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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, despite the well-fortified police stations and the brightly-coloured paramilitary murals, 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.


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.

Nowadays the Democratic Unionist Party which is holding on to overall power by a fingernail, is still fairly homophobic. They oppose gay rights and equal marriage and have blocked many reforms to both. The age of concent was changed to 16 for all, a decade or more ago, but it's one of few changes politically for gay rights in Northern Ireland. Other parties, notably Sinn Fein, continue to press for wider gay reform and there could be changes ahead should the make-up of the Northern Ireland Assembly be slightly altered.

Ten years ago, there was little or no gay scene to speak of in Belfast, but now there's something of a cultural renaissance and the city has become some what more camp and colourful. The annual Pride Festival takes place every year usually the last week of July and culminates in a colourful parade and outdoor concert which is warmly received by the majority of the city's residents. While you probably won't see any gay men holding hands in the street, gays and lesbians can be spotted everywhere you go and homophobic attacks verbal or physical are fairly rare.

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!

There's 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.
The soviet-chic Kremlin style bar just down Donegall Street has to be your next stop. 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.

The Union Street Bar & Restaurant opened its doors first as a bar and then added a restaurant. It was originally a Victorian shoe factory, and still retains its original wrought iron pillars and date plaques. It's one of Belfast's most trendy award winning gay bars with an excellent late club night on Saturday - Event Horizon.

Less gay, but still very friendly is Queens Bar, a city centre pub located at Queens Arcade and The Apartment a gay friendly bar located at Donegall Sq West. Both are worth dropping into with friends.

GETTING CLEAN AND DIRTY

The city has two gay saunas. The Pipeworks - Belfast has been around for years and is well established with a sauna, jacuzzi, steam room, video room and coffee lounge. The newer of the two is the Outside Sauna which is set in Belfast’s Gay quarter and offers the perfect atmosphere for gay and bisexual men to meet relax and chill out.

Speaking of which - and if you like it outside - 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

There are five choices of airline and two airports that you can fly into - Belfast International and Belfast City. From London it's about an hour and a quarter and can cost you as little or as much as you like. Fares start from around £30. Easyjet, Ryanair, Air Lingus, Fly Be and British Airways are all options and if you are looking for somewhere to stay you can check out special prices at gay friendly hotels with Bookings.

THE LITTLE BLACK BOOK

Belfast Pride (Website)
Cara-Friend LBGT Youth (Website)
John Hewitt Bar (27 Donegall Street; T: 028 9023 3768)
Kremlin (96 Donegall Street; T: 028 9080 9700)
Union Street Bar & Restaurant (8-14 Union St; T: 028 9031 6060; Website)
Queens Bar (4 Queens Arcade; T: 028 9024 9105; Website)
The Apartment (2 Donegall Square West; T: 028 9099 4120; Website)
The Pipeworks - Belfast (2-6 Union St; T: 028 9023 3441; Website)
Outside Sauna (1 - 5 Donegal Lane; T: 028 9032 4448; Website)

Revised May 2017.

 

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