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Last Updated: Saturday, 6 August 2005, 22:37 GMT 23:37 UK
Gay Pride weathers Belfast storm
By Patrick Jackson
BBC News, Belfast

If parades are what you are after, this is the place to be - marching is so much a part of life here, they have a season named after it.

Parader at Belfast Pride 2005
The serious intent of Pride 2005 did not dampen the carnival spirit

And if your cause happens to be not local politics but the right to be gay, does the culture not dictate banners, bands and your best foot forward?

Throw in coloured balloons and boas, disco floats and a posse of superheroes on mini motorcycles, and you have the 2005 Belfast Gay Pride, dancing its way around the city centre this Saturday.

Bar a homophobic joke or two, there was little sign of indignation - and much good humour - among the crowds lining Royal Avenue to see the carnival in its 15th year, among them many families.

Where outrage did surface was among the organised protesters, facing down the avenue from the City Hall with a show of placards like shields in this city famous for the strength of its religious feeling.

It must be hard to keep a straight face, no pun intended, when a glam guitar man on stilts in a giant pink Afro wig staggers by to the strains of Madonna's Like A Prayer, but the hugely outnumbered Stop The Parade (STP) activists stood their ground, bearing witness with dignity to their Christian faith in the teeth of what, for them, is a celebration of sin.

'Never again'

So strong has their feeling been that this year they tried to have the Pride march banned through Northern Ireland's Parades Commission - a body more used to causes coloured Orange and Green, not Pink.

Paul Meekin in his Belfast hair salon
If you don't want to see what is going on on Royal Avenue, stay away for an hour - it's only for an hour every year
Paul Meekin
Belfast hair salon manager

Their bid was rejected but the application made a live issue of an established event, publicising "sensitivities" around the Pride that its organisers had barely noticed in past years.

"It had become more of a carnival, more of a party, but now it has almost turned on its head and become political again," Belfast Pride's Andi Clarke told the BBC News website.

"Because there is opposition, people are actually getting up and saying 'No, hang on, there is a case here, people are not going to be suppressed anymore, not here in Northern Ireland in 2005'.

While most parade-goers are gay men or women or transexual/transgendered, a large number are heterosexual, he adds, and he was hoping to top the 2004 turnout of 3,000.

One thing you hear repeatedly among the local gay community is that the Pride is one of the few genuinely cross-community events in Northern Ireland, transcending barriers between Protestants and Catholics.

But there is also a perception that the easing of the Troubles has led to a search for new scapegoats.

"The old sectarian tensions aren't an excuse anymore," said Andi Clarke. "I feel people are channelling their anger to the ethnic minorities, to sexual minorities instead."

Gays, as another Pride organiser put it, are "probably the most discriminated-against group in Northern Ireland".

Tattooed on the torsos of some of the 2005 paraders were the words "forbidden fruit", playing on a local term of abuse for homosexuals.

Protesters 'pigeon-holed'

Many believe the term "gay" was coined as a happy abbreviation for Good As You - something the BBC News website put to STP's Jonathan Larner.

Jonathan Larner of Stop The Parade by a protest poster
Stop The Parade was one of several groups on the protest

"I most definitely do not regard myself as any better than a homosexual on a moral level - Good As You is quite correct," he replied.

His group's aim, he said, was to make gay people aware of the Bible's teachings on homosexuality and their "need of repentance from sin and faith alone in Jesus Christ".

STP was, he said, "pigeon-holed as hateful and homophobic" but, in the view of Christians like himself, "the far greater hate would be shown by staying at home and doing nothing".

If preaching was one aim of the protesters - and they do believe they may have convinced at least two gay people at the 2004 Belfast Pride - then another was to uphold public decency.

"To us the sexual gesturing, nudity and innuendo are post-watershed [late evening TV] stuff and not acceptable," Jonathan Larner said.

Talking, not shouting

Some costumes at the 2005 Pride may have been a bit risque but probably no worse than at the cabaret in the old French comedy La Cage Aux Folles.

Society is finally being trained that discrimination is unacceptable, that we live in a very diverse world and that people need to accept others
Andi Clarke
Belfast Pride 2005

And certainly not a patch on the outfits I saw earlier this summer on a weekend in Cologne which coincided with its vast Pride events.

