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Free-thinking is the hallmark of a liberal society

By Fionola Meredith

Published 10/04/2015

Dr Mark Gilfillan
Dr Mark Gilfillan

While we await the outcome of the Ashers court case, which will tell us whether the state can really compel people to endorse values they don't believe in, new cases of alleged homophobia have risen up to fill the gap.

The Girls' Brigade is caught in the cross-hairs now, accused by an irate mother of equating homosexuality with murder, adultery and theft, in a scripture class attended by her teenage daughters. Put this way, it sounds appalling. Even Iris Robinson, who specialised in some pretty extreme pronouncements in this department, never said that being gay was comparable to homicide.

But the GB "strongly refutes" the mother's claim, insisting that the lesson was supposed to demonstrate that "there is no hierarchy of sin and that a loving God can forgive all sin". They were actually trying to show the girls that God still loves you, no matter what you do. Put that way, the trespass does not sound quite so dreadful. Clumsy and inept? For sure. Offensive? Yes, to some (including me). But it was certainly not bad enough to report to the police as an alleged hate crime, as the mother in question did.

Come on. She sent her daughters to the Girls' Brigade, knowing it was a Christian organisation, and a fairly conservative one at that. What did she expect - rainbow flags and a sermon from Peter Tatchell?

Next on trial - by social media, if not in the courts - was an academic from Ulster University, who posted a nasty rant on his personal Facebook page, now apparently deleted, claiming that homosexuality is nothing more than "a bizarre fetish" accompanied by a "sick and over-sexualised culture", as well as several ill-founded and inaccurate slurs that don't merit repeating here. I don't know why Dr Mark Gilfillan, a research associate in Irish Jewish history, chose to air his unpleasant beliefs in this way, but he's being thoroughly vilified for it now. Local LGBT website,, has helpfully published both a screenshot of the original remarks as well as the email addresses of Dr Gilfillan's academic superiors, so that outraged readers can report him to his bosses with greater ease.

There's no doubt in my mind that Gilfillan's remarks are nakedly homophobic. There's no mitigating factors here. He wasn't trying to teach anybody about God's all-encompassing love, or anything like that. It appears he was merely giving vent, in a personal capacity, to his rather frantic disgust for gay people.

So this brings me to the central question: in an age of supposed enlightenment, where everyone's rights are to be respected equally, what are we to do with the unrepentant homophobes? The ones who are convinced - for religious reasons, or out of pure prejudice, or maybe even from an unexamined position of ambivalence about their own sexuality - that gayness is morally wrong and spiritually unclean. What shall we do with them? Must they be forced to conform to what the rest of us believe - that gay people are every bit as natural and normal as straight ones, and should be treated as such, both in law and in everyday life?

Unfortunately, a number of people - let's call them liberal fascists, because that's essentially what they are - consider that the best way to deal with a person who, whether with deliberate intent to offend or otherwise, makes anti-gay remarks, is to go straight to the police and report the miscreant. Failing that, the next best course of action is to shop them to their employers, in the hope of disciplinary action, or maybe even a dismissal. Such zeal to extinguish anything that runs counter to the social consensus makes me feel very uncomfortable indeed.

Look, don't get me wrong. People who peddle slurs and untruths about any section of the community should be called out on it, loud and long. Laugh at them, ridicule them, use well-judged argument to take their misguided views apart. By all means, call the cops if they start making actual threats. But using old-school authoritarian tactics, in an attempt to silence those with beliefs regarded as unacceptable to the mainstream, is never the right answer.

Here's the thing - we must all be free to think and believe whatever we choose, even if it is deemed to be deviant, offensive or dangerous by others. That's the hallmark of a tolerant, genuinely liberal society. The alternative? Believe me, it doesn't even bear thinking about.

Belfast Telegraph

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