Arlene Foster insists she’s not a homophobe, but she’s given LGBT+ people plenty of reason to think otherwise

Arlene Foster

Arlene Foster has resigned as first minister of Northern Ireland and as leader of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), leaving behind a fractious legacy.

Her resignation comes six years after she was first elected leader of the ultra-conservative political party. In that time, Northern Ireland’s LGBT+ community has been forced to fight relentlessly for equal rights while Foster and her party repeatedly blocked change.

Notably, Arlene Foster threw what were ultimately the smallest of crumbs to the LGBT+ community during her time as leader of the DUP. While some politicians made a name for themselves among queer people for their wildly offensive remarks, Foster was ever-so-slightly more moderate in her approach. Much was made of her decision in 2018 to speak at a PinkNews reception in Stormont, making her the first DUP leader to attend an event focusing on LGBT+ rights.

Northern Ireland’s LGBT+ community wasn’t exactly expecting much from that appearance – Foster had always made her opposition to LGBT+ rights clear. But there was widespread disappointment when she used her speech to defend her party’s stance on same-sex marriage and, in a blow to queer voters, asked the LGBT+ community to respect her party’s views.

“Just because we disagree on marriage does not mean that I don’t value the LGBT+ community and it’s certainly not a zero sum game as it is sometimes presented. And all I ask in return is that my and my party’s views are also respected if not agreed with,” Foster said at the event.

Foster’s speech at the PinkNews reception was not an isolated incident – in fact, she dedicated much of her time as first minister and DUP leader to blocking same-sex marriage in Northern Ireland.

In the 2016 Assembly elections, the DUP told voters they would “defend marriage”. The party also repeatedly used a petition of concern to block same-sex marriage in Northern Ireland, which stopped queer couples from marrying in the region until 2020 – almost six years after the battle was won in England.

Despite this opposition, Foster repeatedly and firmly denied that she was homophobic. Speaking to the BBC in 2016, she said: “If people can’t see the nuance between our defending of marriage and gay rights then, I’m sorry, they really need to look at themselves.”

She went on to argue that not every gay person wants equal marriage, saying: “I know plenty of people in that community who don’t want to see marriage redefined and are quite content to live in a partnership.”

That same year, Foster hit out at the LGBT+ community for directing “abuse” at herself and her DUP colleagues online over their opposition to same-sex marriage.

“Some of the abuse that is directed at me and colleagues online is very, very vicious. And I think if activists want to have a conversation about where they are coming from, do they seriously think they are going to influence me by sending me abuse?”

She went on to suggest that “abuse” – or criticism, as some might call it – would only serve to push her in the “opposite direction” on LGBT+ rights, and urged the community to “reflect on that”.

In 2017, Foster said it was “complete nonsense” to suggest that the DUP had a problem with homophobia, despite the fact that Ian Paisley Jr once said he was “repulsed” by gay people and Sammy Wilson refused to mark World AIDS Day because of his belief that HIV is the result of “lifestyle choices”.

Speaking to ITV, Foster said: “There’s been a lot of hyperbole talked about our position to the gay community. Much of it is complete and utter nonsense, I have to say. We take a particular view in relation to the definition of marriage; that does not mean in any one way that we are homophobic.”

That same year, Foster told the News Letter that the DUP was being branded “homophobic”, but said “nothing could be further from the truth”.

“It really does hurt me when people call me a homophobe just because I stand up for the definition of marriage which I believe in and I think this debate has become very toxic,” she said.

Arlene Foster continued fighting same-sex marriage even after Westminster made it a reality

Notably, for much of Foster’s time as leader of the DUP, she was not actually officially the first minister of Northern Ireland. In fact, power sharing at Stormont collapsed in 2017 following a spat between the DUP and Sinn Féin over a green energy scandal.

One of the outcomes of the collapse of Stormont was that it allowed Westminster to hold a vote on same-sex marriage in Northern Ireland. In July 2019, MPs voted overwhelmingly in favour of extending marriage rights to same-sex couples in the territory – and just like that, Arlene Foster’s battle against equality was lost.

The matter appeared to be settled, but that didn’t stop Arlene Foster from continuing her crusade against same-sex marriage. In January 2020, she claimed that equality was being “imposed” on Northern Ireland – despite the fact that her party was simultaneously arguing that the territory should be treated the same as the rest of the UK in Brexit negotiations.

It was fitting, therefore, that when the first same-sex couple tied the knot in Northern Ireland just weeks later, they used the opportunity to deliver a firm rebuke against Foster. Speaking to PinkNews at the time, Robyn Peoples and Sharni Edwards told the DUP leader that equal marriage was not being imposed on anybody.

“For her job role I just don’t understand how she could say that and dictate to other people how to live their lives,” Robyn said. “It is not being forced on anyone; people had to fight for this for years.”

Foster never softened in her opposition to LGBT+ rights. Just weeks ago, during a libel trial against celebrity doctor Christian Jessen, Foster said she gets “distressed” when people call her homophobic and defended her anti-LGBT+ views by claiming she has gay friends.

“I have many friends who are homosexual, they know my views on same-sex marriage, and in any event, same-sex marriage is now the law here in Northern Ireland and has to be upheld,” Foster said.

“I have never in my own political utterances said anything in connection with people who are homosexual and that’s why I do get quite upset when people call me a homophobe.”

While the DUP blocked progress on equal marriage for years, the issue of conversion therapy ultimately proved to be the straw that broke the camel’s back for Foster’s leadership. She had already been facing internal pressure to take a more hardline approach with the Northern Ireland protocol, and MLAs and MPs were reportedly growing increasingly unhappy with her handling of the row.

Last week, the Assembly voted overwhelmingly in favour of a motion calling for conversion therapy to be banned in Northern Ireland. Needless to say, the DUP opposed the motion, and the party even tabled an amendment to remove a line that said it is “fundamentally wrong to view our LGBTQ community as requiring a fix or cure”.

Speaking on BBC Radio Ulster after the event, Jim Wells – who is a DUP member but has lost the party whip – claimed that all MLAs were asked by the party to abstain on the vote. The vast majority refused, and in the end, Foster and a small number of others abstained.

Her decision to abstain on the vote apparently enraged DUP members who were already unhappy with her handling of other issues around Brexit – and then, a heave to have her removed began. Just 24 hours after details of a letter of no confidence were leaked to the media, Arlene Foster announced that she was resigning her position as leader of the DUP and that she would serve as first minister until the end of June.

While Foster repeatedly and stridently opposed advancements in LGBT+ rights throughout her leadership of the DUP, she was – in a bizarre turn of events – seen as too moderate by some members.

It remains to be seen who will become the next leader of the DUP, but it is likely that whoever takes the reins from Foster will bring the party even further to the right, and will almost certainly stand in even greater opposition to any advancements in LGBT+ rights in Northern Ireland.