Yet at the German event, straight people on the streets did not appear to bat an eyelid as gay men and women thronged the Old City where every other cafe or pub displayed rainbow flags.

There was a feeling that these gay people were accepted as an organic part of the community, free to live differently but equally in modern Europe.

By contrast, furious protests accompanied Prides in Riga and Bucharest while Warsaw banned its event, although Polish gays marched anyway.

And a major test for gay rights is looming in May 2006, if Russia's gay community presses ahead with the first Moscow Pride - something the mayor has vowed to ban.

In the event, Belfast's parade passed off without incident but its organisers remain determined to maintain public awareness of their pride in their orientation and their rights

"Society is finally being trained that discrimination is unacceptable, that we live in a very diverse world and that people need to accept others," Andi Clarke said.

As the balloons drift out over the Irish Sea, this year's dispute in Belfast may be remembered for one positive aspect.

During the Parades Commission's mediation, the Pride committee sat down for talks with the Christian protesters - a first according to both sides. If they did not reach much agreement, at least the flags and placards were down.

Have you been on a Pride this summer and met a hostile reaction? Do you see tolerance of gay people as a key test of European values? Send us your comments and experiences using the form below.

As I drove to the parade this year I actually felt fear and dread about what hate the protesters may have drummed up for us but in the end my fears were unfounded. Once I saw the huge crowd gathered in Writers square I knew it would be a great day! As usual the crowd looked on generally amused and bewildered but there was not the hate I had expected.

The protesters at city hall seemed no bigger in numbers than other years (although they obviously have some more money to make bigger placards!). People may say the march is a pointless exercise is declaring your sexuality but to me it's a declaration of your human right to freedom to live your life as you want to. And if we play some cheesy pop songs on a summer's day on Royal Avenue while doing that then so much the better!
Christopher, Belfast, Northern Ireland

I walked on the Belfast Pride Parade having booked a holiday weekend there without knowing the Parade would be on. I have to say that I thoroughly enjoyed myself and feel that your reporting on the event is accurate. Bystanders smiled positively and many waved to us. Some sounded their car horns and waved their support enthusiastically. I saw no hostile bystanders. Marchers displayed great restraint as they ignored the intimidatory STP brigade at City Hall. Indeed this was a particularly encouraging place to march since the front row of bystanders clapped us as we walked past. I am proud of having participated and feel it is very important that if anybody can march in just two pride events a year - make them Belfast and Warsaw.
James Forbes, Edinburgh Scotland

I saw everyone from babies to grannies cheering us on
Steve, Northern Ireland
This year was my second Pride, and the best. I don't feel the need to go and declare my sexuality, it's a small part of who I am, but I'm not going to sit around while people try to say who I am and who my friends are is evil. Pride is a fun day out for everyone - gay, straight, bi, whatever you are. I saw everyone from babies to grannies cheering us on, and that's what gives me hope for the future.
Steve, Northern Ireland

NI is still in the past, about 400 years behind everyone else. I left to move to London, and amongst other reasons, it was because I couldn't (not a very tolerant person) stand the fact that people (not all of them) are so narrow minded. So much for "community spirit".
Deb, London

Having lived in Northern Ireland before emigrating to SA I am acutely aware of the bigotry and division that have ruined lives there. The religious fundamentalists are entitled to their opinions but gay people are also fully entitled to live their lives enjoying equality and acceptance of their orientation. If the fundamentalists won't listen take them to the European Court of Human Rights for hate speech. The conservatives of all kinds in NI have to realise that division and hatred has messed up the country for years. It's time to move on - if NI can't then they will be left behind.
Neil, Cape Town, South Africa

I don't think you've mentioned what a large number, perhaps most, think - being gay is fine, live and let live, but why march about it? Society in general might need to mature, but so can the marchers. I've seen this thing in Brussels and Germany too, but I think a lot are just thinking 'why advertise your sexuality, big deal?'
Chris, Belfast/Brussels

