BELFAST – In dazzling sunshine, more than 10,000 people marched through city streets here Saturday to demand same-sex marriage in Northern Ireland, the only part of the United Kingdom where it remains illegal.
To the tribal beat of a band of drummers, and behind a huge yellow banner reading "TIME FOR EQUAL CIVIL MARRIAGE", young and old, Catholic and Protestant, and gay, straight, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people paraded from Buoy Park down Royal Avenue, chanting and cheering for equality.
Whistles blew in their thousands, the skyline punctuated by placards and banners from scores of grassroots organisations. "Love is a human right," "Right to wed for all", "homophobia is a social disease", and "LGBT families deserve equality" declared the slogans as more and more joined the procession.
Organised by Amnesty International, the Rainbow Project, and the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, the protest was a response to last month's referendum in the Republic of Ireland, which saw a landslide victory for same-sex marriage. And it comes two months after the Northern Ireland Assembly voted against same-sex marriage for the fourth time, despite England, Wales, and Scotland all having introduced it.
Building on the momentum of the vote south of the border, organisers had hoped for 5,000 protesters, but during the afternoon that number swelled to twice the expected figure.
Families came. Couples held hands. Loved ones kissed. All those attending chanted, a call and response echoing through streets once mired by sectarian violence.
"What do we want?"
"When do we want it?"
"Now!" roared the crowds, as thousands more onlookers lined the pavements to behold the scene.
Some clapped. Some stared in disbelief at the scale of the proceedings, never before witnessed there for such a cause. Many simply stopped with their children and smiled.
A lone counter-protester held a banner declaring marriage to be between "one man and one woman".
Police dotted the edges of the protest, with a particular concentration outside the now infamous Ashers Bakery, which last month was found guilty of discrimination for refusing to bake a pro-same-sex-marriage cake.
Patricia Myron holding a placard.
Amid the marchers sat a 95-year-old woman in her wheelchair. Partially deaf, almost unable to speak, and with her carer beside her, Patricia Myron carried a handwritten placard on her lap. It read, "The church or state shouldn't interfere with who you fall in love with."
"I came to fight for civil rights," she told BuzzFeed News, straining to speak above a whisper. "Northern Ireland is a very mixed place." She looked out at the throngs of marchers and brushed away a tear trickling down her cheek. "The state shouldn't interfere with who you fall in love with," she added, echoing the sign she clasped.
Nearby, Nicola Mulholland, a member of Queer Greens, stood wrapped in a pride flag.
"It feels very oppressive being the only part of the UK that doesn't have same-sex marriage," she told BuzzFeed News. "We're lagging behind the rest of Europe. I'm embarrassed for Northern Ireland as a whole, and I'm embarrassed for our government that they won't meet the will of the people.
"I hope the protest raises awareness among people in Northern Ireland that haven't thought about this issue, and that when they see so many people take to the streets it motivates them to get involved.
"Look at what happened in the south. Hopefully this creates a ripple of equality and positivity that spreads throughout."
Teenage couple Abbie and Jana.
Two 18-year-old women, Abbie and Jana, told BuzzFeed News, arm-in-arm, that they had been together for a year and a half and were considering leaving Northern Ireland because of its laws.
"There's too much bigotry and hatred in this country," said Abbie. "Northern Ireland is so backward right now. Even the Conservatives in England introduced marriage equality; it's ridiculous Northern Ireland can't do it."
Jana said: "You see old people at these rallies – 70, 80 – and it makes you think, 'Are we going to be that age and still having to ask for these rights?'"
Marching down Royal Avenue were a heterosexual couple, Jo Fawker and Alistair Sweet, holding the hands of their two boys, Joe, 5, and Henry, 3.
"We're getting married next week and we just think it's ridiculous that everyone can't do the same thing," Fawker told BuzzFeed News.
"It feels oppressive," said Sweet. "It's oppressive for people to live under a regime of intolerance. Love is a human right. Nothing else needs to be said."
Referring to the opinion polls, which place public support for same-sex marriage consistently above 50%, Fawker said: "Things have changed dramatically in Northern Ireland but there's still an awful long way to go. I think it's only a matter of time. The very reactionary politics of Northern Ireland can stem against this new attitude here for only so long. It's got to prevail in the end."
Snow Patrol's Gary Lightbody (right).
