Belfast Pride, the largest LGBT+ event on the island of Ireland, is something very close to my heart.
I’m not from Belfast, nor have I ever lived there for long.
But last year I decided to do my dissertation research project on the LGBT+ community in Northern Ireland. To my delight, last week I finally submitted it.
I spent two months over the summer of 2017 living in Belfast and volunteering full-time with Belfast Pride.
Originally I planned for my dissertation to have a more broad focus. The intention had been to look more generally at the wellbeing of LGBT+ people in Northern Ireland.
But then the opportunity arose with Pride and it made more sense to focus mainly on that.
In my Social Anthropology undergraduate degree at Edinburgh University, it is highly encouraged (and almost mandatory) that we do our own primary research for our dissertation. This is done in the form of fieldwork.
My research with Belfast Pride consisted of doing participant observation and interviews
Participant observation is when the researcher takes an active role in the processes and situations being studied.
I was in the Belfast Pride offices nearly every day for the time I was in Belfast. While there I went to a number of different events to observe and take notes.
Belfast Pride Festival runs for ten days every year. Then it culminates in the massive Pride Parade. This is usually held on the first Saturday of August.
This year, it ran from 28th July until 7th August, and included hundreds of events put on by Belfast Pride itself and the other local LGBT+ organisations.
My role within the team was varied. I ended up doing a mix of admin, uploading website content, finance admin and managing the Pride Village.
I also worked on encouraging participation from under-represented groups (I managed to get a bi group to participate in the parade from Bi+ Ireland!)
The festival is run entirely by volunteers and is very community-based.
There is no ticketing for the main Pride Day and Belfast Pride unlike other Prides across Europe and the UK.
Belfast Pride makes a conscious effort to stay very linked to the tight-knit LGBT+ community in Belfast.
One of the main things that struck me from my research was the cohesiveness of this community.
I hadn’t experienced this in other cities I’d lived in in Scotland. I grew up Glasgow and attend university in Edinburgh.
One of the main findings from my research was that Belfast Pride acts as a reaction against the ‘green and orange’ status-quo politics of Northern Ireland.
LGBTI and religion
For those who aren’t aware of the situation there, politics is intrinsically linked to religion. Hence, the region struggled with sectarianism since its conception in 1920.
Protestants and Catholics are segregated along ethnopolitical lines, and this manifests in a number of different ways – housing, education and electoral politics being some of the major ones.
From my research, I learned that much of the homophobia LGBT+ people face in Northern Ireland is as a result of religion, with the ultra-conservative DUP (Democratic Unionist Party) being explicitly linked to a fundamentalist Protestant sect, the Free Presbyterian Church.
The infamous DUP were almost unknown outside of Northern Ireland until earlier this year, when Theresa May enlisted their help to prop up her minority government at Westminster following the snap general election.
This was met with widespread outcry from the general public across the UK, and contributed to growing disenchantment with politics in Northern Ireland.
The Northern Irish Assembly at Stormont has been out of action since January 2017, following the resignation of Martin McGuinness, which triggered an election, but the parties could not agree on a deal to get the Assembly back up and running.
The Stormont government is one of mandatory coalition, due to the Good Friday Agreement, and the largest parties (whether unionist, nationalist or other) have to agree to be in government together.
Both the DUP deal and the Stormont ‘deadlock’ contributed to rising upset about the pace of change in Northern Ireland, and many turned up at Belfast Pride to express these concerns and fight for equality.
The political effect on Pride
55,000 people participated this year, up 10,000 from 2016. The theme was ‘Demand Change’ – an overtly political message to express the discontent with the current situation.
Although Pride is impartial and doesn’t adhere to the ‘green and orange’ nature of NI politics, it has to fight for everyday political change along the lines of equality. This is one of the key arguments I focused on in my dissertation.
Overall, I really loved doing my dissertation research with Belfast Pride Festival. It was such a valuable experience. I gained a lot of new skills – and I fell in love with the city as well.
Belfast Pride, with its focus on community and equality, is truly a Pride with its heart in the right place. I am so proud to be a part of it, and will be back to volunteer with them next year.
Although writing up my dissertation wasn’t easy and was quite stressful, I’d love to be able to do more research in Northern Ireland. This time I’d focus on the post-conflict society and how minorities experience the sectarianism and polarised politics.
There are a lot of really interesting nuances within Northern Ireland that affect particular minority groups in different ways. This is something I’d love to be able to learn more about!