In 2009, I decided to get involved with running Belfast Pride, so I showed up at their AGM. I was sitting in my seat, looking round me, waiting for the meeting to begin. I looked up and saw I was being stared at, by an eccentric older gentleman, who was peering over his glasses at me. He quickly moved on and peered at the next person in the row. He shuffled over to another seat and sat down.
That was the first time I met PA.
At the AGM I stood for election and duly became a committee member, and through the committee I came to know PA. He would often fall asleep during committee meetings, and then suddenly, when a relevant question was asked, he would wake up and make an insightful observation that showed he had been listening to everything that was said, even if he were resting his eyes.
Cast your mind back 20, 25 years. Imagine that you are a young gay man in Northern Ireland. You have just been arrested for doing something innocuous, something that wouldn’t be a problem if you were straight. The charges won’t stick, but you still need to defend yourself. Who do you call? Or maybe you are the subject of homophobic abuse at home, or in the office. Who will help you? The answer, for so many people, was PA. If you were in trouble, you picked up the phone and you called him.
When somebody is old and they die, there is a terrible tendency to remember the old person, and not the person that they were. PA, when he was younger, was a remarkable man. But here’s the thing. PA, when he was older was still a remarkable man. Nowadays (partly thanks to PA’s work) gay men don’t have to fear arrest, but we still face trouble because of who we are. When that trouble came, who did you call? Even in 2012, at the end of his life, when there were many other people and agencies you could call, you could still pick up the phone and call PA.
It is a truism to say that a funeral is a celebration of someone’s life, but when you look back at what PA achieved, when you think about the people he helped, you can’t help but be joyful that he lived. He touched so many lives in so many positive ways.
Tonight I get to go home to the house that I share with my husband. I get to do that because of the work that PA did. All across Northern Ireland, thousands of LGBT people’s candles burn brighter because of him.