Patrick Stewart dared to boldly say what he was thinking
It's not a crisis that Captain Picard ever had to deal with on the Starship Enterprise. Attack of the Terminally Offended. Nor did he ever have to do battle with the Outraged Oppressed, or fend off the Illiberal Liberals (that last bunch are the ones you really have to watch; they preach love, equality and tolerance but if you step out of line they'll blast you with their ray-guns as mercilessly as any Klingon). This week the Captain - aka actor Patrick Stewart - was under fire from all three.
What crime had he committed? Only speaking out in support of Ashers bakery and its refusal to make a cake with a gay marriage slogan. "It is the actual words on the cake they objected to. Because they found the words offensive," Stewart said on Newsnight. "I would support their rights to say no, this is personally offensive to my beliefs, I will not do it."
Well, I don't need to tell you what happened next. Barely were the words out of Stewart's mouth when the shrieking, howling and baying began. Homophobe! Bigot! Huge swathes of social media mourned the 'loss' of the actor, who had so clearly gone over to the dark side. Yes, Stewart had chosen to stand alongside the Christians. Or rather the Xtians, as they are frequently described, which - appositely enough, in the circumstances - makes them sound like a race of interplanetary mutants. It was the equivalent of Captain Picard surrendering the keys of the Enterprise to the Romulans.
In vain did Stewart try to clarify his remarks. He went on Facebook to explain. "In my view, this particular matter was not about discrimination, but rather personal freedoms and what constitutes them, including the freedom to object," he said. "Both equality and freedom of speech are fundamental rights- and this case underscores how we need to ensure one isn't compromised in the pursuit of the other." Stewart also explicitly refuted the (inevitable) claims that he was anti-equality or a closet religious fundamentalist. "Nothing, absolutely nothing, could be further from the truth. I have long championed the rights of the LGBT community because equality should not only be, as the people of Ireland powerfully showed the world, universally embraced, but treasured."
Stewart was standing up for the founding principles of democratic society, the right to free speech and freedom of conscience, the basic stuff which guarantees our liberty, whether we are gay, straight, religious, atheist, whatever. He speaks also as a proud and prominent supporter of gay rights. When The Guardian mistakenly 'outed' him as gay himself, he laughed and said it made a change from newspapers reporting that he was dead. "Quite frankly, I was utterly flattered by that assumption," he said afterwards. "And indeed the first contact I had was from Ian McKellen (the gay actor, a dear friend of Stewart's), who sent me an email saying 'Congratulations!' And I accepted the congratulations and said: 'I think this is a very distinctive honour that I've been awarded.'"
But none of this mattered. He was still trashed and slandered as a homophobe and a bigot.
I have empathy for Stewart, because I received exactly the same sort of abuse when I made a similar argument about the cake ruling. Much of the name-calling on social media was from people who haven't the brains to think out complex ethical situations for themselves, or from those who don't really care about LGBT equality but just enjoy getting offended. Others simply want someone - anyone - to hate. But I was disappointed that certain local activists and campaigners, for whose work I have a great deal of respect, and have supported on many occasions, resorted to the bigot-cry so quickly. One well-known Belfast LGBT activist dismissed me as a "heterosexual" journalist, with the implication that, simply by virtue of my perceived sexuality, my views were irrelevant. When it comes to labelling people, how is that any different from Gerry Kelly's sectarian election leaflet?
The LGBT movement should remember who its friends are. Northern Ireland is still riddled with real homophobia. Just this week the house of a gay man, Paul Finlay-Dickson, was smashed up with a sledgehammer before he'd even had a chance to move in. Finlay-Dickson, who suffers from Aids, recently lost his civil partner Maurice to cancer. Vile thugs smeared a rainbow flag, which was intended to drape the coffin, with excrement.
The 'gay cake' is a vexatious, divisive distraction. Let's concentrate on the real crimes and injustices.