This year, England and Wales celebrate 50 years since the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality. However, Scotland and Northern Ireland didn’t follow suit until the early eighties. More than three decades later, Scotland is now heralded as a bastion of social progress, while Northern Ireland retains a stigma of intolerance. But do those reputations match reality?
“So what brings you to Northern Ireland?” asks Tom, my cab driver, as he pulls away from Belfast International airport. I offer a brief, tentative explanation: I’m a journalist for a gay mag and I’ve been sent to find out whether Northern Ireland’s reputation as a homophobic country is a fair one. With that assured authority which only cab drivers possess, he launches into a history of Ulster’s gay rights movement.
He covers a lot of ground: the favourable shift in attitudes since The Troubles; his wife’s gay best friend; the civil ceremony (one of the country’s first) he attended; how the best nights out in Belfast are at the gay bars; and how their patrons never give you any trouble.
He describes the jealousy some harbour towards the South for legalising same-sex marriage before they did and touches upon the influence evangelical religious beliefs still hold in these parts. Tom has six children and if one of his sons came out as gay he’d accept it. “If God is love, He’d be fine with it. After all: love is love,” he concludes.
After 30 minutes, my preconceptions about social attitudes towards gay men have been challenged. And I’m a little closer to understanding how the legal disparity manifested between LGBT+ rights in Scotland, which decriminalised in 1980, and Northern Ireland, which decriminalised in 1982.
As we leave the suburbs and breach the inner city, hints at the upcoming election to the Northern Ireland Assembly increase; placards posture from trees and lampposts, sloganeering billboards draw the gaze of drivers. A Sinn Fein poster calling for marriage equality overlooks the gay quarter.
Northern Ireland remains the only part of the UK where same-sex marriage is not legal. As the last home nation to legalise same-sex activity and end the ban on blood donations by gay men, its tardiness is something of a tradition. It’s so far behind the curve that Peter Tatchell recently brandished Ulster the worst place in Western Europe to be gay.
Locals might argue he’s overstating the case, including — I guess — Tom the cab driver. But the country has certainly built a reputation for resistance to LGBT+ equality.
All progress has arisen as a result of legal challenges against the local government, while same-sex marriage has been consistently voted down.
High-profile courtroom dramas over the freedom to refuse baking gay-wedding cakes on account of religious beliefs have not helped.
Meanwhile, across the Irish Sea, Scotland has transformed itself into one of the most vocal champions for LGBT+ equality globally. It may now be the most progressive part of the United Kingdom. Even accounting for its two-year head start over Northern Ireland, on the surface, at least, the contrast is staggering.
There has been a surge in support for LGBT+ issues across Northern Ireland’s fractured political spectrum in recent years. Spurred by the success of Eire’s referendum, most major political parties in the country now back same-sex marriage, that de facto barometer of progressive attitudes in the West. Some polls put support for marriage equality in the North above 70 per cent. The South’s “Yes” campaign won with 62.5 per cent.
If you’re looking for evidence that the country is at least trying to move on from its homophobic past, then Jeffrey Dudgeon’s political arc is a good starting point. In 1975, Dudgeon, then a shipping clerk as well as a gay activist, had his home raided by the police. He was arrested and interviewed about his sexuality activity for four hours.
As a result of this intrusion, in 1981 he took a legal case to the European Court of Human Rights, Dudgeon vs the United Kingdom, challenging the laws which criminalised homosexuality. As the plaintiff and eventual victor in this landmark case, he is quite literally the reason homosexuality was legalised in Ulster in 1982.
But while Dudgeon was fighting his case in Europe, back home the evangelical reverend and Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) founder and leader, Ian Paisley, fronted his Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign. Backed by some aggressive advertising, the unified opposition against decriminalisation attracted 70,000 members and the support of the Catholic Church. Such was the contentious nature of homosexuality, it caused Unionists to actively speak out against the British government.
“ was certainly quite different from today,” says Dudgeon, reflecting on the immense change he’s witnessed. “I’ve seen, in many ways, in the hearts and minds and in people throughout Ireland that we’ve moved from a beleaguered criminal group to equal participants. I’ve always felt the people in Northern Ireland are more liberal than they’re made out to be.”