I am a young lesbian just out and I took to the streets of Dublin for our Pride. It was the one time in my life that I actually felt at home and at ease with myself. I felt proud, even prouder as I paraded down O'Connell Street with my best friends by my side and the public cheering us on. There was no hostility in Dublin that day, the crowds cheered and the kids asked their parents who we were and they responded with smiles on their faces '.the queers', we took it with a pinch of fairy dust and floated on. Acceptance and toleration shouldn't even be an issue for gays in Europe these days, why are we minoritised and made declare what we are, should we were badges like Muslims wear scarves? In Dublin the integration of mosques and halal butchers has barely gone unnoticed but 'gay bashings' are on the increase and the Gardai have launched new campaigns to encourage gays and lesbians to report crimes, it's a shame that we feel that we can't go to the police. We have a voice too and we like to use it, the less we are tolerated in Europe the louder we will become.
Vickey Curtis , Dublin, Ireland

As a gay American, I am proud of Canada and The Netherlands and other countries that fully support all monogamous relationships. Thankfully, there are even states in America that are similarly progressive - such as Vermont or Massachusetts. I'm a former Texan living in Seattle with my Texan partner. Bush is an embarrassment to Americans like myself. I voted against him for governor of Texas. And I certainly decried the US Supreme Court installing him as president. Please don't hate Americans. There are so many of us who want to improve our world. Our government be damned.
Jerry Becker, Seattle, WA, USA

I think nowadays Gay Pride parades might not be such a good idea. They reinforce the idea in the public's mind that there are two groups of people in society: the heterosexual majority and the homosexual minority, and that the homosexual minority are different from normal heterosexual people: effeminate, fashion savvy, sex obsessed male (for some reason) or whatever. If acceptance of different ways of life is the main point of these parades isn't it better to hold "diversity parades" or something that everyone can join in? Why not a sexual diversity parade that celebrates sexual diversity in every shape and form? "Homosexuals" don't have the monopoly on sexuality; everyone's sexuality is unique. Why do we have to distinguish between homo and hetero sexuality but not between attraction to the different ages or ethnicities or body types or hair colours? If we can get society to see sexuality as being some kind of a continuum along which every single person is uniquely located instead of being a simple matter of "straight" or "gay" maybe homophobia will stop being so much of an issue.
Cameron McMillan, Osaka, Japan

Panama held its first gay pride celebration this summer. While there weren't more than a few hundred people in the parade, it was a momentous occasion for the gay community in Panama. People on the streets didn't mind, but we had to endure the jokes, malicious comments and eye rollings of TV reporters and news readers.
Jorge Elias, Panama, Panama

I've been to Gay Pride events in various towns for the past years and, even though I'm not gay myself, I strongly support these events. It seems to me that those who feel bothered by these carnivals in the streets are the repressive forces of society - forces which we should relentlessly fight against. It's inadmissible that in Europe certain people, on the sole choice of their sexuality, should be excluded from society and alienated from their most fundamental rights. Referring to God to repress seems to me to be the unfortunate trap many believers fall into. Gay Pride is not about God but about people: we are all equal in our difference!
Paula Braconnot, Paris, France

I had the privilege of helping to lead the Pride Parade in London this year, as a prominent campaigner for transsexual people's rights. Just before we reached Trafalgar Square we were warned that we were about to come face to face with a counter protest by members of "Christian Voice", the group that had just made headlines for being asked to remove its business by The Co-operative Bank. My suggestion to the others at the head of the parade was that we should greet the protest in a warm and dignified way, with smiles and waves, no matter what we encountered. When we turned the corner, with more than 25,000 people behind us, the "protest" turned out to consist of no more than a dozen rather staid-looking people, spaced out to make themselves look a bit larger on the pavement. Each held up an individual placard and, frankly, they looked more ridiculous than many of the more colourfully attired revellers in the parade. They seemed to be having a lot less fun than us and so I waved and blew them kisses. The tiny assembly of Christians didn't wave back, but then it must be tough to be so much in the minority with your beliefs.
Christine Burns, Manchester, UK

I definitely see not just tolerance, but acceptance, as a crucial test of European's famed liberal inclusiveness. If gay people remain as a social group against which discrimination is practiced in Europe, then those who remain bigoted need to step forward into the 21st century and enlarge their worldview to embrace all of humanity.
James Lovette-Black, San Francisco, United States

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