As the crowds reached a stage set up in front of Belfast City Hall, thousands of protestors were still stretched back up Donegall Place. Towards the front stood Gary Lightbody from the rock band Snow Patrol.
"Love is the only thing that matters," he told BuzzFeed News. "It doesn't matter whether you are gay or straight, everyone should have the same right to marriage, to love, to unity, to a union.
"Northern Ireland is the last country in the British Isles and Ireland [to have same-sex marriage] so it's high time that changed," he said. "It would be depressing if it wasn't for this incredible turnout. It would be depressing if nobody cared about it, but people do."
He added: "When I was a kid we were a very insular country and now we're part of Europe. We have a very good family friend whose son is about my age and he's gay, but I didn't know a lot of gay people growing up. I do now. Northern Ireland has changed."
A succession of speakers took to the microphone to rally the crowds, now basking in the summer heat.
"I have a dream," began Daire Toner of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, conjuring the iconic speech from Martin Luther King Jr on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in 1963, "of one day getting married, settling down with my soulmate, and raising a family. But my dream is shattered by the laws that govern this state."
He said: "Yet if by chance I lived in Dublin or London I could realise my dream. Why are we different? We can change this story. We can deliver the happy ending. Together we can make marriage equality happen."
Drag queen Lady Portia Di'Monte taking a selfie.
Drag queen Lady Portia Di'Monte followed, telling the crowds what life was like growing up in a country without equality:
"As a child I was bullied for being different, degraded, and humiliated on a daily basis, and not just by students but by teachers as well. I hated it. I hated being different and I hated what I went through. At times I even considered taking my own life."
She continued: "But I didn't want the bullies to win, and I loved my family too much to put them through that. Then I discovered a life-changing moment – yes, I was different, but that was what made me unique." Applause erupted.
A few minutes later, Nathan Irwin, a 17-year-old student, approached the microphone.
"I'm transgender and also bi," he said to supportive cheers. "This can make getting married a little complicated. Let's say if I were still my legal gender – female – and I wanted to marry a female, according to law I can't do that. If I did change my gender legally to male I couldn't marry a man either. It's very frustrating. All we want to show is our dedication and love to our partners. Love has no bounds."
Two of the organisers of the protest followed.
"So many people are here today because of the positivity that came out of the Irish referendum campaign," said John O'Doherty from the Rainbow Project. "We want our voices heard. Today is another step forward in the campaign for equal marriage, but we have to learn the lesson from others. We need our friends, our families, our allies, and even those who oppose us to know what it's like to grow up LGBT in Northern Ireland. They need to know what the cost of division has been."
He added: "I ask each and every one of you to go away today and keep this campaign going. Because the people on the hill [the politicians in Stormont] may refuse to listen to us, but if we speak loud enough and if there are enough of us they can't ignore us any more."
Patrick Corrigan, from Amnesty International, looked out at the thousands gathered – the flags, the banners, a cheering unity of every gender, religion, age, and orientation – and began: "Is this not the most beautiful march and rally this city has ever seen? A march about love."
He continued: "Marriage equality is a human rights issue. And human rights is very clear on the matter of equality. Look up the very start of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Article 1: 'All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.' So it is simply unacceptable for the state to discriminate against people purely on the basis of their sexuality or gender identity."
Coming off the stage, Corrigan told BuzzFeed News: "This is one the biggest marches Belfast has seen, and certainly the most colourful, joyous, and full-of-love parade I've ever seen through this city. It was neither orange nor green [the unionist and republican colours]. It was all the colours of the rainbow. And it marked a huge new injection of momentum into the campaign for marriage equality in Northern Ireland. We're delighted. It's a sign that public opinion has shifted and shifted. It's now an unstoppable tide."
Afterwards, as crowds began to disperse, BuzzFeed News spotted Andrew Muir, the president of the Alliance party, the first openly gay mayor in Northern Ireland, and the man for whom the notorious pro-same-sex-marriage wedding cake was ordered but never made.
"Growing up gay was very difficult for me," he told BuzzFeed News. "But it provided me the motivation to do what I do and stand up against prejudice. The Northern Ireland Assembly could legislate on this issue this week; the only thing holding us back is prejudice.
"So today is a really positive expression of the new Northern Ireland we want, and the legislation needs to reflect that."
As if mirroring the voices of the thousands now making their way back through Belfast's streets, Muir said: "Lesbian and gay people are castigated as second-class citizens. This rally should be, for politicians, a wake-up call."