In 2014 Dudgeon was preparing to run for a position on Belfast’s city council. Given his past experiences, he would have been forgiven for wondering how his sexuality would play out with the electorate. Ultimately it was its silence, not the slurs, that frustrated him.
“A total silence, I was a bit pissed off; really I wanted to capitalise on it,” he jokes. The local elections ultimately saw three LGBT+ candidates, including Dudgeon, elected.
“In some sense, for most people, it’s over. You still get young men, or school kids, who are slow to develop their own identities and who are aggressive and can be dangerous. They always will be,” Dudgeon says.
The public’s growing acceptance counts for nothing while the DUP remains the largest party in the Northern Ireland Assembly.
Aided by a political mechanism that has effectively granted it a veto on LGBT+ issues, the DUP has done everything it can to block equality. All rights afforded to queer people have either come through Westminster during direct rule, or are due to legal challenges. Intervention from the courts is still required today.
Ciaran Moynagh, a lawyer and partner at McLernon Moynagh, is representing two Northern Irish gay men who married in London. Back home, in Northern Ireland, their marriage is not recognised legally. “Unfortunately we’re still waiting for judgment on that,” Moynagh says. “It was promised and promised and promised and it still hasn’t happened. The LGB movement has learned that if you want something done in Northern Ireland you go to the courts.
“We brought same-sex adoption to the courts, we brought the blood ban to court, we’re bringing marriage to the courts. And court should be an option of last resort… because it polarises arguments. However, with an ineffective legislator, you have no other option.”
Despite the political impasse, John O’Doherty, the director of the Rainbow Project, Northern Ireland’s largest LGBT+ charity, suggests that across society there has never been a better time to be queer. “There is a single direction of travel in terms of the support for LGBT+ people,” he says. “They become more visible and I would imagine there are very few families in Northern Ireland who don’t have a connection with an LGBT+ person and that has made a substantial difference.”
Many of those I spoke to suggested that progress has been hampered by society’s preoccupation with The Troubles. Jeffrey Dudgeon even suggested it was perhaps why gay people weren’t targeted even more than they were. Homophobic incidents still occurred, but “to some extent we survived because people were concentrating on living through it, or taking part in it, rather than worrying about ‘minor’ issues,” he explains.
In many ways the region is still preoccupied with the conflict. Outside Northern Ireland, marriage equality may be critical to a gay man’s voting intention. But to those living there, greater concerns may result in people voting against their own interests.
“I know LGBT+ people who vote for the DUP,” says O’Doherty. “As a post-conflict society, many people don’t vote on the basis of the issues that would seem important to other people… what we’re seeing in the current election is that constitutional politics, such as whether we stay within the UK or become a United Ireland, are at the forefront of many people’s thoughts.”
LGBT+ charity Cara Friend attempted to bridge the division caused by The Troubles long before the Good Friday Agreement. Set up in 1974, it offered counselling, information and a space for socialising to queer people of all faiths and backgrounds. It has since evolved into the country’s largest LGBT+ youth charity.
Sitting in its Belfast office, Chris, 17, details his experiences growing up as a trans man in East Belfast. He says he’s experienced little in the way of transphobia in public, beyond a few slurs and occasional misgendering. Even as the first person to come out as trans at his school, the only bigotry he encountered came from some of the teachers.
“The only problem I really had in school was my vice-principal [with regards to] getting trousers,” he says. “It was months and months of him just being: ‘oh, you can’t have them now for your own safety’. And I didn’t get them until I was doing my GCSEs and his reason was because no one could see me in my trousers. Everyone else was fine with it. It was just him. A bit of material over my legs and he was so stupid about it. He was very Christian; he just didn’t seem to want to understand.”
It’s indicative of how the Establishment is holding back progress in Northern Ireland. Religion still has a grip on the region’s institutions. Many schools are faith-based, many MPs are accountable to an evangelical support base. With little appetite for wholesale change, ignorance is rife.
When Chris first told his vice principal that he was trans last year, the teacher’s response was to head to Wikipedia. “He was just coming out with words like gender-dysphoria… he was literally just reading out from Wikipedia,” says Chris. “You could just tell that he had no idea.”
Sitting opposite me in CC Bloom’s, one point on the pink triangle in Edinburgh’s gay scene, are Zach Emerson and Jacob Sztor.
