Belfast Telegraph

Advances made but the fight for rights not over

Behind the glamour and glitz of tomorrow's Gay Pride Parade lay years of struggle to change Northern Ireland's attitude to homosexuality, writes Jeff Dudgeon

Tomorrow sees the 21st annual Belfast Gay Pride Parade. From nervous and tiny beginnings, it has become a bold and loud celebration appealing to all ages and outlooks (bar one), adding another bright touch to Belfast in July. Its family-friendly carnival alongside the Lagan Lookout on Saturday afternoon is free, and open to all who want to share our enjoyment.

Despite the glamour and glitz, the Pride Festival with its numerous events during this week remains true to our concerns for human rights and the future prospects of all GLBT people, and for our society in general. It is also a showcase for the community's varied artistic and cultural talents.

All but one of the five political parties in government have now been represented in the parade. What a change from the time of my case at the European Court of Human Rights at Strasbourg, 30 years ago, when not a single political party joined us in support. Some braver individuals did, John Hewitt the poet for one.

As a member of the Northern Ireland Gay Rights Association, I won that case and within a year the London government was forced to introduce a law in 1982 decriminalising homosexuality here.

It is hard to believe, and most young people would no longer comprehend it, but gays were subject to life imprisonment until that law reform.

We had thought that this outrageous law would no longer be enforced having been repealed in England a decade earlier.

But we were wrong. The RUC came down in 1976 on the fledgling gay organisations and their members with 25 arrests.

No government apology or recompense has ever been offered for that.

It was the support of journalists like Mary Holland and Fionnuala O'Connor, and indeed the Belfast Telegraph which continued to run ads for Cara-Friend, the befriending and information organisation, that helped see us through.

That and our anger, meant we were no longer to be cowed.

Cara-Friend (and its gay youth off-shoot GLYNI), are still going strong today, being supported financially, since 1976, by the DHSSPS.

Northern Ireland and its people were much more liberal than its reputation allows, back even as far as the 1950s!

We have now had a gay Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Peter Mandelson, who was eased out of the closet during his time in the cabinet. The next chair of the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission is gay, according to the Belfast Telegraph reportage by Liam Clarke.

However, if you read the BBC website you don't learn this fact because the NIO is keeping it from us, as if a disgraceful secret.

Senator David Norris, who took his Strasbourg case after mine, itself a European first, leads every opinion poll for the south's Presidential election in October. Shamefully he has not yet got sufficient support from county councillors or TDs to be nominated.

However, we still don't have a single MLA who is out, nor have the parties selected a gay candidate for a winnable seat, despite their repeated statements of support.

Ironically, it was a Northern Ireland MP, Montgomery Hyde, who almost alone in the House of Commons, in the 1950s, advocated homosexual law reform.

He was the Unionist MP for North Belfast until deselected in 1959 in a battle where the Rev Ian Paisley cut his political teeth. Montgomery Hyde is a hero who deserves far greater recognition.

Despite my exhaustive book on Roger Casement and his diaries, proving their authenticity, great swathes of republicans still insist they were British forgeries and that no Irish hero and role model like him could have written them.

The Alliance Party is, however, leading the way, with several out gay councillors, while Sinn Féin selected a gay candidate in the recent local elections.

The fact that the Assembly will not legislate allowing unmarried couples, let alone gay partners, to adopt has been of great concern this year and also the area of schools where Fair Employment legislation and Section 75 do not apply.

This leaves gay teachers and pupils unprotected, all because of the DUP veto which at times seems a valuable cover for other parties to avoid having to making hard or unpopular decisions.

The historic failure to challenge the Catholic Church's educational privileges is another aspect.

The frequency of sexual identity being an issue in youth suicide is a great concern.

This was the case, if invisible, in the past when so many suicides resulted from criminal and police investigations.

Not that we are allowed to learn the truth, when inquests are actually held, as the Minister for Justice still insists coroners' verdicts cannot be published on their website.

Religion will remain a painful area for any gays and their parents. 'Changing Attitude Ireland' is a dynamic Anglican group making things better, even if it can never win every battle.

A brand new pamphlet - I think my Son or Daughter is Gay: Guidance for parents of gay children in the Church of Ireland, by Gerry Lynch - is well worth reading for its practical simplicity, by both young gays and Christian parents.

Although my generation is far from retired, those who put their back into each year's Pride - and they are all volunteers - are ably carrying on the torch.

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