King Billy: an early champion of gay rights?

You have to hand it to Peter Tatchell. The veteran gay rights campaigner – who will be giving the Amnesty International Pride Lecture this evening – really knows how to maximise media attention.

In the wake of Iris Robinson MP's homophobic comments at Westminster and on the airwaves, Tatchell has accused the politician of hypocrisy and reminded her that unionist icon King William III of Orange is reputed by some historians to have been bisexual.

Martin Wainwright in The Guardian quotes William's own view from 'a letter to one of his proteges, Hans Willem Bentinck, whom he made Earl of Portland. He wrote: "It seems to me very extraordinary that it should be impossible to have esteem and regard for a young man without it being criminal."' The excerpt at least suggests that the king may have been an early champion of gay rights.

Unsurprisingly this has generated not a little media interest here … and internationally. The story seems to be in most of the local and national newspapers this morniing and I'm just back from doing an interview on the BBC World Service.

Frankly, I know not and care less if King Billy was a bit pink as well as orange, but Tatchell's tactic has successfully reignited the debate about the place of homosexuality in Northern Irish society. Is it an 'abomination' as the Strangford MP would have it? Or is it as normal as a seventeenth century Dutchman putting on a powdered wig, tight pantaloons, shiny boots and jumping on white charger?

In some respects the story is a bit of fun – hence my treatment here. But the intent is serious. Northern Ireland is still a place where homophobic bullying happens in schools, homophobic attacks happen on the streets, and homophobic verbal assaults can be heard from senior politicians without any subsequent reproach from their party. Around the world Amnesty has documented how gay people are imprisoned, tortured and even killed for their sexuality.

Rev Brian Kennaway, an Orange Order historian, who was also on the World Service programme, seemed offended that Tatchell was suggesting that King William may have been gay. He shouldn't be – as along as he doesn't think there is anything offensive about homosexuality.

Anyway, Tatchell's proposition – not a new one, it has to be said – does give a certain new meaning to that sectarian ditty beloved of some football terraces, 'we are the Billy boys'

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