflict known as the Troubles that lasted from the late 1960s until the late ‘90s. The Democratic Unionist Party has held control of the political offices in Northern Ireland since 2004 – until this year. The 2022 election turned out strong support for Sinn Fein, a liberal-leaning Irish nationalist party, and Alliance, an non-aligned party that ran on domestic issues like healthcare, housing and education. The results left the DUP no longer in control of the top executive post at Stormont, the seat of government. 

“We can really see proper progressive politics in Northern Ireland for one of the first times ever. And that’s, that’s really exciting,” Hamill said after the election results came in. “The idea that we could really start to see Northern Ireland become a better place is — it’s brilliant.”

Hate between opposing sides still brews in some corners of Northern Ireland, but Hamill has hopes people will focus more on the important issues than long-held religious and political disdain. And he believes the beginning of that change will happen in schools and with young people.

Fighting for NI’s LGBTQIA+ youth

Amelia Clarke took pride in being a troublemaker as a kid. They were loud and proud and had an understanding of who they were and what they believed at a much younger age than most. Around 6, they realized they didn’t believe in the religion their Protestant parents practiced. At around 11, they realized they were bisexual. It happened when the international school they attended in Thailand held an assembly affirming it was OK to be gay. And in their late teens, they started to meet people who didn’t conform to gender standards, and realized they were nonbinary, too. 

When they were in secondary school they attended a school that was both similar to and different from Hamill’s. While the cross-community school claimed not to be religious, Clarke said it was still very Protestant. They had to pray before assembly every morning and take similar religious courses to those Hamill took at his school, and though they were told the class would teach about all sorts of religions, Clarke said it didn’t. 

One day Clarke walked out of religion class. The class was having a debate about whether or not gay people should be allowed to live. The teacher assigned Clarke to debate on the side that said they shouldn’t. Clarke refused and the teacher said they either had to participate or go to the headmistress. They walked out of school and had to speak with the headmistress the next day, who insisted the assignment was just playing devil’s advocate. 

“Well, I don’t want to play devil’s advocate,” they said. “This is my life. I don’t need to play devil’s advocate. This is my lived experience..”

Clarke has suffered harassment and oppression as an openly and visably queer person. They’ve had an older man physically threaten to “fuck the gay away” in the streets. They’ve had a church youth group lock them in a room and tell them to pray until they weren’t gay anymore, to write down all their sins and the ways in which they’d be punished in hell. 

At around 17, they started volunteering for Cara-Friend, an organization that helps LGBTQIA+ people in Northern Ireland. Six years later, they work as the Trans, Non-Binary and Gender Diverse Youth Officer for the organization.

They primarily work with youth, creating a safe space in Cara-Friend’s Belfast building for young LGBTQIA+ people to meet up. They also teach awareness lessons to various youth organizations, and sometimes go into schools. 

The moments that stick with Clarke, that make their work worth it, are the ones where they get to help a young trans girl try on makeup for the first time and explore her womanhood in a place where she feels comfortable or when they can get a room full of shy girls to open up and laugh with them. 

And sometimes it’s the times when they stop and listen that make the biggest difference. Clarke has a colleague, Nile, who went to a more rural area to give an awareness lesson. Some of the kids there threw some hateful words at him and instead of reacting he listened to them.

“Once they kind of realized, ‘OK, he’s listening, but he doesn’t care,’ that was whenever they started paying attention to what he was actually saying,” Clarke said. Afterward, the kid who was saying the most nasty and hateful things at the beginning of the session approached Nile and told him they thought they might be gay. “A lot of hate does come from fear of being gay and fear of ‘what if I am?’”

‘Angry little politics kid’

With Dermot Hamill, the political light turned on when he was 9 and his primary school went on a field trip to Stormont. The grand Belfast building, built on a hill in 1830, looks like a mix between a castle and the White House. 

