When it comes to equal marriage, the DUP are not being oppressed
Arlene Foster became the first leader of the DUP to attend an LGBT event when she appeared at a Stormont reception hosted by PinkNews and Citibank on the 28th June.
In a speech, Foster said that she looked forward to a time when her appearance at such an event would be unremarkable. She acknowledged the contribution of the LGBT community in Northern Ireland and said that she deeply valued LGBT people.
One section of her speech stood out, however:
“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. Whilst we disagree this does not prevent us from finding common values to keep Northern Ireland moving forward.”
I think it goes without saying that people of faith should be respected and that those opposed to equal marriage are entitled to have their own opinion on the matter.
What is infuriating is that Foster is positioning herself and her party as the victims in all of this, with the insinuation that they are the ones who are being oppressed for their views.
To make out that the LGBT community are the unreasonable ones here, that they are the ones oppressing other people, is to ignore history and reality.
A history of violence against the LGBT community and the reality of what it is like to be LGBT in Northern Ireland today.
A few weeks ago I noticed a young gay couple ahead of me on my walk into Belfast city centre. They walked hand in hand all the way from Botanic down the Dublin Road before stepping away from each other when they got close to Bedford Street in the busiest part of Belfast. Nobody said anything to the couple but people stared, and some openly gaped.
I think nothing of being affectionate with my boyfriend in public. It’s not the same for LGBT couples.
On other occasions I’ve seen people heckle LGBT couples when they show affection in public. I’ve watched transwomen get verbally abused in the street while they quietly go about their day.
Every bit of homophobia and transphobia endorsed by people in power has normalised hatred. That hatred then slipped into the tongues of ordinary people. I heard it via a teacher in High School who told our class that he thought gay men were gross and disgusting. You hear it via callers on Nolan and Talkback. It rolls off the tongue of people in the street, relatives and family friends.
We’re very good at forgetting history in Northern Ireland. I am horribly familiar with the one of the vilest, homophobic murders in Northern Ireland: the killing of Ian Flanagan in 2002. The details are too horrific to describe. One of the two people convicted was in my form class in High School. I didn’t know him that well but we sat in the same class for a few years. He was 14 when he murdered Flanagan.
The above is not unique to Northern Ireland but it is a reminder that the LGBT community here still faces bigotry and discrimination. They are victims of years of prejudice and xenophobia. Even if we get equal marriage in Northern Ireland, this sort of behaviour will continue.
We should own the fact that prejudice has been enabled and emboldened by wider society in Northern Ireland. The balance of power has not been held by the LGBT community, but by people like the DUP, the church and homophobic governments.
When it comes to public opinion the DUP are in the minority on equal marriage.
They know this, hence their pleas to have their views respected. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with the party saying this but they should recognise that they are the position of power. The DUP are the ones blocking equal marriage in the Assembly. It was galling when Foster said that the DUP was a party founded on the principle that, “everyone is equal under the law and equally subject to the law.” A little soul searching wouldn’t go amiss.
The DUP are not the only people who should think about an apology here. We all need to reckon with the past and this country’s treatment of the LGBT community.