Zach, 19, came out as trans three years ago when he lived in Birmingham. Over the following two years he experienced regular transphobia from his family, who refused to accept his identity to varying degrees. They kept close control over him and would try to stop him going out. On the few occasions he did leave the house, he would head to other nearby towns, to avoid running into them.
Zach would often have long Facetime chats with his partner, Blue, knowing that his family wouldn’t do anything while they spoke. At the time, Zach was taking anti-anxiety pills and anti-depressants, while also seeing a counsellor once a week.
“Life in Birmingham was always on the edge and a bit uneasy for me as I had transphobic abuse from cis-men my age or older, saying things like: ‘that’s the tranny’,” he recalls.
“I didn’t really have friends down there. I was just a lonely guy with a dog. That’s basically the reason why I moved [to Edinburgh]. It was pretty bad.”
Edinburgh’s reputation as a progressive-minded city was a fundamental reason for his move. It hasn’t disappointed; he never gets misgendered, is rarely exposed to transphobia and has built a tight friendship group, one which wouldn’t look out of place in a Skins reboot. He’s been buoyed by his experiences with the country’s Gender Identity Clinics (GIC), too. In Birmingham, he spent two years on the GIC waiting list and was never seen. He’s been in Scotland for less than a year and has already been prescribed testosterone.
Scotland may have decriminalised homosexuality in 1980, 13 years after England and Wales, but in many respects it’s now overtaken its neighbours. Last year, Nicola Sturgeon announced plans to radically reform gender recognition laws, including those pertaining to non-binary people. In 2015, the country topped the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual Trans and Intersex Association’s (ILGA) Europe Rainbow Index and was declared the “best place to be gay”. Zach and 18-year-old Jacob’s experiences of the capital seem to prove the case.
“Edinburgh’s an amazing place, especially if you’re gay,” says Jacob, who’s lived in the city all his life, other than a three-year spell in Sydney. “You wouldn’t expect it. But I’m grateful I’ve been brought up here and came out here, because everyone is very accepting and no one really cares. The gay scene is still small but it’s also so exciting because there’s loads of diversity.
“I hang out with older people as well and from what they say to me I feel quite privileged,” he continues. “I came out at 14 and I was the first person to come out at my school. I got the odd homophobic comment, from ignorant kids, but just brushed it off. I had my friends, and people stuck up for me. If anyone gave me shit then everyone would come down on them.”
Jacob adds: “My school was the first in Edinburgh to have a unisex bathroom.”
Away from Edinburgh, even the country’s more rural towns and communities have experienced a rapid transformation. In 2000, the Scottish Social Attitudes survey found that 48 per cent of people across the country thought same-sex relations were wrong. By 2015, the figure had dropped to 18 per cent.
Livingston is the largest town in West Lothian, but it’s by no means a buzzing metropolis. When the town’s MP, the SNP’s Hannah Bardell, came out as a lesbian a year or so after her election, the reaction from her constituents was almost entirely positive. She suggests the country’s smaller communities and towns have actually helped the case for equality, rather than hindered it.
“While we were late to decriminalise, Scotland, like Northern Ireland, is a small society,” says Bardell. “It’s got tight-knit communities so things can be done. It’s more agile. We can be quicker to make decisions, and Scottish culture, with regard to equality and inclusiveness, has moved on hugely. In my own community in West Lothian, I met a young person recently who had come out as gay a few years ago at school, and then come out just last year as transgender. She said that while it’s been difficult, actually she’d had quite a positive experience.”
Bardell sits in what has been described as the gayest government in the world, with four of the six political party leaders in Holyrood coming out as LGBT+. It wasn’t always the case. Following partial decriminalisation in England and Wales in 1967, the Scottish government resisted, claiming no change was needed given that so few gay men were prosecuted each year — in Scotland at least two pieces of evidence were required for a prosecution, rather than one as was the case elsewhere in the Union.
Tim Hopkins, the director of Scotland’s Equality Network charity, says: “The government continued to argue that right through the Seventies. Prosecutions appear to have stopped altogether [by then]. But the fact that it was still criminal caused huge stigma and was an excuse for employers to sack people just for being gay.”
The newfound cross-party support at Holyrood helped to push through LGBT+ rights, a stark contrast to the situation in Northern Ireland.
