Michael Barron, the director of BeLonG To, Ireland’s national service and advocacy organization for LGBT young people, has been invited to the White House for a series of meeting with senior administration officials marking St. Patrick’s Day.
The unprecedented invitation comes in recognition of BeLonG To’s groundbreaking work nationally and internationally to combat bullying in schools and to support LGBT young people facing harassment and discrimination.
Barron, who was named Person of the Year at the 2013 National Gay and Lesbian Awards (GALAS) last month, has achieved international prominence for successfully advocating for significant national policy changes in the areas of education, suicide prevention, and drug and alcohol use.
“It came as a surprise, which is nice,” Barron told the Irish Voice. “BeLonG To has been working in the whole area of combating homophobic and transphobic bullying and supporting LGBT young people for 10 years, and more recently some of that work has been international. We helped UNESCO write their first ever international guide to tackle anti-gay bullying, and that was our first contact with the U.S. government on the issue.”
LGBT issues, thanks to a directive from former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, are a foreign policy objective of the Obama administration. In Paris last year, to talk about his organization’s goals, Barron shared the stage with under secretary for education Russlynn Ali, creating a connection between Barron and the U.S. government.
Then last September the American Embassy in Dublin asked Barron to attend an International Visiting Leaders Program in the U.S. organized by the State Department.
“Our work at BeLonG To has also been recognized by the European Commission and the UN Human Rights Commission and the combination of all of those and our good relations with the U.S. Embassy have led to our invite,” Barron explains.
Bullying, according to a recent study, is an epidemic in U.S. schools. One in six American school children report being bullied verbally, physically and online, two to three times a month or more, many for more than a year.
In Ireland the organization’s work has been complicated by the Catholic ethos of most second level schools, which can take a hostile response to the organization’s advocacy.
“We’ve been at it for 10 years and it’s been a tough battle,” Barron explains. “It hasn’t been an easy task.
“There’s a very strong influence of the Catholic Church in Irish education, which does act as a barrier to creating schools that are LGBT friendly. We’ve made great progress nonetheless.”
This year BeLonG To worked with the Irish Department of Education to produce a national anti-bullying action plan. The plan states that bullying is based on prejudice, and it has created an action plan with a lot of resources behind it to combat bullying wherever it appears.
“Our plan has made it safer for schools, particularly religious schools, to tackle LGBT issues without fear of repercussion,” Barron says.
“Tomorrow the government is introducing a bill in the Irish Parliament to overturn the so-called Religious Exemption Clause that might have been used to discriminate against gay teachers. That loophole will be closed to prevent schools discriminating against LGBT teachers because of their religious ethos.”
The American Embassy in Dublin puts forward about 15 people a year for a St. Patrick’s Day visit to the White House.
“I think it’s very symbolic that an LGBT organization is being invited,” says Barron. “Prioritizing women’s rights and LGBT rights under Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and the Obama administration has been very significant.”
Barron will also visit New York City to work with GLSEN, the Gay Lesbian Straight Education Network.
“I’ll be fundraising by visiting foundations and Irish events in the city. The Irish economy is difficult at the moment so we have to look elsewhere,” Barron said.
“We’re trying to tap into the LGBT Irish diaspora who would like to invest back into the country to ensure that other people don’t have to leave the country because they are LGBT.”
For more information visit www.belongto.org.