Stormont has not delivered for LGBT members of society in Northern Ireland, Ulster Unionist leader Robin Swann has said.
In a speech that drew praise and warm applause at the Pink News reception at Stormont, Mr Swann insisted he would not let unionism become a by-word for intolerance.
Reflecting on a perception of him as having a “traditional background”, Mr Swann said he would not be placed “inside any box or fit any stereotype”.
“This evening let me say – who I am doesn’t mean that I can’t or won’t embrace who you are,” he said.
The North Antrim MLA added: “I recognise that the relationship between the LGBT community in Northern Ireland and elements of political unionism has often not been an easy one.
“For my party’s part I want us to be a comfortable home for LGBT members of our society, whether activist or elected representative and one they can be proud to vote for.
“Whilst there have been huge leaps taken in societal attitudes towards the LGBT community, we also cannot escape the fact that this building has not delivered for them.
“Just one piece of legislation to the direct benefit of the LGBT community has been passed since devolution.
“That was to right a historic wrong and grant pardons to gay and bisexual men who were criminalised by laws now seen for being unfair and unjust.”
Mr Swann continued: “While we may have advanced as a society, the reality is that many members of our society still feel a chill.
“I deplore that 66% of LGBT young people do not feel that school is the welcoming environment that it should be.
“And that 61% of those surveyed as part of the ‘still shouting’ research said that they’d had suicidal thoughts because of their sexual orientation and/or gender identity with 25% making a suicide attempt.
“None of us who are elected to this place can close our eyes to the fact that for those young people their school days are anything but the best days of their lives.
“Add to that the high levels of depression, anxiety and substance abuse.
“And then there is the scourge of loneliness amongst older members of our society who still deal with the legacy of living during the time of pre-decriminalisation.
“When an entire section of society is let down by poor policy making and political sham fighting, is it any wonder we then see the exodus of some of our best and brightest talents who leave our shores at the first opportunity to settle down in a society where they feel they can live a full life?
“But I won’t stand here tonight and claim to be an expert on the LGBT community in Northern Ireland, but I will tell you that I want to learn.
“I’m not prepared to just claim that my party represents everyone, we must actually do it – through our deeds as well as our words.”
He outlined a number of outreach initiatives the UUP had undertaken with the LGBT community.
“Life can be difficult enough sometimes,” he told the audience at Parliament Buildings.
“Yours has wrongly been made harder through prejudice and ignorance.
“It is to all our benefit for Northern Ireland to be a society where everyone can live a full life and feel valued as a member of society.
“I know that respect is not a given, it is something that is earned. I and my party will continue our work and I ask you to work with us.”
Amnesty International Northern Ireland project director Patrick Corrigan, who was a guest at the event, praised the speech.
“Well done @RobinSwannUUP for a very well-received speech at #PinkNewsBelfast reception,” he tweeted.