The strange affair of Steven King
4th February 2005
In the past few days it has become public knowledge that the openly gay unionist commentator Steven King had married his partner in a ceremony in Canada. Good luck to them both. But the reaction has been interesting for the light it sheds on the underbelly of unionism.
For readers not familiar with him, Steven is that rarest of beasts, a unionist intellectual. He is a key member of David Trimble’s kitchen cabinet. He writes a weekly column in the Belfast Telegraph, whose content is usually rightwing cobblers but which stands out in the local press for being thoughtful and literate. He is also something of a poster boy for the Dublin media set, who are desperate for a halfway presentable unionist and can’t get enough of someone who is young, well spoken and looks modern.
Over the years Steven has taken quite a bit of stick from his peers about his sexuality – some ten years ago the Tory Boys of Queens Unionist Association were threatening to expel him for being gay. So it was no surprise that the perpetually outraged Ian Paisley Jr found his way onto Radio Ulster’s Talk Back to give vent to a great outpouring of homophobic bile. Gay relationships were “obnoxious and offensive” to most people, opined Wee Ian, using “people” in the traditional DUP sense of people who support the DUP. Paisley Jr then went on to lambast Trimble for surrounding himself with degenerates like Steven King and the other prominent gay unionist, Jeff Dudgeon.
Partly this outrage comes from the fundamentalist Protestant conviction that sinful lifestyles shouldn’t be tolerated. There is also some score-settling going on here. It was no surprise that Jeff Dudgeon, probably the North’s best-known gay activist, was brought up. In a long and colourful political career, beginning as a founding member of Peoples Democracy – which automatically makes him suspect to many unionists – Jeff has had run-ins with the DUP on a number of occasions. Most famously, he took the legal case to Strasbourg that got homosexuality decriminalised here. This was the occasion for Paisley senior to go stomping the country with his Save Ulster From Sodomy campaign. (Jeff countered with the slogan Save Sodomy From Ulster.)
However, there was a time when the Paisleyites were very chummy with Jeff Dudgeon. In the mid-90s, Jeff co-founded the UK Unionist Party and was instrumental in brokering the alliance between Paisley and Bob McCartney. At the time the DUP backwoodsmen were very polite about him in public. It is hard to escape the conclusion that Steven and Jeff are in the firing line more for there trenchant defence of Trimble than for their sexuality.
But unionist homophobia is not just a matter of party politics. Unionism is by definition exclusionary, and gay men have learned not to stick their heads above the parapet, which is why there are only two out gays in unionist politics. (There are of course lots of closet gays, and the DUP has a well-known gay subculture.) Unionism is unable to tolerate any incursion of the other. Look at the history of intimidation in loyalist areas. There is a well-established pattern of violence and intimidation against non-Protestants – historically this has meant Catholics but the recent anti-Chinese pogrom has seen it extended to ethnic minorities.
But more ferocious still has been the hatred towards what are traditionally termed “rotten Prods”. This category has included Protestants in relationships with Catholics; supporters of the small radical socialist tradition; and gays. Just think of the Rev David Templeton, beaten to death by the UVF in 1997 for being gay.
Steven King, smart as he is, is one of those middle-class unionists who find the loyalist working class too distressing to contemplate. As a result he can argue that his unionism is based on British traditions of tolerance, against the clerical Irish state. This is a plausible argument only so long as one does not consider what unionism actually means on the ground for those who don’t conform to its strictures.
It isn’t of course the case that homophobia
is an exclusively unionist phenomenon. Sinn Fein, despite having an excellent
paper position on gay rights, keep quiet about it in the presence of their
more benighted US supporters. But the North is a place where the dominant
culture is one of repression and hypocrisy. As the satirist Newton Emerson
pointed out in the Irish News, most gay men in the North are already married
– to women. The whole affair is an illustration of how backward this place
really is. This might be fine for the fundamentalists who think everywhere
in the world is out of step except for God’s wee Ulster, but the rest of
us are a long way from having a civilised society fit for the 21st century.