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Gay Pride and the Parades Commission

Andrew Johnson

8th July 2005

With Belfast’s marching season getting into its swing, a curious footnote has been provided by the Parades Commission’s intervention into the annual Gay Pride march scheduled for August. This is believed to be the first occasion that the Commission has taken an interest in a march not associated with the orange/green divide.

What has startled many observers is that Pride had not faced concerted opposition in many years – only a dozen or so Paisleyites brandishing placards threatening the revellers with hellfire. It had been widely assumed that Pride had become part of the city’s cultural landscape and only a handful of dinosaurs had a problem with that. So what has happened this year?

It seems that at least two petitions against Pride had been circulated by fundamentalists, garnering 400-500 signatures. These were then taken to the cops, who referred the matter on to the Parades Commission. The Commission, following its normal modus operandi, sought to negotiate and split the difference. It then contacted the Northern Ireland Gay Rights Association (NIGRA).

What happened afterwards is obscure, but it would appear that elements of NIGRA had been having quiet talks with the Commission. Since the petitioners had objected to “lewd behaviour” and the parade passing churches, the Commission was canvassing an agreement that would involve appropriate restrictions, such as the gay community agreeing not to camp it up outside churches.

Then BBCNI’s Steven Nolan blew the thing wide open with a report on his TV show. Not surprisingly, the homophobes then came out of the woodwork. More interesting was the reaction of the members of the gay community interviewed by Nolan. They literally couldn’t understand what the Parades Commission had to do with them. Yet this sort of thing is what the Parades Commission does.

One facet of the affair worth commenting on is that while Belfast’s visible gay community is much bigger now than it has ever been, NIGRA – the political cutting edge – is smaller and has a far lower profile than ever before. The reason for this is generational. NIGRA represents the residue of gay militancy from the days of the Strasbourg case and Paisley’s Save Ulster From Sodomy campaign of 25 years ago. But the young people on the gay scene weren’t born back then, and in post-ceasefire Belfast their approach has been to form a subculture where politics doesn’t penetrate. This has been encouraged by the growth of the pink pound and the absence of serious anti-gay mobilisations by the fundamentalists. There remains a shockingly high level of anti-gay violence, but this has taken the form of attacks on isolated individuals and has tended to be seen as a policing matter rather than a political one.

As it happens, there have been a few happenings on the political scene lately that underscore the ferocious homophobia that hides behind Ulster politeness. The DUP is currently divesting itself of one of its rising stars, Armagh MLA Paul Berry, after allegations – still denied by Berry – of a gay liaison. While some may be shocked at the possibility of gay men practising Paisleyism, it is well known that there is a thriving gay subculture in the DUP although there are of course no out gays in Big Ian’s party.

Meanwhile in Lisburn, Councillor Seamus Close of the nice and cuddly Alliance Party has raised objections to the possibility that gay couples could have civil partnership ceremonies in the same council reception room used for weddings. Close, a faithful representative of liberal Catholic unionism, has argued that the gays are entitled to have their ceremonies, but they shouldn’t labour under the delusion that their partnerships are equal. Therefore they should have to use a different room, or maybe a closet.

It’s too early to say what will happen at the Pride parade, and whether the fundamentalists will mobilise against it. But the whole affair illustrates the folly of an oppressed community trying to have an apolitical carnival in the North of Ireland. It would be far better for the oppressed to stand up to their oppressors rather than try to ignore them. And if, as we hear, Paul Berry’s face will adorn t-shirts at Pride, that can raise a smile as well as getting a point across.


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