Stephen Donnan is a youth worker, community worker, Alliance Party activist and LGBT /civil rights campaigner based out of Belfast, Northern Ireland. He spends his time between East Belfast, North Down and Lurgan. He has have worked in the voluntary sector for some time now, having done work with Cara-Friend, The Rainbow Project, Belfast YMCA, the HIV Support Centre, Parkinson’s UK, Make-A-Wish and PIPS.
Last weekend I had the pleasure of attending Northern Pride in Newcastle-Upon Tyne. I was shown around the town by a friend, the sun was blazing and the cider was ice cold, so we decided to take part in the parade. As we joined the throngs of revellers waving rainbow flags alongside drag queens and carnival creations I couldn’t help but notice that one thing was lacking from the parade route: protesters.
Yes that’s right, I couldn’t get my head round why this parade was going so smoothly, why were there no pickets along the street? Beside city hall? Outside the churches we passed? I looked several times and couldn’t see them, concluding that I must have missed them. I asked my friend if there had been protesters ever before and she looked at me as though I was nuts. I guess coming from Belfast you tend to expect certain things that other places consider bizarre, such as Christians protesting an LGBT Pride march.
Every year the Sandown Presbyterian Church sends a delegation to hold placards reading slogans about Sodom and Gomorrah, telling us that we are all going to Hell, that we are an abomination. These people aren’t alone, for their views are shared by many, including our very own First Minister.
Stephen at Northern Pride
As part of the UK, Northern Ireland has a track record for being the worst country in the British Isles for LGBT rights, being the last nation in the Union to lift the ban on homosexuality in 1982. Direct Rule brought us protection against workplace discrimination based on who we love, equal access to IVF treatment, the right to change legal gender, the ability to serve openly in the military, legal protection from hate crime, rights of access to goods and services and the first Civil Partnerships took place in Belfast in 2004. But this myriad of equality legislation stopped as soon as the Northern Ireland Assembly was re-established in 2007.
Our Health Minister, Mr. Edwin Poots MLA and member of the DUP, has recently refused to lift the ban on gay and bisexual men from donating blood, despite his counterparts in Scotland, Wales and England replacing the ban with a 12 month deferral period. Due to the nature of legislation in place, same-sex couples in a Civil Partnership are forbidden to adopt children and raise a family and future Health Minister Jim Wells MLA described those taking part in Belfast Pride as ‘repugnant’, and the issue of same-sex marriage has drawn a line in the sand for political parties in NI as Scotland, England and Wales all have plans to legislate in favour of such a measure.
With Belfast Pride less than a week away, can we really call it Belfast ‘Pride’? For what does NI have to be proud of when it comes to the LGBT community? Our Assembly hasn’t passed a single piece of legislation in its five years that enshrines the rights of the LGBT community in law. The Grand Master of the Loyal Orders (which also forbids Catholics from joining) recently declared that they are opposed to equal marriage as it will do ‘untold damage to civilization as we know it.’
US President Obama: First President to endorse same-sex marriage
Though things are changing slowly but surely. More Governments than ever are moving to legalise same-sex marriage, such as Scotland, New Zealand and even Vietnam. The USA has seen a massive swing in support for the issue, as President Barack Obama told the world earlier in the year that he was in favour of marriage equality, and his party (The Democratic Party) are set to officially endorse the move. Our neighbours, the Irish Republic, look set to legalise same-sex marriage some time in the next five years as all major political parties have adopted positions in favour of the measure.
The NI Executive recently launched ‘Our Time, Our Place’ as a means of celebrating all of the events taking place in NI this year, such as the Titanic commemoration, the Irish Open or the 100th anniversary of the signing of the Ulster Covenant. With the world changing around it, Northern Ireland will have to move with the times or face the prospect of losing its modern image of peace, inclusiveness and equality. While things right now aren’t as good as they should be, progress can be frustrating or unprecedented in its speed, however, progress is progress and it should be welcomed. Both Belfast City Council and Omagh Council have both passed motions declaring their support for same-sex marriage. The Department of Employment and Learning is now funding a project aimed at raising awareness of the difficulties LGB people face in the workplace and Belfast Pride remains the largest LGBT festival in Ireland. Northern Ireland is part of the EU, and I believe it also only a matter of time before the European Court of Human Rights recognises the right of marriage between same-sex couples, and Northern Ireland’s homophobic political parties and organisations will have to realise that they can no longer stand in the way of equality and progress.
Things aren’t as good as they could be, but they are better than ever before.