Strait-laced DUP has always been funny about sex
What is it about being gay that gets the DUP's knickers in such a painful twist? We're told that it comes from a staunch adherence to biblical precepts, a literal interpretation of God's word. Others say it's nothing more than a cynical ploy to appeal to the hardline vote in advance of an election.
But neither of these reasons are entirely satisfactory. To my mind, they don't go anywhere near far enough to explain such convulsive fits of loathing.
The antipathy towards anything gay - blood, adoption, marriage - looks and sounds visceral, not rational. It has the appearance of a mania barely contained, which every now and then bursts out with uncontrollable force, and with damaging effect. And I'm not just talking about hurting gay men and women, though this kind of hateful language is indeed frightening, especially when it comes from men in positions of power. I'm talking about damage to the party itself. Unscripted anti-gay outbursts are a problem for the DUP. They are increasingly absurd and self-defeating.
The Jim Wells fiasco, in which he linked same-sex relationships to child abuse at a hustings event, and then compounded it by insulting a lesbian couple while out campaigning in Rathfriland, is a perfect example. He made the initial remarks, for which he rapidly apologised, citing stress due to his wife's serious illness, during a lively back-and-forth local discussion, not a set-piece speech or sit-down interview. This is exactly the kind of heated scenario where such unauthorised opinions can very easily slip out and make a nasty mess.
I accept that Mr Wells has been under enormous personal pressure, and he has since acknowledged that he was factually inaccurate. But in my experience, intense emotional anguish does not change your fundamental beliefs. Whatever pain you are in, you still believe what you believed before. You do not become a different person; your core values do not change. What might change, under stress, is your ability to keep them under wraps. I can imagine Peter Robinson's reaction when he heard that Jim had let one fly at the worst possible time - the run-up to the Westminster vote, with all its attendant dreams of the DUP being powerful kingmakers in a new minority government. Rampant homophobia doesn't play half as well in civilised British circles as it does among certain benighted parts of the Northern Ireland electorate. With remarkable speed, Mr Wells resigned, with his party leader's sympathy and blessings, to concentrate on looking after his wife.
But the problem of anti-gay mania remains, and it's only a matter of time before it splatters out embarrassingly again. As the Northern Ireland public becomes comfortable with previously unthinkable ideas like marriage equality - already, a majority of us support it - the (not so) repressed homophobia within our leading party will begin to be an electoral liability, not a rallying call or a badge of biblical honour.
The DUP's inner convulsions over homosexuality also leave them open to attacks by their political rivals. You can tell Sinn Fein are loving it. It allows them to adopt one of their favourite poses: compassionate, reasonable, chilled-out republicans, at ease with themselves and the world around them, eager to embrace underdogs of all kind, especially the vulnerable and marginalised. A referendum on gay marriage? Hey, guys, why not?
Look, everyone is entitled to their own beliefs, and to express them as they see fit. I don't believe in running to the police when somebody makes a hateful remark, as though it's a criminal offence to be a bigot. Whether it's loopy anti-Islamic rhetoric by hellfire preachers, in the style of Pastor James McConnell, or making a repulsive and unfounded connection between homosexuality and child abuse, I've come to the conclusion that it's better to save calling the cops for when there's a direct threat. Far better to deal with irrational prejudice by calling it out and condemning it in the strongest possible terms - thought that, emphatically, does not include vicious online abuse.
The truth is that the DUP has always been funny about sex. They have a deep, almost superstitious fear of uncontrolled sexuality in general, which is also why they're so opposed to abortion rights. Any kind of sex outside marriage terrifies them; gay sex scares them the most because it is the furthest, in their minds, from the sanctified ideal. But they're going to have to get over it if they want to hold their place in a rapidly changing world.