How pride is overcoming prejudice in Belfast

From the school you attend to the team you support – in Belfast, life is still divided along sectarian lines. But not for everyone... On the city's gay scene, Anna Leach discovers how pride is overcoming prejudice

Pumping dance music and red walls lined with the young, pierced and check-shirted – Belfast's biggest gay bar, the Kremlin, was probably not what David Trimble and John Hume had in mind when they signed the Good Friday Agreement and declared a shared future for Northern Ireland.

But 10 years after that agreement, the gay scene is still one of the few places where Protestants and Catholics mix and mingle easily.

Portraits of Lenin, glitter-stencilled hammer-and-sickles and plastic statuettes of the proletariat offer some cheerful kitsch on a Belfast street dominated by grey buildings and the severe steeple of St Anne's cathedral opposite. On Friday and Saturday nights, Kremlin is packed with clubbers – from both sides of the sectarian divide.

"Sectarianism is everywhere in Northern Ireland," says Ray Mullan of the Community Relations Council, which was set up under the agreement. "Opportunities to mix are very limited." The divisions are visible from a very young age: here, the education system splits children into Protestant and Catholic camps from the age of four. Only 6 per cent of school-age children are in integrated schools. "You know immediately from the school uniform who's who. It was tribal," says Meabh Ritchie, 24, who went to a Catholic school in Belfast. "I wouldn't have talked to anyone with a different uniform."

Another factor is geography. The majority of Northern Irish people live in either Protestant or Catholic neighbourhoods. The division is deeper among the urban working classes, says Mullan.

People in Northern Ireland play different sports, socialise in different places and, of course, attend different churches.

In this climate of clashing identities, being gay breaks through the sectarian divide in a way that little else can. In bars like Kremlin, clustered around St Anne's Cathedral, the gay community has created a haven of interaction by offering people something positive in common. Matt, who is 22, thought of leaving Northern Ireland when he realised he was gay. "I hadn't told my parents, I thought I could just leave and not have to tell them." But now he's in his fourth year studying physics at Belfast's Queen's University. Though Matt grew up in east Belfast where the red-and-blue paint of loyalist murals decorates the slate-roofed terraces and the residents are 96.4 per cent Protestant, he met his Catholic boyfriend, James, in a gay youth group in the city centre. They have now been together for two years. "Sectarianism has not come up in the community very much," he says, "and when it does, we have a laugh at it. In the position we're in, we can see it for what it is – petty. What does it really matter?"

According to Steve Williamson of the gay community group Cara-Friend, segregation doesn't exist in gay and lesbian society. "People on the gay scene always identify with each other," he says, "and that carries over any identification other people may put on them."

Gail Neill, a youth worker, agrees. "The communality of sexuality overcomes the other things that often divide young people in Northern Ireland," she says. Neill works with both Protestant and Catholic bisexual and lesbian teenagers who wouldn't meet each other in any other context. When religion comes up in conversation, it's as a joke, Neill says, in contrast to her experience with general youth groups, where the subject comes up more often, and more problematically.

The gay scene may be flourishing – if covertly – but its model of positive identification is not exactly appreciated by politicians whose parochial attitudes towards other religious denominations automatically exclude most other forms of social identity.

Gay people are worse than paedophiles, the MP for Strangford, and wife of the First Minister, Iris Robinson told a House of Commons committee last June: "There can be no viler act, apart from homosexuality and sodomy, than sexually abusing innocent children." Robinson later claimed she had been misquoted by Hansard, but according to the Belfast Telegraph, she justified herself by saying: "I make no apology for what I said because it was the word of God... just as a murderer can be redeemed by the blood of Christ, so can a homosexual."

She was previously lambasted for suggesting on a radio show that gay people were mentally ill – an opinion which saw her ridiculed during Belfast's Gay Pride festival last year, where Iris Robinson dolls were dressed up in tinsel and paraded on floats. But she is not alone in her extreme views.

While gay Northern Irish people share persecution from both the Protestant and Catholic establishments, they are also brought together by an understanding of who they are. "You have to have tackled your own issues around religion before you can come to the gay scene," says Amanda Stephens of Youthnet, an organisation responsible for youth services in Northern Ireland, "You have to be comfortable enough [with yourself]."

That gay people can find common ground through hard-won self-knowledge and love, exposes as petty the politicians still locked in tit for tat sectarian bickering – politicians who have yet to provide an inspiring common vision for Northern Ireland. So what could Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness learn from mingling at bars like Kremlin?

"Well, we can't exactly turn Northern Ireland gay so that everyone would then have something in common," says Neill. "But I think this is about creating a new history. Everything is steeped in history here."

She offers a parallel example: "Five years ago, we got an ice hockey team in Belfast, it may not sound like much, but it became very significant because it was a new neutral form [of interaction]. Everyone can go to it. With football, the team is either Protestant or Catholic, and rugby is a Protestant sport. Sport segregates people. "Like the gay scene, ice hockey doesn't have that history. It gives people a common history."

Anna Leach: Winner of the Wyn Harness Prize

The Wyn Harness Prize for Young Journalists was established last November in memory of The Independent's former assistant editor, Wyngate Harness, who died from an inoperable brain tumour in 2007.

Anna Leach's feature about the breakdown of sectarian divisions in Ulster's gay community caught the judges' attention for its strong story and fresh approach.

Born in England but raised in Belfast, 24-year-old Anna said she wanted to present a more optimistic view of Northern Ireland: "It just struck me that it's only ever negative stories that come out." Last year Anna was awarded a Master's degree in journalism by Goldsmith's College, University of London, and is currently on a work placement at The Independent. She plans to pursue a careerin feature-writing.

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