MP Bardell suggests the independence referendum in 2014 also helped to facilitate change. “Civic Scotland had a real engagement and discussion with itself. We’ve had to take a careful look at ourselves as a nation and there’s been a lot of discussion within our own communities and within Scotland about who we are, who we want to be and the kind of nation we want to be.”
She is quick to add that the nation is by no means an oasis of equality but remains confident that progressive values will continue to spread throughout Scotland at a time when she sees England and Wales abandoning them.
“Brexit and the atmosphere at the moment has meant we’ve already overtaken them. We are just going in completely different directions in terms of inclusiveness,” she claims.
The secular nature of Scottish society has also assisted in its progressive transformation. In 1967, the then-influential Church of Scotland argued heavily against decriminalisation, contradicting the position of the Church of England. It’s since undergone a rapid conversion of its own.
During the equal marriage campaign, the Church of Scotland adopted a fairly neutral position, leaving just the Catholic Church opposing it. In Northern Ireland, the DUP has historically strong links to the Free Presbyterian Church, a Protestant denomination founded by Ian Paisley. The political party has a significant supporter base in the Evangelical Church and has consistently blocked any proposals to legalise gay marriage. Its politicians have previously tried introducing conscience clauses which allow for LGBT+ discrimination on religious grounds — the kind that would allow bakers to refuse to bake cakes for gay weddings.
Nathan Sparling, a senior parliamentary advisor for the SNP in Westminster, says: “The situation we’ve got in Scotland is that when we’ve been campaigning for something that’s right, there has been a clear political will. We let the Churches catch up with popular opinion; that’s probably an important part as to why opinions have changed in Scotland since decriminalisation, whereas the hierarchy of the Protestant Church in Northern Ireland has, until recently, had enough political influence to be able to veto any discussion of equal marriage.
“When you’ve got these political hot potatoes that could swing votes, it’s difficult for there to be a clear political will in Northern Ireland,” he continues. “But [in Scotland] we’re seeing an increase in the civil movement campaigning for marriage equality, and in the recent elections the SDLP put the marriage equality policy in their manifesto.”
Outside Westminster and Holyrood, Sparling moonlights as boisterous drag queen Nancy Clench. If anything, it’s enhanced his political career. “We have the gayest parliamentary group in the world, it is like going to a gay club at conference,” he says.
Like Bardell, Sparling is quick to point out that the battle for equality is far from over. Among many other initiatives, he wants to see LGBT-inclusive modules introduced in schools, something that’s regularly been voted down in Westminster. The hope is the political situation in Scotland will allow his party to do so.
“I worry that schools are probably the largest place where religious influence can come through quite strongly, especially given that there are still a number of Catholic schools in Scotland,” says Sparling.
“That’s probably as equally hard a fight as the equal marriage campaign was because Catholic schools just won’t want to teach their kids about LGBT+ education. That’s a difficult fight but there’s certainly a willingness from the SNP to do it — it’s doing it in the right way that doesn’t make it a fight.”
Scotland and Northern Ireland decriminalised just two years apart. Both have witnessed rapid changes since doing so and in many respects the disparity in social attitudes between the two is negligible.
But while Scotland’s largest national party and the opposing cohort of LGBT+ political leaders look set to ramp up the pace of progress, Northern Ireland has reached yet another impasse. The recent Assembly election resulted in deadlock. At the time of writing, negotiations to form a new power-sharing arrangement between Sinn Fein and the DUP were on the verge of collapse.
But there is one small glimmer of hope for LGBT+ activists: the DUP lost 10 seats. With just 28 to its name, it now lacks the necessary 30 to guarantee the right to an automatic veto.
To continue its unrelenting opposition to queer rights, it will need to court backing from elsewhere.
If the most recent election is anything to go by, finding such support is only going to get more difficult.
“Equality issues in general and LGBT+ issues in particular were a major theme of the campaign,” says the Rainbow Project’s John O’Doherty. “We know that there was an increased turn out, including many young people — with LGBT+ and wider equality being a key motivator for this demographic.
“We know from the election that there is once again a majority in support of equal marriage and other LGBT+ equality matters. Based on the increased representation of pro-LGBT+ candidates, we hope to see further moves towards equality.”