Julie-Anne Corr: 'I always felt like an outcast from society because of my sexuality'
Northern Ireland’s first openly lesbian loyalist politician and shadow Belfast city councillor tells Joanne Sweeney of her struggle to accept her sexuality and hopes of one day leading the Progressive Unionist Party.
Q: Is it true the PUP leader Billy Hutchinson recruited you into the party from a loyalist flag street protest?
A: I was a flag protester at Mount Vernon in Fortwilliam and this bald-headed figure came out from the crowd and tapped me on the shoulder and asked why I was there. I hadn't an inkling who he was and he introduced himself as Billy Hutchinson, leader of the PUP, and I was left thinking 'PUP, who's Pup?'
He had a long chat with me and asked why I was standing there and why I wanted to block the roads, why was I wanting to cause a disruption and why did I feel so aggrieved at the flag coming down? He asked me to come and meet him for a chat and I joined the party a couple of months later.
Q: As you are from a loyalist north Belfast background, how come you didn't know about the PUP?
A: I had heard about the Democratic Unionist Party but in my ward the last time that the PUP had a seat was 14 years ago. I'm the first PUP councillor to take that seat back in Oldpark. All that I knew were DUP politicians such as Nigel Dodds, Nelson McCausland and William Humphrey.
Q: How active were you as a protester?
A: There were supposed to be protests every night from 6pm so as soon as I left work at 5pm I would have gone to the protest. It had been for about three hours and then it whittled down to one hour and then we would disperse.
Q: Were you among the crowds that stormed the City Hall and injured police officers in December 2012?
A: The only flag protest outside City Hall that I was involved in was the protest on the first anniversary as I always choose to stay within the community. It also wasn't feasible for me to go into the city centre with my employment and the hours that I worked.
Q: Did you understand the anger from those protesters as it turned very nasty?
A: Yes I do understand the anger but don't get me wrong, I don't condone violence of any kind and I support lawful, peaceful protest. As far as I was concerned I was acting within the law and the PSNI facilitated the protests, particularly the ones that I was involved in at Mount Vernon. In terms of frustration we all felt it differently, we all don't feel the same pain from the same problem or cause.
Q: Why did the removal of the Union flag get you to protest?
A: I grew up as an individual who always felt like an outcast from society because of my sexuality but the one time that I always felt at home or close to my family and having something in common with them was during the 12th of July or with our flags.
It was just a general sense of shared identity that I had with my family and my community which made me feel less of an outcast.
So when the flag did come down, I still was facing a lot of discrimination as a gay woman. While I wouldn't go as far as to say that it stripped me of my identity, it was of something that I shared with my family and as it was changing, it was hard to accept.
Q: So the removal of the Union flag somehow removed that bridge of shared identity of you as a gay woman and your family?
A: The Union flag means a lot of things to a lot of different people. To some it's about remembrance of the past, war heroes, and for me it was about a general sense of belonging in my community and British pride.
The UK has been a champion of LGBT (Lesbian Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender) rights compared to Northern Ireland. As a nation the UK was much more accepting and it was progress being made and it gave me a general sense of belonging and made me proud.
What angered me more was that it was the first time in my lifetime that I was witnessing a breach of the Good Friday Agreement and a breach of the peace that it was supposed to have brought. The Agreement was all about promoting tolerance and acceptance in a divided society and the flag coming down I felt was an attack on the peace of Northern Ireland.
Q: But the removal of the flag, from the building that you now sit under as a democratically elected politician, was agreed through democratic vote?
A: Yes it was and I respect democracy as a fundamental British value and I accept that the only way that we can change that in the future by restoring the flying of the flag is through democratic politics. But the fact that it was brought about and tabled at council, I thought it was an absolute disgrace.
I'm strong in my belief that it was a breach of the peace as it wasn't promoting tolerance for an inclusive society. We hear a lot of honey-coated words about an inclusive, shared society and space but yet stripping one to appease another isn't equality. It's not finding common ground.
Q: How do you reconcile your views walking into the City Hall to do your job without the flag flying?
A: It frustrates me and it annoys me but my perspective has changed and no matter if the flag is flying or not we still have people in our streets who are homeless this winter and there's real bread and butter issues that are not being addressed.
Q: What have the loyalist protests achieved given the major costs impact on policing?
A: What has been achieved has been the unity and the purpose behind actually voting. While there wasn't a significant increase in the voter turnout, it had increased in this year's council elections from the previous election, particular in my own ward and throughout the Belfast area.
It has promoted the idea amongst loyalists that you need to exercise your democratic rights and vote, otherwise you have no reason to moan as you haven't been part of the process.
Q: Is the flying of the flag really worth the possible deaths of protesters or police officers who are trying to maintain the peace?
A: When I stood as a flag protester the flag was the be all and end all for me at that point in time. It was very personal to me and it was because I was starting to feel a sense of acceptance within my own family and community from coming out compared to how I felt when I was growing up.
But Billy Hutchinson asked me a lot of questions in regards to the flag - did the flag put food on my table, did it put clothes on my back? So he broadened my horizons. He took me from being bitter, I wouldn't say that I was overly bitter, but I did have an element of bitterness against Sinn Fein, not Catholics. I've worked with many Catholics, I was in a relationship with a Catholic and we lived on the Falls Road together. I speak Irish so it wasn't that I had anything against Sinn Fein and the republican movement.
Q: But Sinn Fein is probably the most LGBT rights-promoting political party in Northern Ireland, yet you despised what they stood for?
