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Northern Ireland’s long march to gay tolerance

They’re here, they’re queer, and they’re celebrating this year! Yes, the Belfast Pride Festival kicks off today, 20 years since the first few brave members of the LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender) community dared to be different in full public view.

In 1990, when the group first formed, there were only a hundred participants in the inaugural parade but even so the event caused a massive furore, prompting widespread and vociferous condemnation from religious and community leaders across Northern Ireland.

I remember it well because this was the year when I first moved to Belfast from Manchester, where I had been living and working in the fashion industry amongst a predominantly and overtly gay community for years, so naturally I couldn’t believe or understand what all the fuss was about.

Indeed, Manchester in the ’80s was the very pinnacle of permissive society, where gender-benders ruled the roost and drag queens were the toast of the town. And the fashion community was its very epicentre. Living there had been like having a Belfast Pride festival 365 days a year. Almost every man I met through fashion circles was gay.

Fellow students, machinists, photographers and stylists, make-up artists and hairdressers, even the tutors and heads of department were all — to a man — as camp as a row of (fabulously floral) tents.

“Relax: Don’t do it?” Oh, they already did. And with great aplomb.

But whilst there I had met, without doubt or exception, the most creative, sensitive, free-spirited, charismatic, passionate, exciting, sometimes even brilliant group of people I have ever known. And, boy oh boy, was it a fun place to be.

Then I moved here and it was like stepping back in time. Homosexuality was still considered by many to be “a love that dare not speak its name” at best, “an abomination” at worst. In fact Belfast then was so far back into the closet it could have been re-named Narnia. (Thanks to our own Eddie Izzard for that one...)

But times change and it was only a matter of time before our wee country caught on that Orangemen weren’t the only marchers and oranges weren’t the only fruit.

Now the Pride festival lasts a week, with events and celebrations that attract participants from all over the world and culminates in a city-wide carnival-style parade supported by tens of thousands. Of course they will always be the placard-waving bible-bashers who would rather condemn an entire section of our community on behalf of an unforgiving God — with a long white beard, retribution on His mind and an almighty score to settle — than accept any difference and diversity. Let’s face it, the Irises and the Ians are unlikely ever to change their narrow viewpoint or embrace their inner sexual alter-egos, are they?

Indeed in this very paper there are letters published every year round about this time from the Public Morals brigade who are calling for an end to the “debauchery” and “vulgarity” of seeing people of the same sex openly showing affection on the streets of our great city.

Joy? Enjoyment? Happiness? Freedom of expression? And in full public view? Whatever is the world coming to? etc etc... But if you, like me, don’t want to be a part of their rapidly-decreasing circle of vilification and vitriol then I suggest you check out some of the rainbow-alliance of events that begin today and end next Saturday with the flamboyant festival parade.

You don’t need to be gay to celebrate. I’m not. I don’t even like the taste of Cherry Chapstick. But I’ll be there, joining in and rejoicing the diversity that is finally — at long last — starting to appear with pride on our streets.

Belfast Telegraph