Monday 20 August 2012

Is homophobia Northern Ireland's new sectarianism?

Canon Charles Kenny
Canon Charles Kenny is quoted in today's Belfast Telegraph as saying homophobia is the new sectarianism in Northern Ireland. But is this really the case?

We do have UUP leader Mike Nesbitt telling party members over the weekend urging them not to dance to the republican tune over the issue of marriage equality. A DUP health minister seemingly incapable of looking purely at the same science as the rest of UK when it comes to MSM* (men who have had sex with men) even if over 12 months ago giving blood.

The politicisation of the LGBT agenda by Nesbitt at the weekend is a sad movement towards a new sectarianism. As I pointed out on Saturday the campaign for equal marriage in Northern Ireland is not solely on one side of the old Catholic/Protestant divide, nor is it split between LGBT and heterosexual communities there are many straight people in loving relationships or singlehood who also support the right of same-sex couples to marry not merely be civil partners.

Looking at the way questions are put in Stormont on LGBT issues there is divide in how they are put. From the nationalists, Alliance or Greens they are looking at ways to extend equality for the sector, while the Unionist side (admittedly largely Jim McAllister) seem largely negative in nature. So there is a difference in the way the two sides (as defined by the Belfast Agreement) in Stormont do seem to be approaching LGBT issues.

It is a sad state of affairs that a community that is neither nationalist nor unionist, protestant nor catholic should largely find advocates on the nationalist side of the chamber or through those that identify as other. There are few in the UUP, such as Basil McCrea and John McCallister, who have openly engaged with the LGBT sector for many years. However, the UUP are a party that all too often shows that a number of their members are not prepared to stand up for equality when it is an equality issue based on factors that should not be an influence on a representative for all.

What I find most bizarre on a number of LGBT issues is the fact that unionists look at what the rest of the island of Ireland is doing while the nationalists are arguing for Northern Ireland to follow the lead of the rest of the UK. If anything the LGBT issue has resulted in reverse sectarianism leading to those of us who are not republican or nationalist working closely with those from parties that are to seek to become equal with our LGBT family in England, Scotland and Wales.

The LGBT community in Northern Ireland is not being offered the same rights as the LGBT community in England, Scotland and Wales. Our pride marches may as well be put on a par with the civil rights marches in the 60s when Catholics in Northern Ireland were protesting that they were not on a par with Catholics elsewhere in the UK. In that sense it may well be that the denial of LGBT equality with the rest of the UK is some sort of new sectarianism.

In the fourteen years since the devolution of power to the three Celtic nations of the UK there has been a movement of greater LGBT legislation, the only part of this to have come into force in Northern Ireland was Civil Partnerships and that only while the Assembly was in suspension and Northern Ireland was returned to direct rule. In a sense the LGBT community of Northern Ireland may have been adversely affected by devolution coming when it did. Although even under Westminster we lagged 14 years behind on decriminalisation of homosexual acts (although the 1968 Act was during the time of the last Northern Ireland Parliament which ended in 1972).

Canon Kenny may have a point that the LGBT community may be becoming the new target either directly or indirectly as the new them and us situation from the Unionist politicians, although many of the LGBT community would self identify as unionist in outlook. Does this account for homophobia as being the new sectarianism?

Sadly there appears to be less ability in Northern Ireland to take action against hate speech against the LGBT community. The Iris Robinson case being a prime example where after 12 months the PSNI considered she had no case to answer. The reason being that all too often such language is lifted straight from the bible even if in 400 year old language, which appears to be reason enough to avoid being called hate speech even when it is used in a provocative way. Yet any attempt to reply by even one individual to a group waving such placards is often blasted by our elected representatives or seen as a way to try and shut us up altogether.

Maybe there is more to Canon Kenny's statement, after all he isn't the first to point to institutionalised homophobia here in Northern Ireland. If we are facing a fight against a new sectarianism we are going to have to show that we are right there in the midst of those who consider us repugnant, perverse, an abomination or whatever term they want to attach to us.

* The distinction is important as actively gay men are still banned for live from giving blood, even if they only are in a life long monogamous relationship and/or only practice safer sex.

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