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    First Published: February 2003
       This is an OutUK Archive Item and so some of the links and information may be out of date.
Still teetering on the brink, OutUK's Adrian Gillan meets Belfast boys in a frontier town on the UK's edge.
It's strange. My second visit in as many years; no passport needed and just an hour's flight from London. But descending through the thick grey clouds, your brain still tells you you're landing at some strangely remote yet urban outpost - Moscow or somewhere. And there's the raw attraction.

Don't misunderstand, Belfast is far, far safer now than for many a decade. It is a beautiful city with lovely people and attractions ranging from the imposing City Hall to the new Waterfront area down by the River Lagan. But still the well-fortified police stations on street corners; the brightly-coloured paramilitary murals sprayed across town like so many dogs' scents; the explosive recent past few can forget.


Darkness falls on the River Lagan.

BACKGROUND

Opinions differ as to which religious culture is more homophobic but it can be argued that Protestantism has the edge, traditionally adopting a zealous missionary position in all matters sexual, whilst the Catholic Church has tended to turn more of the blind eye - some maintaining many Catholic priests, scandals apart, operating like an unofficial gay support network in practice.

There is still a lot of segregation of Protestants and Catholics, not so much due to any simmering resentment, more because you are likely to grow up in a district, be educated at a school and socialise in places, peopled by those solely of your official - if not actual - faith. This perhaps explains why the gay community is so interesting and important: LGBs of all sectarian backgrounds have the opportunity and excuse to mix and bond socially and in solidarity in a way not always available to many straights.

Supporting our Catholic theory, the IRA itself - extreme left-wing in origin and outlook - has never had a problem with gay people and has had a fair number of openly gay members. It is true that IRA faction INLA did shoot dead an off-duty police officer in a gay bar in the late '90s - but they shot him because he was a police officer and a soft target, not because he was gay. And in 1997 Sinn Féin produced the best pro-gay policy paper of any party in Northern Ireland. Equally interestingly, Unionist paramilitary groups like the UDA and UDF, with their arguably less intellectual heritage, have traditionally been more homophobic - even though notorious Red Hand founder John McKeague was himself gay.

BELFAST SCENE

OK, so that's the cultural Birdseye. Not much to frighten a gay boy there - quite the reverse. Time to hit the compact scene around the Cathedral Quarter just North East of centre! And nowhere better to start than the John Hewitt Bar at the very heart of it - a Bohemian gay-friendly pub where artists, musicians and writers mingle and listen to the nightly live music sessions.

Belfast nightlife has undergone a renaissance.
Suitably enhanced, stretch your legs around a couple of short corners to the Custom House which is rather popular with both boys and girls all-week round - notably for cheesy Slosh on a Wednesday - and acts as a perfect pre-club pad.

Then wend it to Parliament, the oldest gay venue in Belfast and still cramming them in. Newly made-over, the split-level bar serves food throughout the day and the night attracts a mixed crowd of all ages, not least a fair smattering of women - probably the friendliest, earthiest joint around. The large upstairs club space heaves opens on a weekend, pumping mainstream to the masses.

Parliament now has to fight off a strong new challenge from soviet-chic Kremlin style bar back on Donegall Street beyond John Hewitt. You enter beneath a huge statue of Lenin into the Long Bar where drag acts often hold court. At weekends you can progress through to the club room and the new Red Square annex, playing pop and house to the true trend-setters. Watch out for the occasional foam party if you don't mind getting wet.

But the real hardcore crowd make it to Milk for Forbidden Fruit on a Monday, a large club in an expansive, lofty industrial conversion space. Once past the door whores offering sweets and more, mill and move 'til dawn with Belfast's finest - notably the student crowd.

Speaking of which - and if you like it outdoors - the bohemian college quarters around Queen's University and the leafy Botanic Gardens just south of centre is a veritable daytime cutefest which transforms into a nocturnal frenzy, especially amidst the dim-lit cul-de-sacs around Agincourt Avenue.

GETTING & STAYING THERE

British European, BMI and Easyjet fly to Belfast and you can check out a range of cheap fares and book online with Travelselect. Belfast now has a gay B&B Universe House or you can check out special prices at gay friendly hotels with Bookings.

It's worth noting that the Age of Consent for all sexual persuasions in Northern Ireland is set at 17 and that equality on grounds of sexuality is enshrined in the 1999 Northern Ireland Act - so know your rights but use your head. Furthermore, whatever problems befall other UK Prides, Belfast is proud to report that it's much supported and valued annual march and celebration is now in its 13th year (26th July - 3rd August 2003) and stronger than ever.

Belfast's New Gay Swimming Group

THE LITTLE BLACK BOOK

Belfast Pride (Website)
Belfast Scene (Map)
Custom House (Skipper Street)
John Hewitt Bar (27 Donegall Street T: 028 9023 3768)
Kremlin (96 Donegall Street T: 028 9080 9700)
Milk (Tomb Street; T: 028 9027 8876)
Parliament (2 Dunbar Street T: 028 9023 4520)
Universe House (T: 028 9029 8804)

 

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