After scrambling up to the looming building, he and his classmates walked through the Great Hall. Hamill was enraptured by the glimmering chandeliers, the marble stairs and the chairs that sat the decision makers of his home region. They spoke with some of the members of Sinn Fein — who he remembered being eager to answer the many questions posed by 9- and 10-year olds — about the ongoing European Parliament election. 

Hamill lights up when he talks about politics. It’s clear his passion for the subject is immense, along with his knowledge. He can name each of the 90 Northern Ireland Members of the Legislative Assembly. And he speaks with authority on just about any political topic.

Some of the issues he’s passionate about include LGBTQIA+ rights, and also cost of living, protecting women from rising rates of violence, mental health support, Irish language protections and economic policies. 

“My big issue — like the thing I focus on most — is education,” Hamill said. “It’s such a nerdy thing, but I love it.”

The current Northern Irish education system is largely segregated between Catholic and Protestant kids in Northern Ireland. Hamill didn’t meet a Protestant until he was 16 going on 17, when he started getting involved in politics. 

“If that’s gonna be happening with young people across Northern Ireland, we’re not going to see any change and it means we’re going to be left in this constant sectarian deadlock,” Hamill said. “It’s going to leave people divided, and we’re not going to bring people together. And we really need to start bringing people together in Northern Ireland.”

Hamill’s town of South Armagh sits in a region along the southern border of NI that was known as “Bandit Country” during the Troubles. He said of the eight local schools, only one is Protestant. And the closest integrated school — an increasingly popular method of schooling that brings together students of all backgrounds — would be around five bus rides away in Belfast. 

“I always thought we were very, very different,” Hamill said of his Protestant peers. “I was like, ‘Oh, we’re polar opposites.’ And then I was talking to someone and I was like, ‘We’re basically the same. But we do things slightly differently when it comes to religion. And I don’t do religion.’”

What he says he wants is to remove religion from education in his country – a monumental task. During his early secondary education, he had to take two religion classes: one on memorizing the gospel — which Hamill described as “horrendously boring” — and the other on Christian ethics. He said they were essentially told what to believe, instead of being given facts, and left to make up their own minds. 

“At the time we had just legalized gay marriage in Northern Ireland and I’m gay,” Hamill said. “So it was a big thing for me. It’s something I really believe in. And we were essentially told that gay marriage was inherently wrong.”

He has clear memories of the amendment recognizing same-sex marriage passed “because I can remember crying my wee eyes out just thinking that it was the best. It was the best thing ever. Because it was one of the first times in politics I felt like we won something.” How the amendment passed after several failed attempts was unsurprisingly complicated; it happened after the power-sharing of NI collapsed in 2017, and it was subsequently governed from London. The amendment came from a member of the Labor party there who was formerly of Northern Ireland.

Two of the next steps in advocates’ sights are banning conversion therapy and introducing thorough and inclusive sex education. Of the two, Hamill’s issue is conversion therapy — the religious practice that attempts to turn gay people straight and has been deemed torture by the United Nations.

“I will pull no punches when it comes to that fight. Because we have to protect young LGBT people no matter the background, we have to make sure they’re safe,” he said. “And banning conversion therapy is the first step in that.”

As far as sex education goes, Hamill said the current sex education is abstinence first and teaches little about the nuances of sex, sexual orientation or gender. He has hope that by the time he has his own kids, if he ever has them, that they’ll go to a school where they can feel safe. “I can’t say that [schools] will change, but I’m really damn hoping that they will because young people deserve change,” Hamill said. “And it’s up to schools to deliver upon that.”

Pushing for proactive policy

The NI Department of Education had the report “Post-Primary School Experiences of 16-21 Year Old People Who Are Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and/or Transgender (LGBT)” for 15 months before they released it in April of 2016, according to Aisling Playford, policy and advocacy manager of the Rainbow Project. Even then, it’s been six years since the department released the report with a range of statistics pointing to a lack of support for young LGBTQIA+ students in schools, and they’ve made little changes. 

