The Queen has given an MBE (or Member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire) to a Northern Irish politician who vocally blamed both Hurricane Katrina and AIDS on LGBT people, prompting complaints from activists, along with questions about how commonplace homophobia in the country really is.
Maurice Mills is the Democratic Unionist Party councillor for Ballymena, and was chosen for the award on the basis of "services to local government."
The councillor's local newspaper — the Ballymena Times — describes him as a committed born-again Christian who has "courted controversy in his long career in local politics, but was always known at a local level as a hard-working community representative with a keen appreciation of the need to keep in touch with the party's grass roots."
In 2005, Mills reportedly said that Hurricane Katrina — a natural disaster that resulted in the deaths of at least 1,833 people in the US — was God's revenge for an annual festival in New Orleans.
"The media failed to report that the hurricane occurred just two days prior to the annual homosexual event called the Southern Decadence Festival, which the previous year had attracted an estimated 125,000 people," Mills said. "Surely, this is a warning to nations where such wickedness is increasingly promoted and practiced."
Southern Decadence describes itself as a festival "for the entire gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered community."
Terry McFarlane, president of the Northern Ireland Gay Rights Association, told VICE News that the award in itself isn't the issue here. Mills, he said, has "already got a platform. The platform is the fact that he's a councillor."
McFarlane added: "The fact that both himself and his party refuse to retract the comments he made about the hurricane being brought about by gay lifestyles would overshadow what has happened. The councillor and his party need to address the mistakes they've made with regards to LGBT matters."
He told VICE News that he believes the DUP are as responsible as Mills is for his comments, because they haven't pushed him to retract them, "and also they themselves have not said this is wrong."
"It was inappropriate, it's wrong from any standpoint, and the fact that he doesn't want to retract his statement just illustrates the fact that he has a very singular point of view."
McFarlane also said that he thinks Northern Ireland is behind the rest of the UK when it comes to LGBT rights, particularly in rural communities. Through his work, he said, he sees how opinions like Mills' can make coming out for young and rurally-born LGBT people very difficult. Often, it is only when LGBT people move to a bigger city such as Belfast, he said, that they find the support to do that.
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