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New Pride: How Belfast embraced its LGBTQ population

Updated Wednesday 2nd July 2014

How Northern Ireland moved on from the homophobia of a sectarian past.

[Audio from a Gay Pride parade] Belfast Pride 2013 Creative commons image Icon Ardfern via Wikicommons under CC-BY-SA licence under Creative-Commons license The Belfast Pride 2013 parade

Laurie Taylor:
Well the familiar enough sounds of a street demonstration but that gathering was one with a particularly interesting history because it was the 2013 Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Pride Festival in Belfast.

And in a new Sociological Review monograph, called Pride and Prejudice: gay rights and religious moderation in Belfast, anthropologist Jennifer Curtis considers the effects of religious rhetoric upon the development of gay rights in that city. Rhetoric perhaps best exemplified by Iris Robinson, who as MP and wife of the first minister of Northern Ireland Peter Robinson, back in 2008 delivered this judgement during the course of her interview on BBC Radio Ulster.

Radio Ulster:
Do you think for example that homosexuality is disgusting?

Iris Robison:
Absolutely.

Radio Ulster:
Do you think that homosexuality should be loathed?

Iris Robison:
Absolutely.

Radio Ulster:
Do you think it’s something that is shamefully wicked and vile?

Iris Robison:
Yes of course it is, it’s an abomination. How much stronger a word can one use to clarify what homosexuality is to the Lord Jesus Christ?

Laurie Taylor:
Iris Robinson speaking on the Nolan Show. Well,Jennifer Curtis, who is Honorary Fellow of Social Anthropology at Edinburgh University, now joins me. We’ve just heard an example of the public denunciation of gay people made by Iris Robinson back in 2008, what was the reaction to those remarks at that time?

Jennifer Curtis:
Well people were outraged actually and of course the BBC received many, many complaints. The police received more than 80 complaints and they launched an incitement to hatred investigation. All of the main political parties, except the DUP, condemned the remarks. Trade unions reached out to LGBT people and most – very notably – other religious people began to reach out to the gay community.

Laurie Taylor:
Now you mentioned the DUP – the Democratic Unionist Party – because Iris Robinson [and] her husband Peter Robinson, are members of the DUP. Now this really is a place if you like unionism and religion seem to be going together because after all the long time leader of the party was of course Ian Paisley. Do the DUP have a role generally in opposing gay rights over time, over periods of time?

Jennifer Curtis:
Oh yes and particularly Reverend Paisley has been the poster child for that. In the 1970s the decriminalisation of sodomy for the 1967 Act in England wasn’t extended to Northern Ireland. As law reform was being discussed for the region the Reverend Paisley formed a mass movement to oppose decriminalisation and his movement was called Save Ulster from Sodomy. So the type of language that Mrs Robinson was using really was pretty common in the 1970s, particularly for her party, because her party leader was at the time also the leader of a schematic church – the Free Presbyterian Church of Northern Ireland.

Laurie Taylor:
You’re interestingly saying that this homophobia in Northern Ireland was possibly even more ingrained than sectarianism, so what about the role of the various paramilitaries in this respect?

Jennifer Curtis:
Of course they’ve now decommissioned but in the past the thing about paramilitary groups from all sides, they did punish sexual non-conformity in these local communities and this was sort of irrespective of whatever their allies on the left or in other countries said or any political parties’ official policy on sexuality. And so in this kind of urban low intensity conflict social control was quite important. And so if people didn’t conform, if they were dating the wrong person, for whatever reason, they were at risk.

Laurie Taylor:
And you even want to suggest some of the sectarian murders, some of the sectarian assaults which took place were really homophobic assaults?

Jennifer Curtis:
Yes, there is evidence that some of the murders that were classified as conflict related were actually motivated by homophobia and there was great stigma attached to homosexuality in the city. And so often to spare families that dimension wasn’t investigated.

Laurie Taylor:
And I suppose because of this religious emphasis in which religion was playing a part in this debate you say that the opponents and the supporters of Gay Pride both invoked religious licence.

Jennifer Curtis:
Yes. Iris Robinson’s comments marked a turning point where the rhetoric of the 1970s was no longer acceptable to many people and what really, I suppose, surprised people like Mrs Robinson was that religious people stood up against her and actually took part in the Pride parade for the first time; and church services began to be held as part of the Pride Festival. And they used some very interesting arguments and rhetoric to define their support as being often particularly Christian.

Laurie Taylor:
The way we are talking about the development of that Pride Festival – the increases in numbers you recorded in your paper – I think it’s now the largest cross-community organisation in the region but it has a strong religious dimension doesn’t it, compared to other Pride festivals?

Jennifer Curtis:
It does. There are formal services at the beginning and the end of the festival, there are also daily services at the St George’s Parish Church in the city centre, every day at 6 p.m. a person from a different faith tradition speaks; and there’s a 15 minute sort of reflective service. So religious activities have become a really integral part of the festival, which is not really what people associate with Pride...

 

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