Pride and prejudice over North's gay community

 

Belfast's Gay Pride parade last weekend was a textbook illustration of opinion shifted - for the better, writes Fionnuala O'Connor

SNAPSHOTS OF public moments can mislead, but they can also illuminate in a way statistics never can. Belfast's Gay Pride parade last weekend was a textbook illustration of opinion shifted. The fact that its dominant image was the DUP's Iris Robinson caught a central shift.

Her radio offerings about psychiatric help to "turn" homosexuals "away from what they are engaged in" and her statement to a Westminster committee that there could be nothing more vile than sexual abuse of children "apart from homosexuality and sodomy" made waves well beyond the organised gay community. The most telling criticisms came from people who said they felt personally targeted or simply hurt by Mrs Robinson's use of words like "repulsed".

The comments galvanised organisations as well as individuals. The Gay Pride march drew its largest ever crowd, and while the bystanders included protesters who waved bibles, there were many more who smiled and waved to marchers.

Apart from the man with a beer can who dropped his trousers and made indecent gestures towards a group of religious protesters, signs were that little offended those on the sidelines. In the centre of Belfast on a Saturday afternoon, that means a cross-section of the population.

Yet floats carried pole-dancers, a stretch limo with a glamorous same-sex couple advertised the best-known Belfast gay bar as a venue for civil partnership ceremonies, and an open-topped lorry had two figureheads, a statuesque drag queen and Mrs Robinson's face in papier-mâché, complete with "Wicked Witch of the North" legend.

For every cheeky poster adorned by her image, it seemed there was somebody on parade to show solidarity with those she hurt: Alliance leader David Ford, Sinn Féin MEP Bairbre de Brun, Progressive Unionist leader Dawn Purvis and Ulster Unionist MLAs Basil McCrea and John McCallister, groups holding the banners of the SDLP's youth wing, the Green Party and the teachers' union NAS/UWT. Sinn Féin Lord Mayor of Belfast Tom Hartley arrived wearing his chain of office and an Amnesty ribbon, as the marchers formed up near stalls organised by the police service and policing board, the equality and human rights commissions and the Church of Ireland pressure group Changing Attitude Ireland. Children's Commissioner Patricia Lewsley was there to show support for young people bullied about their real or supposed sexual orientation.

Many carried the Amnesty International placards awarding "nul points" to countries which criminalise homosexuality. For every brassy sight, there was a reminder of how vulnerable people can be - simply because their sexuality is other than the norm around them. Several carried placards saying "Some people are gay - get over it." A bare-chested rugby club swaggered up Royal Avenue, their most eye-catching feature that they were holding hands - simple but effective, while same-sex couples hesitate to show any affection publicly.

Perhaps the most touching was the banner carried by a group from the north Antrim coast. "LGBT Causeway," it said, "We're here." Claiming the title "Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender" in the countryside and in small towns and villages is hardly easy. But there they were, for the cameras to find.

As the stalls and well-known marchers underlined, social sanction is with the former outcasts now, not against them. Private prejudice survives, but the public battle is well advanced. The rules enjoin equality of opportunity and outlaw discrimination in employment and provision of goods and services. The benighted North has caught up with the South legislatively, even passed it. Peacetime politics may have many weaknesses but the raft of measures and agencies to guard against renewal of old inequalities puts Northern Ireland on a strong footing.

People still suffer outrageous bullying in small businesses or even in larger organisations with lax supervision, for their sexual preferences, real or perceived, as for other reasons. It can be painful to complain of, woefully hard to prove. But nobody is an island. Words cause damage. Now that the lid of repression is off, politicians who moralise had better remember that the injured may point out hypocrisy and contradictions.

A white-haired man at the Belfast march wore a sandwich-board proclaiming "62 years and three months of being gay - but maybe it's a phase I'm going through". He organises social activities for older gays, including walking groups which aim to link up with heterosexual groups - a gentle reminder that nobody's sexuality should define them entirely and that everybody has a multiple identity.

Indeed, the Ian Paisley who tried to "Save Ulster from Sodomy" 30 years ago eventually became the Ian Paisley whose shared office with Martin McGuinness, responsible for promoting equality, handed over £180,000 (€227,000) to LGBT groups. And whose nominee to be the minister for Culture, Arts and Leisure, Edwin Poots, confirmed that the law would not allow him to obstruct an increased grant to the organisers of Gay Pride. Nice to think that a placard at last year's Gay Pride urged participants to "Save Sodomy from Ulster."