Playford is a 41-year-old woman on the LGBTQIA+ spectrum who grew up in Northern Ireland. She’s worked for the Rainbow Project — an organization that provides free counseling to LGBTQIA+ individuals in NI and works in various ways to improve life for queer people — for four or five years and, in that time, can’t remember ever getting the Department of Education to meet with her organization. 

“We’re not asking them for incredible things, we’re asking them to actually look at their own research and put plans in place to address that appropriately, and we’re trying to hold the minister to account and say, Llook, this is in black and white from your own department. You need to be doing something proactive about this,’” Playford said. 

Some of the lobbying work she’s doing is pushing the Department of Education to adjust its relationship- and sex-education to be LGBTQIA+ inclusive, as well as talking about LGBTQIA+ historical figures in other areas of education, citing Alan Turing, the famous mathemetician and subject of the movie “Imitation Game,” as an example. She does plenty of other lobbying as well, from working to ban conversion therapy to broadening mental health and health care access. 

Playford said it’s hard to say for sure if the May election that resulted in more seats for Sinn Fein and the Alliance Party, both of which openly support LGBTQIA+ rights, will lead to the changes she’s been working toward. There’s no telling when the shared government’s executives will be appointed, which could leave them without an assembly for years and force advocates to turn to Westminster to fight for their rights. She does have hope for more support from these liberal-leaning parties, but pointed out that they’ve received support from the Ulster Unionists, which recently gave £250,000 to LGBTQIA+ healthcare. 

Playford also pointed out that though religious organizations can have negative impacts on LGBTQIA+ people, she’s not anti-religion. She knows there are many LGBTQIA+ people who do have personal connections to faith, and she’s worked with affirming Christian organizations and ministers who support their work and call for the ban of conversion therapy. She doesn’t, however, support religious organizations coming in to teach sex education.

It saddens Playford to watch as young people today have to deal with the same discrimination she faced when she was their age and she can’t help but ask, “How is this still happening?” 

“Our young people are incredible, they’re inspiring,” Playford said, recounting how the Rainbow Project’s younger clients rallied around the staff to comfort them after a member tragically died. “They’ve built up this resilience within them. To see them being so proactive. Seeing so many young people being out and proud and being able to walk around with flags or holding their partner’s hand or having a badge on. That’s what inspires me going forward.”

Using his voice

Hamill voted in his first election on May 5, 2022, after he finally reached 18. 

He woke up at 9 a.m., jumped out of bed, threw on some clothes and ran the two minutes to the local community center, passing by the faces of smiling candidates on campaign posters. There, he filled out his ballot, marking it up for around six different parties, leaving off candidates who weren’t explicitly pro-choice, he said.

He took the day off of school and went home to watch the results come in. 

This momentous occasion came in tandem with his final exams and his acceptance to Queen’s University Belfast, where he’ll study International Relations. He’s looking forward to wrapping up his secondary education at the end of June and moving on. 

“It’d be nice never to have to pray again,” Hamill said. “You know, I’m looking forward to the little things that we’ll just never have to do again.”

Once he wraps up school, he says he’ll be more involved in the Youth Parliament, and he wants to do some international political reporting and to eventually head off to Queen’s. He’s excited to be more immersed in politics in the capital of Northern Ireland, and he intends to spend a lot of time walking the grounds of Stormont, where his path began. 

He’ll likely continue Youth Voice NI until he’s 20, then retire it, or maybe pass it on to a new successor. He doesn’t think it will continue to serve the purpose it was meant to once he’s grown out of being part of the youth it represents. 

One day, he aspires to be a political reporter with his own show on the BBC, or maybe a frontline politician putting in the work to change Northern Ireland. 

“I’m very comfortable in who I am now, whereas when I was 12 and 15 I wasn’t. Now, you know, I’m me. I’m Dermot,” Hamill said. “If anyone wants to get in my way, I’ll go through them. I’m not really afraid.”

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