Gay community has 'stronger voice' but fight goes on, says equality boss
The gay community has a stronger voice than ever before, according to Northern Ireland's Equality Commission.
However, chief commissioner Michael Wardlow has also said more must be done to protect the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people.
In a message ahead of Saturday's Pride parade, which is expected to bring thousands of people into Belfast, he said: "No one could be in any doubt that LGBT people have a stronger voice now than at any time I can remember.
"Gradually that is bringing about an increase in the equality and the respect that they deserve alongside the rest of our society. Earlier this year we saw the lifting of the lifetime ban on blood donation by gay men and we've also seen the strength of public opinion in favour of equal civil marriage.
"The commission is hopeful that the long-awaited Sexual Orientation Strategy will be progressed as part of the implementation of the executive's Programme for Government. In our response, we called for a timetabled commitment to developing and implementing the Sexual Orientation Strategy, which would enhance the protection of the rights of LGBT people in Northern Ireland."
Belfast Pride began with just 100 people but is now one of Ireland's largest LGBT festivals with 100 events reaching an audience of more than 50,000 over 10 days.
This year the theme is "We Are One" and organisers have vowed to continue their fight for equality.
A statement on the Pride website said: "The parade is a chance to showcase our community and we want to see a positive celebration for the LGBTQ community in Belfast while we continue to make sure that we press for full equality.
"'We are One' is the theme for Belfast Pride this year and this reminds us all of the power of Pride to bring people together, to encourage us to work together for our common cause, to celebrate our diverse identities and stand up for each other."
Northern Ireland remains the only region in the UK or Ireland where same-sex marriage is illegal.
Despite calls for a change in the law from 20,000 campaigners who marched through Belfast last June, the devolved Stormont Assembly has repeatedly refused to legislate.
Although a slim majority of MLAs voted in favour of lifting the ban when it was debated for a fifth time last November, the proposal fell when the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) deployed a controversial voting mechanism to effectively veto it.
Those opposed to gay marriage argue that same-sex couples already have the ability to enter into civil partnerships and claim there is no appetite for further change.
The contentious matter is also being contested through the courts where two same-sex couples have challenged the current law under human rights legislation.
Earlier this week, a new five-storey mural depicting a married lesbian couple was unveiled in Belfast city centre.
Artist Joe Caslin said he hoped it would make people "stop and think" about marriage equality.
Meanwhile, born-again Christians are expected to stage two protests ahead of the parade which kicks off at 1pm.
The Reverend David McIveen said around 40 people are due to take part in a picket at Waring Street with more people attending a separate protest outside Belfast City Hall.
The Free Presbyterian Minister said: "We believe that homosexuality is contrary to the teachings of the Bible and therefore we identify the sinner and point people towards the saviour of sin.
"That applies to all people whether heterosexual or homosexual. We will have a very positive Gospel message."