As Belfast Pride prepares to celebrate its 30th year, Damian Kerlin reflects on the strides made for equality in legislation, speaking with prominent LGBTQ+ members who continue to pave the way for transformative change and what is it about Pride in Belfast that makes it so special
I remember stepping out of Castle Court Shopping Centre and it hit me. The colour, the music, the celebration… the kink. You could not escape it. It was all encompassing. Royal Avenue was absolutely bumping and it was fantastic. The sheer ecstasy of the rainbow wonderland was contagious.
I had never been surrounded by so many queer people. It was magical. I had never felt so validated, and so deliriously happy. It was an awakening. For so long I had normalised queer culture to be something strictly “underground’, but Belfast Pride reminded those who wanted us to live in the shadows that we existed — and we were not going anywhere.
I rarely met another queer person in my day-to-day life, and when I did, the acknowledgement was usually no more than a quiet nod of understanding.
For the first time in my existence, as a queer person from Northern Ireland, I had never felt so seen.
It is no secret that LGBTQ+ rights in Northern Ireland have been traditionally slower to advance than the rest of the United Kingdom. The DUP has voted against, or vetoed, almost every single pro-LGBTQ+ issue in the Northern Ireland Assembly, at Westminster or at local government level.
As Cara McCann, Director of HERe NI, whose organisation supports lesbian and bisexual woman and their families, regardless of the gender they were assigned at birth, said: “We are making steady progress, but it is disappointing, as you want those you have elected here to legislate for you.”
In 2019, the party was unable to block Westminster from legislating same-sex marriage in Northern Ireland during the absence of the devolved assembly; five years after the rest of the UK.
“We had to have one foot in Westminster and another in Stormont, and when opportunity presented itself, we jumped at it with both hands,” says Cara.
“Obviously, we would have preferred for it to be legislated in the place we call home but, unfortunately, that wasn’t the case.”
The first Pride took place in 1991 in Belfast, when 100 brave people marched from Ulster University to Botanic Gardens to show their support for the LGBTQ+ community.
“It wasn’t so much a march but a run,” says Cllr Anthony Flynn, who represents the Ormiston area of East Belfast, as he reminisces on his early conversations with the founders of Belfast Pride.
The first Pride event took place only nine years after the decriminalisation of homosexual acts but as a country with deep roots embedded in the churches, mindsets were yet to move forward.
It was those brave folks who stood up in the face of adversity, year on year, to ensure they delivered a Pride which has now become a staple event in the lives of the LGBTQ+ community in Northern Ireland. It has grown from 100 people in 1991 to 60,000 people in 2019.
Pride, at its heart, is about people. The community. A community that recognises the power in numbers, and that only united can real change be made.
Stephen Donnan-Dalzell, a writer and LGBTQ+ activist, who is a working-class Protestant and lives in Belfast, thinks that so much progress for equality is because of Pride.
“It is easy for people to be ‘anti’ this or ‘anti’ that when it is hidden. But the visibility Pride grants us, is that they see the LGBTQ+ people for who they are,” says Stephen, “their family, friend, neighbour, or colleague. It allows conversations to take place, which may not have surfaced otherwise and not many events hold that influence.”
The non-binary activist’s first experience of Belfast Pride was in 2007.
At the time Stephen was not out and describes how they attended it incognito with a couple of friends. Like Stephen, Pride events are often LGBTQ+ folks first experience of the community.
It is an opportunity for them to engulf themselves in events which can take over entire cities without outing themselves. Less than a year later Stephen came out. They do not know if it was directly linked but they do know that it helped them identify that they were not on their own and there is a wider network, which resonated with them long after the last closing party.
A primary success of Belfast Pride has been increasing the visibility and prominence of LGBTQ+ people in Northern Ireland; of making the queer scene a place of cultural interest and a talking point for all. Importantly also, Belfast Pride shows those just coming out of the closet that there is a whole world out there and reminds them that they are not alone, as well as showcasing the spectrum of the queer scene.
But as Cara is keen to emphasise, Pride expands much more than just an annual event.
“Visibility on the scale of Pride is important, but everyday representation in our communities is transformative. We develop tolerant and accepting communities through grassroots projects, such as the Lagmore Youth Project, who held their first ever Pride event this year to highlight issues faced by young people from the LGBTQ+ community including poor mental health, social isolation and homophobia.”
It is much more than building those who identify as LGBTQ+ to engage in the community, but to empower them to stand up and be who they are in their own communities.
While it is true that rights and freedoms can be won and secured through struggle and sacrifice, they can equally be sent hurtling into reverse. And that, it must be concluded, is the current threat facing LGBTQ+ people due to the rise of homophobic attacks, most recently in Liverpool, the introducing of laws in Hungary similar to section 28 and the disproportionate negative media coverage against our trans community. Pride should stand as an important reminder that the homophobic and transphobic sentiments of the past continue to trickle into our lives.
Overt homophobia has ebbed in Northern Ireland. Pride parades have grown in popularity, drawing corporate sponsors, clerics, families, politicians, and police.
