26 Mar 2014

How one gay bar changed attitudes in rural N Ireland

“I am a straight guy and I love going to the gay bar” – welcome to The Central in Strabane, Northern Ireland. Is this the most unusual – and remote – gay night spot in the UK?

Gay marriage becomes law in the UK this year – everywhere except Northern Ireland. Intolerance of gay people goes far beyond the Assembly. But in one unlikely corner a small gay bar has changed attitudes.

This is an excerpt from a longer film by Anna Leach and Vik Patel, out later this year. DoP: L Garnons-Williams, AP: Nicola Morgan, a TMC production.

Strabane, a Northern Irish border town just south of Derry, is known for being, for its size, the most bombed town in Europe, having had one of the worst unemployment rates in the industrial world and being voted the third worst place to live in the UK (2005). Defined by its religious tensions, it’s not an easy place to live for gay people either.

So when a flamboyant gay bar opened in 2008 it is not surprising that a priest threatened to turned up to exorcise it and local councillors railed against the opening. It is surprising that, six years on, the Central bar has been a hit with the locals – gay and straight. It has even changed attitudes in the town. Has Strabane got any lessons for Northern Ireland’s politicians in Stormont?

‘No viler act’

“The Troubles have set back human rights in Northern Ireland by 40 years for women, gay people and ethnic minorities,” Gina Gallagher, project manager of LBGT Strabane told us while we were filming this documentary.

Certainly Northern Ireland is known best – and sometimes only – for the Troubles and their legacy. Gay life in Northern Ireland has come into the spotlight only fitfully, and normally as the result of a politician saying something negative:

“I’m repulsed by gays and lesbianism,” Ian Paisley Jnr, member of the Northern Irish assembly told a Dublin magazine in 2007.

“There can be no viler act, apart from homosexuality and sodomy, than sexually abusing innocent children,” then Northern Irish health secretary and MP Iris Robinson told the House of Commons in 2008.

Later that year Ms Robinson told a Northern Irish radio station that gay people nauseated her but could be cured by psychiatrists.

The Northern Irish people have put up with many statements from their politicians over the years, but it cannot have made the country an easier place for its gay people. And reports bear out that they do not always have an easy time.

There isn’t much research into the area, but to pick out two statistics from Out on Your Own a 2006 report, co-sponsored by the Rainbow Project into the lives of young gay men in Northern Ireland:

Of those who were bullied for being gay, 42.4 per cent were diagnosed with mental illness and 49.4 per cent were referred for professional help. And half reported being bullied at school.

Of all the 190 young men questioned, over one quarter, 27 per cent had attempted suicide.

Bright lights of Strabane

It is a dark picture. So the bright lights of Strabane’s gay bar are a surprise. It’s not just a surprise to find a bright pink gay bar with a huge rainbow flag in a small rural village with a population of 17,000.

It’s also a surprise it’s one of the most popular bars in town, that local people of all sexualities love it. Perhaps Stormont can learn something from Strabane.