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Peter Tatchell's volte face over Ashers noble and brave

By Fionola Meredith

Published 05/02/2016

Peter Tatchell
Peter Tatchell

He has been described as "one of the most influential gay men of this century", "a modern-day prophet... dauntingly brave in his pursuit of equality and justice". Now Peter Tatchell, the veteran gay rights activist, has surprised everyone and come out in support of Ashers bakery's refusal to make a "gay cake". It wasn't Tatchell's first position - he initially condemned Ashers, and welcomed the verdict that it was guilty of discrimination.

But now, as the case goes to appeal, Tatchell has changed his mind. He says the court was "wrong to penalise Ashers and I was wrong to endorse its decision".

Don't worry, the man who once stormed pulpits and publicly outed anti-gay bishops hasn't undergone a latter-day conversion. He still profoundly disagrees with Ashers' opposition to same-sex marriage.

But now Tatchell recognises what a few of us - not just the anti-gay super-Christians of the DUP and elsewhere - have said from the start. Gareth Lee's cake request was refused not because he was gay, but because of the message he asked for, and therefore the court was wrong to rule that he was discriminated against because of his sexual orientation and political opinions.

"In my view, it is an infringement of freedom to require businesses to aid the promotion of ideas to which they conscientiously object," Tatchell said. "Discrimination against people should be unlawful, but not against ideas."

Amen to that. Tatchell's words are an affirmation of the creed of true freedom to which anyone who cares about democracy - whatever their religious views - is duty-bound to subscribe. Deny this founding principle and you're well on the way to Stasi-land.

I have always had tremendous admiration for Tatchell, but it has doubled since he took this courageous independent stance. It can't have been easy. More than ever in these days of militant conformism and hysterical mob rule, constantly policed by Twitter-stormtroopers, it is difficult to step away from your perceived tribe.

All the more so in Tatchell's case, because he is the defining gay rights activist of our times. And it probably felt even worse for him because, as he has acknowledged, there is still an awful lot of anti-gay prejudice at work in the body-politic of Northern Ireland. Real, engrained, institutional prejudice, not just hurting someone's feelings because a holy bun-shop wouldn't pipe out icing saying 'Support gay marriage'.

Of course, Peter Tatchell isn't the only veteran campaigner to express serious reservations about the Ashers case. There's also our own Jeff Dudgeon, the gay rights trailblazer whose 1981 victory in the European Court of Human Rights decriminalised homosexuality in Northern Ireland. When I spoke to Dudgeon last year he said the case was both divisive and trivial in many ways, and he was particularly concerned at the Equality Commission's decision to add political discrimination to the charge sheet.

Tatchell also picks up on that issue, adding that the finding of political discrimination against Lee sets "a worrying precedent": the law was intended to protect people from being denied their rights because of their political beliefs, never to "compel people to promote political ideas with which they disagreed".

The judge's decision in the original case against Ashers rests on a grave yet basic logical error. Judge Brownlie decided that anyone asking for a pro-equality message to be iced on a cake must be assumed to be gay, and that this was the basis for the discrimination against Lee. This is palpably untrue. I could have walked into Ashers and ordered that cake because I support same-sex marriage, and yet I am not gay.

Tatchell sees this too: "There is no evidence that (Lee's) sexuality was the reason Ashers declined his order." Again, it wasn't the person being discriminated against, it was the idea, and that should never be against the law.

Not surprisingly, Tatchell's principled volte face was greeted with howls of fury and outrage from those who place the tribal loyalties of identity politics far above the foundational freedoms which protect us all.

Pompous pipsqueaks on Twitter decided that he was guilty of betrayal and back-stabbing.

Never mind. This is the man who has endured numerous beatings in pursuit of justice, the man who physically stands up to murderous tyrants like Robert Mugabe. I'm sure he can handle it.

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