The tragic events in Orlando over the last week have given me pause to think how lucky I am to live in a country where gay rights and freedoms are written into the law and relatively speaking are more advanced than much of the civilised world. I can marry who I want, shop wherever I like, use any hotel in the country and not be refused service because I would share the room with another man. We have political leaders who are openly gay and proudly walk hand in hand with their partners. That country is of course the United Kingdom.
All is not as it seems however. There is one part of this great, united nation where homophobia is still the law, where political leaders still proudly declare that I as a gay man am an abomination and will burn in hell for my sins against God; where the state will not recognise my love as authentic and where politicians still view gay men as paedophiles. That place is Northern Ireland.
Northern Ireland is a peculiar place, to visit; go to Belfast and it seems just like any other major city in the UK. It has a thriving nightlife, a modern café culture, a cultural quarter and one of the top research universities in the country. Scratch the surface however and you will find a city with attitudes stuck very much in the past. This is after all a place where the First Minister Arlene Foster is the leader of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), a party whose official line is that homosexuality is against God’s laws; a party where members belong to the Free Presbyterian Church and who annually picket Gay Pride. This so called democratic party hails democracy as the will of the people, well, some people, just not gay, lesbian, transgendered, or catholic people. But these are not just the late night rantings of another Northern Irish gay man, let’s take a look at the evidence.
In an appearance on BBC Question Time before gay marriage was legalised in England and Wales, party MP Ian Paisley Junior declared he was “repulsed” by homosexuality. He informed Peter Tatchell he could “get married today…just not to a man”. Of course, his views are not surprising given his father was the Reverend Ian Paisley, Northern Irelands homophobe general. He founded not only the DUP, but the ‘Save Ulster from Sodomy’ campaign in the 1980’s; a nasty and vile campaign aimed at stopping the decimalisation of homosexuality in 1982 (homosexuality having been decriminalised in Britain in 1967). This campaign stated legalising homosexuality would “only bring God’s curse down upon our people”. Fortunately the European Court of Human Rights stepped in and forced the British Government to decriminalise homosexuality in Northern Ireland.
This is not just a family matter however, Iris Robinson, wife of former DUP leader and First Minister Peter Robinson, declared she found homosexuality “disgusting, loathsome, nauseating, wicked and vile”, and of course the standard “abomination”. Not long after these comments, she retired from public life in disgrace having been found to be having an extramarital affair with a 19 year old, but not before recommending gay men see a psychiatrist to get cured of their illness. Her husband shares her hatred of the LGBT community, he publically defended her comments and those of party Councillor Paul McClean who proclaimed gay acts should be criminalised and stated that were homosexuality to be recriminalized in Northern Ireland, he would “expect people to obey the law”. This former great leader also criticised the Northern Ireland Equality Commission for launching legal proceedings against a bakery after they refused a gay man service based on their own religious beliefs.
The list goes on, name a party dignitary and we can find a homophobic attitude. Former Health Minister Jim Wells proudly declared that children raised by a same sex couple were “more likely to be abused.” He also wrote a letter to a constituent stating he found the behaviour of those taking part in Belfast Pride “repugnant”. Another former Health Minister Edwin Poots, a young earth creationist, spent tens of thousands of pounds of public money in legal fees in an aim to keep the lifetime ban on gay men donating blood. Four times the Northern Ireland Assembly has voted on legalising gay marriage and four times the DUP have stopped it in its tracks by launching a Petition of Concern ( a tool designed to stop legislation passing if it does not have the support of the nationalist and unionist party’s). Another Councillor Maurice Mills stated the devastation of Hurricane Katrina was Gods punishment for Gay pride and blamed gay men for the AIDS pandemic crippling Africa.
These actions and comments would be laughable were it not so tragic. These people are the political leaders of Northern Ireland. They wield immense power and have massive influence in their constituency. They have the power to change opinion in my homeland but choose not to, instead they peddle their hatred of me and those like me and trade it for political capital.
I left Northern Ireland in 2010 to pursue a career in Medicine. Not long after the move, I came out to my family and friends and I haven’t looked back. I return from time to time, and on each occasion, I am reminded that as soon as I step off the plane, I am no longer a full citizen, I am less than whole. The law states I cannot marry who I love, if I was to marry in the UK, that union would not be recognised in my home town. If a business refuses to serve me because of my sexual orientation, the office of First Minister will support them. Political leaders think I am a vile subhuman who can be cured of my disease. Their politics of hate have no place in a modern 21st century democracy. The horrific events in Orlando and countless other homophobic hate crimes around the world show the power of hate and the devastation it can wield. It is why, as a gay man, I can not and will not return home.