By Rachel Savage
BELFAST, March 27 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Hidden away up several flights of stairs in the centre of Belfast, Northern Ireland, teenagers, many of them with shocks of red, blue and rainbow hair, relaxed and joked with one another.
At the LGBT+ youth group, run by charity Cara-Friend, they felt themselves to be among friends, free to be themselves.
But outside, the young people said they don't always feel welcome in a place where many politicians make homophobic comments and same-sex marriage is still banned, despite being legalised in the rest of the United Kingdom in 2013.
"Gay marriage isn't even a thing here," said Ash, a 16-year-old who identifies as non-binary and pansexual. "It makes me feel sub-human, like we're not really as important as other people."
Northern Ireland is governed separately from the rest of the United Kingdom on many issues, a legacy of the domestic conflict between "republican" and "unionist" groups over whether to unite with the Republic of Ireland to the south.
The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), one of the most socially conservative in Europe, has repeatedly blocked gay marriage, despite support for it from more than two-thirds of Northern Irish adults, according to a 2015 poll by Ipsos MORI.
That year, the Northern Ireland Assembly voted to legalise same-sex weddings, but the DUP blocked it using a veto intended to protect minority rights.
The British government has refused to impose gay marriage on the region, which had a population of 1.9 million in 2017, with ministers in London stating it is a matter for Northern Ireland's politicians to decide.
Meanwhile, Northern Ireland has had no functioning government for over two years, after a power-sharing agreement between the DUP and Sinn Fein, the main republican party, collapsed.
OUT OF THE WOODWORK
Gay marriage is one of the issues keeping the two sides apart, with Sinn Fein for and the DUP against.
In Britain's parliament, the Conservative party government is propped up by the DUP. This has led to accusations that the UK government is favouring the DUP position on issues such as same-sex marriage and Brexit to keep its majority.
"We seem to pick the worst politicians," said Kristian Nairn, who played Hodor in the hit TV series "Game of Thrones".
"They only seem to come out of the woodwork when it's time to criticise a minority. I say, 'piss off.'"
Nairn, who is himself gay, said it was "crazy" same-sex marriage was not yet legal, in an interview at the Union Street Bar in Belfast's small gay district, where he used to work, often dressed as a drag queen called Revvlon.
Last year, two legal challenges to the same-sex marriage ban were heard in Northern Ireland's Court of Appeal, the region's highest appeals court, after being rejected by its High Court.
The judgements are expected in the next few months, but activists said they will appeal them to the United Kingdom's Supreme Court if same-sex marriage isn't legalised.
They also expect Northern Ireland's attorney general to appeal if the ruling goes the other way.
"The Government is proud to have introduced same sex marriage in England and Wales and hopes that this can be extended to Northern Ireland in the future," a government spokeswoman said in emailed comments.
She declined to comment on whether it would appeal a court ruling that legalised same-sex marriage.
Protestant-majority Northern Ireland and the mainly Catholic Republic of Ireland have long been among the most socially conservative places in Western Europe. But gay marriage is now legal in the south of Ireland, after a referendum in 2015.
Until 10 years ago, no Northern Irish party supported LGBT+ rights, Jeffrey Dudgeon, a Belfast city councillor for the Ulster Unionist Party told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in an interview in the imposing Victorian-era City Hall.
"Every time it's been a struggle and it's again because of devolution," said Dudgeon, one of the plaintiffs in a 1981 European Court of Human Rights case that legalised gay sex in Northern Ireland, 14 years after the rest of the United Kingdom.
In recent years, LGBT+ rights have become a dividing issue in Northern Irish politics.
Sinn Fein now supports LGBT+ rights, despite its Catholic heritage. Its politicians first put forward a same-sex marriage motion in Northern Ireland's assembly in 2012.
"Same-sex marriage and LGBT rights have become this new culture war," said John Nagle, a University of Aberdeen academic who has studied attitudes towards LGBT+ rights in Northern Ireland.
"The DUP believe that Sinn Fein are appropriating same-sex marriage as an issue so that Irish nationalists can push through more minority rights policies," he said.
"Both parties are defining themselves in opposition over this."
A 2015 survey found less than a third of DUP supporters are for legalising gay marriage, compared with more than three-quarters of Sinn Fein voters. Party affiliation was a stronger predictor of views than being Protestant or Catholic.
"It's actually more about ethnic nationalism, rather than religion," Nagle said.
NO SILVER BULLET
Sinn Fein and the DUP, which was founded by Ian Paisley, a minister with the evangelical Free Presbyterian Church, did not respond to requests for comment.
"We are in danger of undermining a basic building block of society to meet the demands of a tiny minority," said Jim Wells, who resigned as health minister in 2015 after saying children of same-sex parents were more likely to be abused.
Wells, a DUP politician who denied being homophobic, expects his party will continue to use its veto against same-sex marriage when Northern Ireland's parliament does return, he said in emailed comments.
The fact that many unionists want to both remain part of the United Kingdom, under its laws, and reject same-sex marriage, which is legal in the rest of the country, is not lost on Northern Ireland's LGBT+ community.
"If you're so keen to be part of a bigger country, why don't you adopt the laws?" said Nairn, emphasising he was not partisan or religious. "It's a bit hypocritical, in my opinion."
Homophobia and transphobia are still rife in Northern Irish schools.
Almost half of LGBT+ pupils reported being bullied for their sexuality or gender identity in a 2016 government survey. Two-thirds said they didn't feel welcomed and valued by their school.
"Our community knows that marriage equality is not the magic silver bullet that's going to fix everything," said Gavin Boyd, the policy and advocacy manager of The Rainbow Project, an LGBT+ rights charity.
But, activists said, it would help with all other issues. Suicide rates were lower among LGBT+ teenagers in U.S. states that introduced same-sex marriage before it was legalised nationwide, for example, according to a 2017 study.
While members of Northern Ireland's LGBT+ community continue to fight for equality, some want to acknowledge the progress the small, still-divided region has made.
In 1978, Paisley, the hard line Protestant unionist, led a 'Save Ulster From Sodomy' campaign, collecting 70,000 signatures for a petition against decriminalising same-sex relations. For Dudgeon, his victory is still sweet.
"We won, that's the joy of it," he said. "We've come a long way and we've got to recognise that."
(Reporting by Rachel Savage @rachelmsavage; Editing by Jason Fields. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)
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