A: That was part and parcel of the problem. They promoted inclusivity and extended that to the LGBT community but I felt I was denied that as a young Protestant woman.
The same for the DUP. You would see them on TV banging on the table and the pulpit and they were fighting for my British rights but not my human rights as a LGBT person, so it wasn't inclusive. I was turned off politics, I turned 18 and never voted. The first time I voted was this year at the age of 27 when I decided to stand in the council elections.
Q: How do you square being a member of the PUP which is the voice of the UVF, an organisation responsible for the murder of countless innocent Catholics?
A: Anyone who comes to the PUP unites under a common purpose. We are a diverse party representing diverse politics and diverse people, whether they are a member of a paramilitary group, the Orange Order or an unemployed teacher. We all have one common goal and that's to pull the working class community into a prosperous society that we are trying to build. Just because someone was part of a paramilitary organisation who have different views to me, we share a common goal and work together through politics to achieve the change that we want.
Q: Have you ever met a victim of the UVF?
A: I have. Violence, murder is wrong. No one should have lost their lives in any circumstances. I don't condone criminality from any paramilitary organisation. I met a person who was a victim of the UVF and I've met people who were victims of the UDA, and victims of IRA and ultimately what they have in common is that they are victims of the Troubles.
My role as a fresh face to politics is to try and change that, particularly to tackle the social deprivation that exists in the Falls or the Shankill.
Q: You go to the loyalist Twaddell camp every Saturday. Why do you go there?
A: I believe in the cause. My grandfather walked that route for 50 years, my mum took me there every year for the 12th of July parades.
The whole purpose of leaving and getting back home from the Orange hall is the principle of it as the hall was burnt down by the IRA in an arson attack in the 1970s and the lodge lost three Orangemen as well as a lot of memorabilia and historical artefacts.
It's a mark of respect then that we start there and end there and it's important that the colours, which always lead the parade, starts from there and is returned there. A shared future is not where you eradicate culture entirely and it's about promoting tolerance, if not that respect to allow a six-minute parade up the road.
Q: What are your political ambitions?
A: I have set myself a goal that when I stand in the next election I would like to be re-elected and see a bigger increase of voter turnout of young people and I've set a target of 10%. When I was elected all journalists wanted to ask me about was the UVF and I had just kicked the DUP out of their seat. To me all that's in the past and I'm about progression. I want to go on to be leader of the party at the council and who knows, maybe the next leader.
Q: What are your views on the DUP introduction of a conscience clause order in the Assembly given that you went through a civil partnership ceremony with Kerry Johnston on November 30?
A: I'm worried about the conscience clause, it's reacting to the Ashers Bakery situation which I have distanced myself from.
It has been made into a David versus Goliath thing or an LGBT community versus Christianity thing. It's quite simply a customer versus a business and we have processes for that and they are being followed.
I call myself married even though I don't have a certificate. Kerry and I have a mortgage together and this conscious clause could mean that a mortgage advisor could say to us that our living together goes against their beliefs and not offer us a mortgage. And that scares me.
Q: When did you first come out as a lesbian woman?
A: I knew from a very young age that I was different from my friends. The first time I ever came out properly was to myself but I didn't make a verbal confession to the counsellor I was with at the time. But at that age of 16 I didn't want to come out to my mum at that time because I didn't have experience and didn't know if it was just a phase.
I had tried to commit suicide when I was 16 and I still have some scars where I used to self-harm.
Q: You received a lot of counselling as a young teenager for a range of problems?
A: I grew up watching Cinderella meet her Prince Charming and wanted that until I realised I was different. My mum also grew up wanting that and her Prince Charming broke her heart when he left her and told her he was gay.
So when my father told me that he was gay when I was 11 or 12, I didn't know what it was so I had to Google it. And it seemed to me it was like a disease and that disease had broken my mum's heart. So I struggled with the idea of telling my mum and couldn't face hurting her. That was the hardest thing I had ever come to terms with after seeing her face when I was lying in the hospital bed.
Q: Your mother then went on to walk you down the aisle in your recent civil partnership to Kerry?
A: Yes, she did. She is the most amazing person that I've known. I said in my wedding speech that if anyone could epitomise being my rock, it's her. She has fulfilled both roles in my life, as mother and father.
Q: How did you meet your wife?
A: Kerry was actually in the year below me at school. I met her through a mutual friend after my other relationship ended when I really wasn't ready to get involved and it was a year later that we became a couple.
Two years later we are married or civilly partnered and share a house together on the Shore Road.
Q: Why did you and Kerry decide to have your civil partnership ceremony at Crumlin Road gaol?
It was a happy accident as we had originally booked a hotel for November 29 but I had a few running issues with them. I threw the head and pulled it. We eventually booked the gaol as it was one of the few places licensed to do a civil ceremony and had our reception at a cricket club in north Belfast.
We had fish and chips for our meal because that's the type of couple we are, we are very proud to be from Belfast and love the city and our history.
Q: Would you both like to have children one day?
A: Absolutely, but I have fears about that today in our society, It's a lifelong ambition to be a mother.
My biggest concern in the future is for my children as there has been such a lack of progress with LGBT issues and in particular our way of life and the wants and the desires that we have.
I'm just worried about trolling, I'm a strong person and will be able to take it, but I'm worried that it may extend to my children and to my partner Kerry.
Northern Ireland's first openly lesbian loyalist politican and shadow Belfast city councillor tells Joanne Sweeney of her struggle to accept her sexuality and hopes of one day leading the Progressive Unionist Party