Belfast’s first Pride parade took place in 1991 and was attended by 100 people. In 2017, more than 5,000 took part in the parade. Pride is growing in Belfast, it isn’t as easy to ignore as the old days.
The gamut of reactions ranges from staunch disapproval to unrestrained joy. We might easily guess the typical profile of those with extreme responses. But there’s a multitude existing in between, composed of many different people with many different feelings. Gut feelings of uneasiness and uncertainty abound and not all concerns can be satisfied. But perhaps with a better understanding of the motive for Pride, the reason for the season, we can abate our discomfort and enjoy the festival for ourselves.
Whilst my kids play at Loughshore Park in Jordanstown I am watching a boy repeatedly shout “GAY, GAY, GAY” at a child until he gets sole charge of the swing. Not only does this prove an effective technique for playground domination, but the slur doesn’t seem to surprise any of the adults at hand, so no punishment is forked out. And why should there be, after all, I was a child of the nineties: Gay is the band you don’t like. Hawaiian pizza is gay. Your sister’s coat that mum made you wear last winter, is so gay.
I had thought a more progressive vocabulary of insults might have evolved since then, but seemingly not. According to these playground rules: Gay is (still) weird, uncool and other.
The term ‘Gay Pride’ remains then something of an oxymoron as it was in the beginning. When Pride parades began in California during the 1970’s the slogan “Gay Power” was first suggested. But ‘power’ seemed far beyond the reach of the gay community during that time, so committee member L. Craig Schoonmaker suggested ‘Gay Pride’ instead. Pride rather than power was considered a more realistic virtue to live up to.
“People did not have power then; even now, we only have some,” Schoonmaker said in a 2015 interview with The Allusionist’s Helen Zaltzman. “But anyone can have pride in themselves, and that would make them happier as people, and produce the movement likely to produce change.”
Anyone can have pride in themselves.
This holds particular significance here considering Belfast Pride Parade is the biggest cross-community parade in Belfast. Where once progress was only measured according to the state of the peace process, now it may be time to progress further still. Lagging behind the rest of the UK and the Republic of Ireland, NI has been slow to acknowledge LGBT rights. Homosexuality was legalised a decade after decriminalisation took place in the UK. And same-sex marriage continues to go unrecognised whilst marriage equality legislation has been passed in the rest of the UK, the Republic of Ireland, across western Europe, the USA and Australia. The Troubles and their fall out has undoubtedly slowed this progress down. But the referencing of religious values in political debate is a troublesome tactic for an increasingly diverse population.
Arguably it is Religion and Politics that are the abominable bedfellows and a bright future for LGBT people in NI is a sure marker that we are moving forward.
With Stormont hosting the Alternative Queer Ulster event last week, Arlene Foster attending the Pink News summer reception and Primark on Royal Avenue displaying an array of rainbows and support for Stonewall in their window display, it could be easy to forget that so many marriages continue to go unrecognised here in NI. It would be easy to think we’ve come so far and no longer need Pride. There are many of all persuasions (and perhaps of a more introverted nature) who are uncomfortable with the brazen display of it all.
There are concerns that Pride is oversexualised, over-“camped”, provocative and in being so, ignites the opposition.
But if we can let the noise and colour catch our attention and then hold that attention a little while longer, we can tune in to the countless stories being told. Stories of celebration but also of devastation. Belfast’s Pride has a varied festival programme with poetry readings, support groups, picnics, church services and much storytelling both organised and informal. Pride is an important platform for these stories, and what we learn from them, is that pride is still a hard-fought virtue here in NI.
Shame, the antithesis of pride, is what Jung called a “soul eating emotion”.
Shame will silence and debilitate, shame will isolate and erode. Where we might struggle to understand the need for Pride, we would do well to acknowledge the experience of shame, stigma and fear that so many still feel here in NI. A national survey recently reported that two-thirds of LGBT people avoid holding hands in public for fear of a negative reaction. This may seem difficult to believe if you take a walk along Royal Avenue on August 4th.
What we witness amongst the rainbow flags and bravado is a small reward for the sweaty-palmed, nervous hand holding that occurs the rest of the year. The audacity of self-acceptance and the boldness of seeking equality still causes offence. Social media has flurried this week with objections to mainstream support for Pride and word of an anti-LGBT protest at City Hall has spread. The influence of religion defined by conservative and traditional values makes itself known. Just a few months ago the Presbyterian Church in Ireland voted against gay membership and baptism of their children. It is not a comfortable time to be an LGBT person of faith. Even those who have reconciled faith and sexuality, who worship in inclusive spaces, will still feel targeted by this. Just as the PCI ruling has bolstered and validated those who are anti-LGBT, sending ripples of homophobia across the country.
So too, there is also an undulation of hope and inclusion happening. Back in 2008, a backlash to Iris Robinson’s homophobic rhetoric saw many religious people sending messages of inclusion for LGBT people. So too PCI has experienced much dissent to their anti-LGBT stance. Belfast Pride’s theme this year is ‘Come out for change’, increasingly the ‘coming out’ narrative has come to encourage anyone and everyone to use their voice in support of LGBT rights.
It could have been Gay Power, it could have been a March in place of a Parade. Instead, we are invited to consider the places in ourselves where we have felt the burden of shame.
To remember the times when we have not been accepted, when we have been left out of the group when the playground tyrant has intimidated us off our swings.
In the face of denial, injustice, teenagers bullied beyond recognition, parents discarding their children, slurs, abuse, bricks through windows, communion cups taken away, fists in faces and so, so, so much suicide.
In the face of it all, the response, the best response….is pride.
On Saturday the 4th of August we are invited, gay or straight, to employ empathy and help others journey from shame to pride. As the organisers say themselves “It is a protest and a celebration, a call for equality, a stand for solidarity and a celebration of the lives of LGBT people in Belfast”
Belfast’s Pride Parade leaves from Custom House at 1 pm Saturday 4th August, with the parade build up starting from 11.30am.
Photo by Rachel Marno Davis