Jason Collins, the NBA player who came out as gay on Monday.
Ulster said no to gay marriage this week, and America’s first top-level athlete admitted he’s gay.

Neither development should surprise us, but it gives an interesting snapshot of two cultures heading in dramatically different directions.

Unionism has always been deeply opposed to gays and their lifestyle. Firebrand Ian Paisley earned his early spurs by leading a “Save Ulster from Sodomy” crusade.

Lord Ken Maginnis, a leading light for decades in Ulster Unionism, stated that gays were practicing “unnatural and deviant behavior” which was one step on the ladder towards “accepting bestiality.”

Hate speech if ever there was, and this from a man once considered among the more moderate of Northern Ireland Unionist leaders.

Given that it is hardly surprising that the two main Unionist parties voted en block to stop gay marriage this week in Northern Ireland.

The final vote in the Northern Ireland Assembly was 50 to 45, a very close run margin.

It should be noted that three brave independent Unionists voted in favor but they were unable to impact the final tally enough.

Equally interesting, though, is the fact that the Nationalist parties, the SDLP and Sinn Fein, voted in total numbers for gay marriage, joined by the Alliance Party and the Green party.

What is fascinating there is that the Catholic Church came out loud and early against a vote for gay marriage, but the Catholic parties clearly ignored them.

The church in Northern Ireland has been far more influential in recent times than their counterparts in the Irish Republic.

That is likely a hold over from The Troubles where the church and its flock were tightly bound together in common cause and often suffering.

So the unanimous Catholic vote for gay marriage in the North, despite the imprecations of the church, sends its own clear message.

There is no question that gay marriage would pass in the Dail (Irish Parliament), indicating a huge sea change there as well.

Recent opinion polls show that the measure has strong popular support and, unlike abortion, is not a hugely divisive issue.

The visibility of gay issues in the Irish Republic was helped greatly when hurling superstar Donal Og Cusack announced he was gay a few years back. The subsequent discussion and acceptance has meant a far more educated populace.

That will surely be the case in the U.S. now that Jason Collins has stood up.  The message is clear that there are gay people in every walk of life. They are your friends, neighbors, co-workers, star athletes even.

Northern Ireland still has to learn that reality. Hopefully this week’s events will help that along too.