DARREN Bradshaw and Simon McGill could easily have met. They could have bumped into each other at a pub, party or disco. Gays in the North form a small, intimate community and most paths usually cross sooner or later.
Mr Bradshaw (24), an RUC officer, was a regular at Belfast's main gay bar, the Parliament at Dunbar Link. He was originally from the loyalist Shankill Road but he had friends on both sides of the political divide.
"He was one of the nicest people I ever met," said a friend. "He was a very open, chatty guy who got on well with people, no matter where they were from. Everyone loved him."
For years, he had struggled to accept his sexuality, according to friends.
"He came from a very religious background and he found it hard dealing with his family, although his mother said she didn't care if he was gay," said one.
"Darren was in the process of coming out and he needed a lot of support."
Simon McGill (30) knows all about the trauma of "coming out". He is a voluntary worker in London, his parents are from Co Tyrone and he regularly returns to Northern Ireland.
"You have a lot of guilt, growing up gay in a Catholic background," he says. "It took me a long, long time to come to terms with my sexuality. My family were a bit rocky about it at the start."
Mr McGill is the deputy co ordinator in Britain of the Irish Republican Socialist Party, the INLA's political wing.
On Friday night, Mr Bradshaw was drinking with friends in the Parliament when an INLA gunman shot him dead at pointblank range. The killing has outraged the North's gay community but Mr McGill justifies it.
"I have no problem with the attack. He was a member of the RUC. He put on a police uniform and became part of a state which oppresses nationalists. His sexuality is irrelevant. If a child is killed with a plastic bullet what difference does it make whether the policeman who fired it is straight or gay?"
Mr P.A. MagLochlainn of the Northern Ireland Gay Rights' Association said the attack was the antithesis of what the gay community represents.
"Live and let live is what we are all about. We are totally opposed to the cruel slaying of a young man who had everything to live for. There has never been any political division in the gay community. The only conflict has been between lesbians and gay men. Even during the 1981 hunger strike when emotions were running very high, we remained united."
Visitors to the Parliament often find it difficult to believe that this is staid, conservative Belfast. Dance music vibrates into the streets. Inside, the place is always packed.
Flamboyance rules on the dance floor. Everything goes at the Parliament. Gays from all over the city gather here.
"It's a neutral venue, a melting pot," says Niall (30). "No one is interested in who is nationalist or unionist. We have enough problems being gay in this country without having to worry about stuff like that. There are three religions in Northern Ireland - Catholic, Protestant and gay."
Niall was in the pub when Mr Bradshaw was shot. "The shooting happened so quickly. Darren fell against somebody who fell at my feet. Somebody dragged his body away. He was lying outside the ladies' toilets in a pool of blood. It was a horrible sight. A lot of people were very upset."
Regulars say that a handful of gay policemen drink there. Most keep their identity secret, passing themselves as security guards.
"It's very difficult for them," says Niall. "They are forced to live separate lives. The RUC is still conservative so they can't be gay in the police. It's dangerous admitting to being a policeman when out socialising so they have to be very careful in their gay life too."
"The RUC tells its officers to stay out of city centre bars for their own safety," says another gay activist.
"Darren was too innocent and trusting. A more experienced person wouldn't have been there.
"But he was just `coming out' and getting involved in the whole gay scene. He got carried away and was careless of his security. That was foolish because once the gay community becomes aware that someone is a police officer, it creates a frisson of excitement and word spreads."
Mr Bradshaw was killed for being a police officer but, ironically, he had been suspended on full pay pending an inquiry.
The veteran gay rights campaigner, Mr Jeff Dudgeon, believes the paramilitaries are particularly vicious towards gays. "I think they get an extra thrill from killing a gay," he says.
Simon McGill of the IRSP said it is the RUC, not republicans, who are homophobic.
"The police raid gay bars and constantly harass gay men," he says. "Anyone joining the police is betraying their community."