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Why we all should be proud of Belfast Pride

The Orange Order and nationalist residents' groups, the Parades Commission hints, have a lot to learn from Belfast Pride Parade - the celebration of gay and transgender lifestyles which will transform the city's streets tomorrow.

"Belfast Pride parade is a welcome addition to the city and it is a colourful and positive celebration of all lifestyles which co-exist in Belfast," the commission said.

"We respect the views of those who are organizing the Pride parade and those who wish to express their opposition," it added, imposing no restrictions on the parade or counter-demonstrations.

It is a big difference since the dark days before 1982 when homosexuality was belatedly legalised in Northern Ireland.

The gay scene constituted a kind of hidden underground culture filled with gossip, risk and, at times, blackmail.

Intelligence agencies targeted homosexuals as agents in societies because they knew how to keep a secret and they had access to networks of others who shared it.

Gay contacts were also useful for journalists. Robin Harbinson Bryans, the east Belfast author and man of letters who became involved on the fringes of the Cambridge spy-ring in London, entertained me with stories of gay goings-on in the upper echelons of London and Northern Ireland society. He also played a key role in exposing Sir Anthony Blunt as both a secret homosexual and a Soviet agent.

Northern Ireland's gay underground could be a treacherous place. While he lived here, Bryans adopted the common expedient of concealing his sexual preferences from others behind a smokescreen of religious fundamentalism.

William McGrath denied his homosexuality as he abused young boys at Kincora home and in east Belfast Bible classes. His dark secret may have aided his recruitment by British intelligence as an informant.

Even years after legalisation, an accusation of homosexuality spelt disaster in public life.

James Kilfedder, the MP for North Down and a confirmed bachelor, had a fatal heart-attack after hearing that a Northern Ireland MP was about to be named as a homosexual.

Surely this is not the sort of tortured society, filled with denial and fear, which the Rev David McIlveen wants to see returning?

McIlveen has led protests against the Belfast Pride parade for the past 18 years. It showed maturity both on his part and that of the organisers, when McIlveen accepted an invitation to take part in a 'Pride Talks Back' panel discussion in the Europa hotel earlier this week.

It sets an example of openness and dialogue which could be followed by the loyal orders and protesting residents' groups.

In the case of McIlveen, his views have clearly inched forward since the days his Free Presbyterian church spearheaded a Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign against homosexual law reform.

"I believe that sexuality is an individual right, but I do not believe that we should be forced as a society to recognize something that we believe is contrary to God's word," he said.

There seems to be a hint here that he can put up with homosexuality as a private vice as long as it remains hidden and isn't considered socially acceptable.

That would be disastrous for the thousands of young people who know they are gay, but struggle with admitting it.

My own son Daniel, now 27, kept his homosexuality a secret from all but a few close friends, including a 'girlfriend' he occasionally went out with, until he went to live in Madrid.

He officially told his mother and me in 2006, though we had suspected it. The Barbie dolls he collected as a child were a bit of a giveaway.

Daniel said at the time that he had know he was gay since primary school, but had decided to not to admit it publicly.

He wasn't particularly worried about our reaction, but felt that, once he came clean, there would be no going back and that he could be the butt of taunting or homophobic jokes at school.

The group Family Ties exists to help relatives of gay people handle social pressures.

At a dinner it held, I heard stories of people being forced to leave churches, suffering social exclusion and struggling to come to terms with what is really just an ordinary part of growing up. Pushing homosexuality out of public view, or refusing to accept it as an entirely normal part of society, can only be achieved with the aid of hypocrisy and at a high cost in human suffering.

Events like tomorrow's don't just brighten up our city-centre for a day; by celebrating the full range and diversity of human sexual love they can help young people and their families escape the sort of needless pressure and prurient disapproval which once twisted and distorted the lives of gays and their friends.

That is why Belfast Pride really is something that we can all be proud of.