A DUP councillor who broke party lines to back a pro-LGBT policy is “bitterly disappointed” his party colleagues could not “say to the LGBT community that we value you”.
Tom Smith has twice voted against his DUP colleagues over a proposal to light up Ards Town Hall in the rainbow colours for future Pride celebrations.
The proposed annual show of support for the local LGBT community had been passed at a committee of Ards and North Down Borough Council earlier this month, thanks in part to a vote in favour from Mr Smith.
However, on Wednesday night, despite his impassioned pleas to colleagues, councillors voted 20-16 in favour of a DUP amendment that means the building will not be lit up for Pride.
In a statement to the News Letter last night, Mr Smith said “society has changed and is changing” when it comes to “attitudes to LGBT people”.
He said he felt a duty to “support those in our society who are marginalised, who feel isolated and who have been abused due to their sexual orientation”.
He added: “Here we had a great opportunity as a council to say to the LGBT community in Ards and North Down that we value you, we support you and we want to create a society where everyone is accepted, and I am bitterly disappointed that we could not say that.”
“While it is very easy to say everyone is equal, the day-to-day life of many people makes that statement a mockery,” Mr Smith added.
“I have known many gay people during my life and I have heard from them terrible stories of being disowned, of being tormented and of being assaulted – all because of who they were.
“We are dealing with the lives of real people , many of whom are hurting because of the rejection and discrimination they have faced. We must all challenge those who still engage in bigotry and intolerance towards members of the LGBT community. What we say and do as councillors is part of that and that is one of the reasons I had to speak out.
“While I understand that there will be those who disagree with my stance, I do have to say that the public response has been overwhelmingly positive. Society has changed and is changing – attitudes to LGBT people are improving but there is still a long way to go and I will do whatever I can to be part of that positive change.”
His comments come just months after DUP leader Arlene Foster made headlines when she attended an event at Stormont hosted by the LGBT media outlet ‘PinkNews’.
Mr Smith’s decision to back the failed proposal to light up Ards Town Hall runs contrary to a view expressed by seven prominent clergy in the Free Presbyterian Church in a letter published in the News Letter on Monday.
In the letter, the clergy said their congregations had expressed “deep sadness upon learning of the divisive recommendation”.
The letter described the motion as “discriminatory” for “promoting and elevating one section of the community above another”.
Mr Smith did win the thanks of Alliance Party councillor Gavin Walker for “making a courageous personal stand” in support of LGBT people within the borough.
Mr Walker, who seconded the original motion to light up the town hall, said: “I don’t know whether it will cost him politically or not, but he took a really courageous personal stand and we very much appreciated him doing that.”
Mr Walker, whose son is gay, also refuted suggestions made by DUP representatives during the meeting that the original motion was some sort of electioneering stunt.
“If it was electioneering we’d have done it next March,” he said. “We consulted with the LGBT community and their families before we brought this to the council so there is no stunt in it,” he added.
The amendment, put forward by DUP alderman Alan Graham and seconded by his party colleague councillor Stephen McIlveen, said the “council acknowledges the many positive contributions from residents and workers from the borough and visitors regardless of their religious beliefs, their political opinion, their racial group, their age, their martial status, their sexual orientation, their gender, whether or not they have disabilities or whether or not they do have dependents – all those groups which are listed under Section 75 of the Northern Ireland Act.”
During the meeting, both men outlined their opposition to the original motion.
Alderman Graham said he would not go along with “creating apartheid based on people’s sexuality” and claimed the Pride banner “causes offence to those who are Christians”.
Mr McIlveen stressed that Pride is “a political movement”.
The DUP said it had no comment to make on the matter when invited to do so yesterday.