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Gay marriage debate: Unpopular opinions should be heard too

Supporters of same-sex marriage have vowed to fight on after yesterday's defeat in the Assembly. But there can be no rational debate on the issue while people who don't conform to a certain set of views are demonised as 'phobes', writes Owen Polley

In Northern Ireland the debate around equal marriage looks set to run and run. Yesterday a motion supporting same-sex unions was defeated in the Assembly for the fifth time after a petition of concern was tabled by the DUP in spite of a majority voting in favour.

There is evidence that public attitudes are changing quickly, though, in line with Britain and the Republic, where the focus already appears to be moving from sexuality to gender.

Germaine Greer
Germaine Greer

These types of discussions are always emotive, but where sexuality and identity are concerned increasingly there's a tendency to try to close down rather than challenge views which are deemed unacceptable or politically incorrect.

Last week the feminist writer Germaine Greer announced that she would not deliver a lecture at Cardiff University after students campaigned to have her barred, citing her opinions on transgender people.

It was just the latest example of an academic institution cancelling a speaker, either voluntarily or under duress, because of protests and demands that certain positions are given "no platform".

Closer to home, DUP MLA Jim Wells was investigated by police after he voiced opposition to same-sex marriage at an election hustings.

The PSNI subsequently decided that there were no grounds to prosecute the former Health Minister for hate speech. Mr Wells' views were provocative, including a claim that "you don't bring a child up in a homosexual relationship", but they didn't constitute a crime.

Instances like these - and the impending trial of firebrand preacher Pastor James McConnell, whose remarks describing Islam as "Satanic" and "heathen" were nasty and vicious - suggest that free speech is fast becoming a devalued right in modern society.

Meanwhile identity - sexual, religious or cultural - has become a sacrosanct value in political discourse.

Society has changed incredibly rapidly and, most people would agree, for the better through wrestling with issues around equality for people with different sexual orientations.

Even in Northern Ireland, where socially conservative attitudes prevail and many of these arguments are not yet resolved, polls show that public opinion is shifting, which makes it more likely that politicians' standpoints will follow.

Understandably there are some people who struggle to come to terms with this revolution. Many of them feel demonised and bullied because they hold views which, just a short time ago, would have been commonplace.

The controversy around gender, which tripped up even a radical academic like Greer, is often associated with the debate around sexuality, but it is by no means the same.

The area has become an intellectual battlefield full of confusing terminology and angry activists, many of whom seem only too eager to take offence.

It's a battle being fought on university campuses and through angry newspaper columns, but it's increasingly affecting the mainstream as well.

In wider society the debate about gender and whether it is a matter of biology or a matter of choice is far from resolved.

It's connected to broader ideas about identity and the notion that individuals have the right to identify themselves in any way they choose and expect others to accept their self-description immediately and unconditionally.

Certainly there are small numbers of babies who are born "intersex" (biologically between male and female) and there is an accepted medical condition called gender dysphoria, experienced by those who, from childhood, feel they're trapped in the wrong body.

Increasingly, though, there are also people who identify themselves as both male and female, or neither, or however the spirit might take them on any given day.

There is a bewildering and practically infinite array of terms to define these categories, like genderfluid, genderqueer, non-binary and pangender.

When Facebook tried to accommodate this trend by offering users 58 options through which to describe their gender it was forced to drop the idea because critics claimed there weren't enough choices to rule out the possibility of discrimination.

Androgyny and playing with gender is not original or novel, but now it often comes accompanied with a new and rather unpleasant political militancy. As a veteran feminist Greer is less inclined than her younger counterparts to accept transgender women as part of the sisterhood. For this offence she is deemed a "transphobe" who shouldn't be allowed a platform to air her views.

She is not the first public figure to feel the wrath of the gender lobby.

The journalist Suzanne Moore suffered a campaign of abuse on social media after she highlighted the pressures on women to have an idealised body shape which she likened to that of a "Brazilian transsexual".

In a bizarre spirit of competition for persecuted status, trans activists often save their worst bile for feminists they describe as "cis-gendered" - ie, born female - on the grounds that they are privileged in ways women who changed their gender were not.

Not that men don't get abused, too. The presenter of Radio 4's Today programme, Jim Naughtie, was pilloried for using the male pronoun "he" to describe Caitlyn Jenner, a 66-year-old reality TV star and former athlete who was better known as a man named Bruce up until June this year.

It's polite, of course, to call someone who wishes to be known as a particular gender by the pronoun they prefer. In fact, it's best to treat other people with courtesy - irrespective of their sexuality, race, religion or gender and to make them feel included and comfortable wherever possible.

However, there seems to be little understanding or empathy for those who trip up over terminology or get confused by changes of identity - even if they take place with disorientating speed.

Unfortunately, there is less chance of a reasonable discussion about gender, or getting to grips with real and serious problems confronting transgender people, while those who don't conform to a certain set of views and opinions are demonised as "phobes" and subsequently deprived of their right to speak.

Similarly, as the arguments around same-sex marriage continue to rage in Northern Ireland our society is less likely to resolve the issue if some voices are locked out of the debate.

In Northern Ireland we know very well that issues around identity raise acute sensitivities, but the right to freedom of speech, qualified by laws around libel and hatred, is central to our democracy.

We have to be careful to get the balance right, between preventing abuse and criminalising or banning people for simply having an unpopular opinion.

The best way to take on misguided views, however unpleasant or controversial, is to listen and challenge them.

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