The murder of Lyra McKee in April 2019, a writer and LGBTQ+ activist who was planning to marry her partner, Sara Canning, channelled grief into demands for change. There was then of course the legalisation of same-sex marriage in January 2020.
Pride is one of the few days a year the LGBTQ+ can feel safe holding their partners’ hands or showing affection for one another in public but unfortunately this unity does not always transcend the other 364 days. As Cara and Cllr Flynn are keen to state there is still a lot of work to do which spans trans healthcare, increased mental health issues, homelessness, substance abuse and the much campaigned for ban on conversion therapy.
The banning of conversion therapy was one of the first motions Cllr Flynn supported when he joined the Green Party back in 2014 and has fought hard for since. Earlier this year, The Northern Ireland Assembly voted to ban conversion therapy with overwhelming support in, what the LGBTQ+ community describe as, a symbolic Stormont vote. Cllr Flynn supported this and is working to ensure that ‘conversion therapy is banned in all its forms including all faith-based approaches’.
As one of three out elected members of Belfast City Council, Cllr Flynn along with his colleague Malachai O’Hara and the SDLP’s Séamas de Faoite, work closely together to use their profile to pioneer for change, despite being from two different parties. And much like Cara’s HERe NI, the three of them want to be part of influencing change for the better.
There is also an internalised homophobia, which Stephen quotes Panti Bliss’, a drag queen and gay rights activist from Ballinrobe, Co Mayo, TED Talk, “You don’t want to make it too obvious as you end up blaming yourself that you were too gay”.
This is prevalent in our generation who are still reeling from the effects and lack of representation in education largely due to Section 28, which was only removed from the statute books in 2003.
For many of the LGBTQ+, higher education has provided a way out of the country, finding a safe haven in larger cities in the UK, such as London, Manchester and Birmingham where they feel ‘seen’ and being LGBTQ+ is much more supported and widely accepted.
So, what are we doing to ensure our young LGBTQ+ people stay here?
This is something Cllr Flynn, O’Hara and de Faoite are keen to address and are working together to demonstrate their commitment to creating a Northern Ireland that is embracing of its LGBTQ+ community and somewhere our LGBTQ+ young people can feel proud to be a part of, grow up and remain in.
A priority is the development of the LGBTQ+ strategy that the Department of Communities (DfC) is currently developing. The group is made up of key stakeholders, including McCann, who can represent the views of the sector and help DfC to understand the experience of, and issues faced by, people in the LGBTQ+ communities.
Cara hopes that this strategy will evidence further the need for ‘sustainable funding to make an impactful change’ noting that two- or three-year funding is not good enough. Cllr Flynn is also keen to show further support to our trans community as he describes the torrid of abuse and discrimination that is present in the media as history repeating itself.
The description of our trans community is similar to how gay men were portrayed in the 70s and 80s.
As we celebrate thirty years of Belfast Pride this July and August, it is important we celebrate the diversity of our community, the advances and all that we have achieved.
It is still a day of protest and a lasting reminder of the progress yet to be made. Cllr Flynn’s boyfriend is from the other side of the political divide, or as he describes it ‘he fell in love with an Orange Man.’ A title for his first memoir I am sure.
“The stigma around queer people is still prevalent,” says Cllr Flynn.
“I can’t leave my house holding hands with my partner, without fear of judgment or much, much worse and although we have come a long way and society is much more accepting and progressive there is still work to do, so here is to the next 30!”
The truth is my home is a complex part of the world that no one really knows how to fix. Northern Ireland has a difficult past, and still lives in the undertow of our political and social history.
The Troubles spanned decades, from the late 1960s to 1998, and can still rear its ugly head today, so rightly or wrongly, the LGBTQ+ wasn’t deemed a priority while conflict swamped our streets.
While it is a disservice to tar everyone with the same brush, the concoction of rurality, working class, and religion in general have maintained a more traditional stance on issues surrounding sexuality, race and politics. This can be incredibly alienating for queer youth. You can start to feel accepted, but never really understood, by the people closest to you.
No matter our struggles with accepting our sexualities and coming out in a place like Northern Ireland, it is still our home. It is where our families live, and we cannot change that. All we can do, as queer people, is support each other and realise that growing up in a place that does not understand us — or was not quite ready for us — was not necessarily a bad thing, it just made us stronger, more determined.
I am extremely proud to say where I am from, and I am slowly beginning to be just as proud of what it stands for in terms of LGBTQ+ equality.
Yet, the LGBTQ+ community recognises not all societal divisions are in our control, but those internal are. It is a community which no matter what side of the religious divide you are stands united.
Pride is personal and is cherished across our community, this depth is key to its success and impact. It is special and demonstrates the unity from which Pride in Northern Ireland is built, making Belfast Pride one of the biggest cross community events, possibly the only, in Belfast, and that, in itself, should be celebrated.
Damian Kerlin is a LGBTQ+ and lifestyle writer; follow him on twitter @damianKerlin