Standing Up For Herself

Belfast comedian Gemma Hutton talks to Dolan about speaking out for equality in a conservative society.

Northern Ireland has a bit of a reputation when it comes to equality. The only place in the British Isles not to allow gay marriage, with a history of religious discrimination that needs no repeating, it can be a scary place to live for anybody, never mind those who fall outside the norm.

All of this makes Gemma Hutton, a vocal young lesbian Protestant comedian, even more impressive. Showcased in the short film ‘Our Gemma’ – by Cara Holmes and Paula Geraghty – Hutton is an outspoken activist, with plenty to say about the state of her country and what she wants to do about it.

I have a microphone and a view, and that’s a powerful combination

“For me, comedy is as much demonstrating a perspective or a tough truth to a crowd that would otherwise not necessarily follow an important topic like politics. I have a microphone and a view, and that’s a powerful combination, more powerful than making a dick joke or falling back on the usual stuff that makes you roll your eyes.”

Hutton’s regular comedy gig is Sunday Service in Boombox in Belfast, where she hosts and performs with drag queens every week.

“Have you ever seen [the film] ‘Gorillas in the Mist?’ Well I’m Sigourney Weaver, the gorillas are the drag queens and the forest is the gay scene” is how she described it. “It’s taken me five years, but I’ve finally been accepted into their clan. I’m the only female representative in our community up here, so it was really important to me.

Hutton’s twin vocations, as comedian and political activist, can cause conflicts, but she’s dedicated to making them work.

“I just want to say the first thing that comes into my head and see what happens, but I suppose you can’t really do that when you’re representing the community. You don’t want to say something offensive and be blamed for giving others a bad opinion of our community”.

Hutton is a firm believer in expediting social change and can feel frustrated by the slow pace of progress. “It’s hard to get people riled up for longer than one rally” she complained. “I want us to march every week, picket Stormont, make billboards, but it’s hard to co-ordinate us.”

Though she pushes against it, there is affection for the LGBTQ community of Northern Ireland behind everything she does. “I genuinely love my community. As a child, I was too fat and geeky to fit in with the ‘cool girls’, and I didn’t date because I knew I was queer and confused. But when I came out, my community saved me. Made me feel part of something, and accepted, not judged. I want to make sure my kids feel that from their first steps. And that means equality for everybody.”

The DUP have come out strongly against marriage equality, opposed the decriminalisation of homosexuality in the 1980s, while in 2008, Iris Robinson advocated for psychiatric treatment to ‘cure’ gay people. This may go some way to explaining why Hutton describes herself as the ‘worst Protestant ever’.

“I don’t care about flags”, she says. “Or this bullshit that ‘we are just celebrating our heritage’. Sinn Féin support Pride, DUP shun me, UUP shun me, TUV shun me. My Members of the Assembly call us paedophiles, child abusers and abominations. If this is what it is to be Protestant, then I’m converting.”

It is that conservatism that can politicise so many in the LGBTQ community as they struggle to win basic rights. “Getting married and wanting kids in Northern Ireland? If you’re not an activist about these issues before you want that, you better be afterward.”