Gay sports people should not be afraid to come out, says DUP's Givan in major change of tone
Sexual orientation has no bearing on ability, insists Communities Minister
Communities Minister Paul Givan has called on gay people involved in football and other sports to come out.
In a significant change of tone for his party, the DUP man told this paper a person's sexuality had no bearing on their ability or suitability to play sport.
The call from the Lagan Valley MLA, who describes himself as a committed Christian, won cautious support from anti-homophobia organisations.
His comments follow a claim by SNP MP John Nicholson - during a House of Commons hearing investigating homophobia in sport - that three players have been in contact with the Football Association (FA) about coming out as gay.
The FA has said it would support any players who chose to do so, though FA chairman Greg Clarke told MPs in October that Premier League footballers would suffer "significant abuse" if they decided to go public.
However, Mr Givan said: "The beauty of sport, be it football or rugby or whatever, is purely based on your ability to take part in the game.
"It doesn't matter about your sexual orientation or your religious background, so for me there shouldn't be an issue around those issues relating to sport.
"People should feel comfortable in terms of who they are to engage in sport, and that shouldn't be a barrier to people participating in sport.
"To me that shouldn't be an issue for anyone. If they are gay, they shouldn't be feeling that they are not able to come out as being gay within a sport, because ultimately it is not about an individual's sexual orientation - it is about the fact you are able to take part in the game."
In the past Mr Givan had been criticised by LGBT activists unhappy at his attempt to introduce a 'conscience clause' into equality laws two years ago.
But Gavin Boyd, policy manager of the Rainbow Project, which backs local LGBT people, described the minister's comments as "encouraging".
He said he wanted his group, which describes itself as the largest support and advocacy organisation for LGBT people and their families in Northern Ireland, to meet the minister to discuss the next steps.
"It is encouraging for us to hear the Communities Minister state that a person's sexual orientation should not be a barrier to their participation in sport," Mr Boyd said.
"We agree that it should not be a barrier. However, the reality is that many LGBT people feel that they cannot participate in sport because of experiences of homophobia and transphobia.
"We have been pleased to watch the FA's proactive approach to challenging homophobia within soccer. We look forward to discussing with the minister what steps his department will take to actively promote LGBT people in sport."
Danny Toner from The Gay Say, one of the gay community's biggest platforms in the province, said: "It is comforting to see the DUP take these small steps towards a better understanding and relationship with the LGBT community.
"But there is still much work to do. The DUP's staunch opposition to important equality issues such as marriage equality shows there are still huge barriers to overcome."
Belfast Ulster Unionist councillor Jeffrey Dudgeon, who was arrested in 1976 over a campaign for gay rights, added: "I think this is quite a significant shift and certainly a change of tone both personally and in terms of the DUP as a party.
"It is very much in keeping with their recent consent to the legislative consent motion on retrospective gay pardons and very much to be welcomed.
"They are not entirely reconstructing their attitude. The DUP will hold the line on the big question of equal marriage. They will not move on that. Eventually I think that will come down to the courts. But in terms of the battle they have fought over the years, this is quite dramatic."