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Ashers ruling: Fight for equality is as much battle for hearts and minds as it is for legislation

By Lyra McKee

Published 25/10/2016

Daniel and Amy McArthur of Ashers Baking Company speak to the media at Belfast High Court, as judgment is due to be delivered on an appeal brought by the Christian bakers who were found to have discriminated against gay man Gareth Lee. Photo: Niall Carson/PA Wire
Daniel and Amy McArthur of Ashers Baking Company speak to the media at Belfast High Court, as judgment is due to be delivered on an appeal brought by the Christian bakers who were found to have discriminated against gay man Gareth Lee. Photo: Niall Carson/PA Wire

The last time I remember being this confused by an issue was when I realised I had a crush on women and wondered why that was. Eleven-year-old minds aren't very good at comprehending these things.

Undoubtedly, my life from the age of 11 to 20 - when, three months short of my 21st birthday, I came out to my mother - has been made more difficult because of religion.

Specifically, Christianity.

My memories of the ages of 13 and 14 are of sitting in my bedroom, praying to God that He wouldn't send me to Hell for something I couldn't help and believing it was better to be dead than to be openly gay.

This was the message I took from the Scripture drilled into me via the education system - not that Jesus loved me, but that I was some form of mutated humanity.

I didn't know that my mother couldn't care less about which gender I dated because, to me, there could only be one reaction - disgust.

I'm no longer afraid of Hell because even if it exists, I've already walked through it.

So confronted with the McArthurs, my initial reaction was one of rage.

They represent the culture and ideology that I blame for what I and countless other LGBT people have been through, from psychological torture to physical abuse - and I know LGBT people from good "Christian" homes where their "Christian" parents believed the only way to deal with a gay child was to beat the gay out of them.

But then, the other part of my conscience speaks up - the journalist who believes in freedom of speech and conscience and asks, "What about those principles? What about defending the rights of your enemies to speak?"

And so I yo-yo between the two angels on either shoulder.

In the past, I've let my inner demagogue speak because it's easier to feel righteous than to sit down and listen to someone whose views I don't like.

There is a part of me that wants Christians to pay for what happened to me and my people.

Then I look at the history of Northern Ireland and how far that mentality has gotten us and satisfying that desire doesn't seem like such a great option.

I don't know what the answer is. Recently, I read a story about an American white nationalist, Derek Black, who renounced his views after building up a friendship with a Jewish student who invited him to a weekly Shabbat dinner, despite knowing who he was, in order to get to know him.

I thought of my friend William, a sweet, rural Christian who is against equal marriage.

"You know," he said to me, as we sat in a cafe one day, "I wasn't too sure about you when we first met. I was like, you know, she's gay. But now I think you're a decent wee spud."

The fight for equality is as much a fight for hearts and minds as it is a courtroom battle.

This case has been exploited by extremist Christians for propaganda purposes, to frighten congregations across the country, creating ill-feeling between them and the LGBT community.

If there is one thing I'm certain of, it's that this helps no one.

It doesn't help the man who just wants to worship in his pew, the gay teenager living in fear of Sunday sermons and the might of God, or the bisexual woman with Christian parents.

LGBT people are your brothers, sisters, uncles, nieces, cousins.

Christians are that also.

Then there are the LGBT and equal marriage-supporting Christians who have found themselves caught in the crossfire.

Maybe it's time to take the fight to dinner tables, places of worship - anywhere conversations can be had and new friendships formed.

If I could sit down with the McArthurs tomorrow, I wouldn't tell them I hate them because I don't.

I'd just want them to know that I'm just like them and that, if God exists, I'm fairly certain He loves me, too.

Belfast Telegraph

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