Gay Life in NI if the Conscience Clause Were Enacted

It was a summer Friday in 2008, and we were in a provincial town West of the Bann. Jordin Sparks was Number 1 and Ian Paisley’s tenure as leader of Our Wee Country had ended a few weeks before. We’d planned a day trip, but we’d ended up exploring a bit further than expected. It was chilly for June, but the showers from earlier had cleared into that gorgeous, soft, summer evening light that is the thing I miss most from home.

Why drive all the way back to Belfast, we thought? Why not check into a B&B for the evening, have a nice meal out, and explore even further the next day? I had just bought my first car. I could drive with L plates as long as he was in the passenger seat. I’d never driven so far before. It was all very exciting.

The local tourist office helpfully supplied some numbers, and the first number we called was very keen to let us a double room, and we were very keen on the price. There was no rush, so we’d be along in a few hours’ time. After a bit more sightseeing and church crawling, we arrived at our lodgings for the evening.

Our hostess was very definitely a West of the Bann Protestant lady of a certain age and social standing. When I said I was the Mr. Lynch who’d booked the double room a few hours before, she looked positively alarmed.

“Now, you asked for a double room”, she says, dispensing with any pleasantries, “but it’s really a twin room you want, isn’t it?”

No, I insist, we really do want the double room we’d booked.

“Oh! I see!”, she says. Then there’s a pause. “Now, you know a double room is one with one BIG bed, and a twin room is one with two SMALL beds. It’s the twin room you’ll want, isn’t it?”

I confirm that I am well aware of the difference between a double and a twin room, and that we’ll be wanting the former, as arranged.

“Come upstairs till I show you”, she says.

She’s definitely hyperventilating a bit, and I’m not sure what’s freaking her out more – two blokes in the one bed, or the fact that he’s not only old enough to be my grandfather, he’s actually quite a bit older than my grandfather. I’m torn between telling her to shove her damn room and the practicalities of trying to find another room at 5.45 p.m. when the tourist office and its list of numbers would now be closed (mobile internet, you’ll remember, was still a bit clunky in the countryside in 2008).

Meanwhile, Chris is also hyperventilating at this point, as he clearly finds the situation incredibly amusing. He was always such a quiet, shy, man until he found something too funny and then he would erupt into these three minute bouts of uncontrollable laughter at the volume of a foghorn. And I can tell by the increasing frequency of his titters and snorts that if I don’t resolve this situation quickly, one of those monsters is going to resolve it for all for us.

At the top of the stairs, she gestures left, “Now this is a twin room” she says before gesturing to the right, “and this is a double room. It’s the twin room you want isn’t it?”

“No, we definitely want the double room.” I can feel my speech get more staccato and my äccent änglifying ever so slaightly as my pompous ‘I’m insisting on my rights here’ voice kicks in.

Impasse. There is a brief moment of silence. Chris’ eyes are welling up with tears as he comes perilously close to failing to suppress a giggle. So I continue, “But if it’s a problem…”

And before I can get the words ‘we’ll go elsewhere’ out, she snaps “No, now, you have to be comfortable.” And that was that.

We talk a bit more at breakfast the next day and, here’s the thing, she’s actually really nice. The young woman serving the breakfast tittered a bit as she brought it to us, and it annoyed me, but you learn to swallow a few things if you’re a 30 year old in a gay relationship with an 85 year old. But our hostess, it turned out, was a nice person, just confronting a situation she’d never had to deal with before. Maybe she learned that gays are actually quite nice people too. I hope so.

In the world that Paul Givan’s “Freedom of Conscience” Bill would introduce, the opportunity for that little moment of grace and transformation would not be there. Our hostess would have been quite entitled break our booking, and turn us away with nowhere else to go. It’s an explicitly stated objective of the consultation document Givan produced. And I would never have learned that she was actually really nice: I would have had my prejudices confirmed, indeed amplified. (“Bloody Orange rednecks” I can hear myself shouting.)

I’m not sure how life is better for any of us in that world. If the Givan Bill passed into law, Northern Ireland would still contain exactly the same proportions of LGBT people and conservative Protestants. We’re all still going to have to rub along constructively in the same society.

Of course, there are two huge red herrings lying behind the Bill. Firstly, it’s never going to pass the Assembly. I doubt it will summon even a simple majority, and in in the unlikely event it did, Sinn Féin and the Greens will have already signed a Petition of Concern effectively vetoing it. We all know that. So what’s this about? Simples! It’s an election year, and the DUP are running an ‘evil gays are coming to eat your church’ scare to drum up votes. It’s hardly a new tactic. At least these days they’re only trying to deny us service in hotels and restaurants run by their supporters, rather than trying to have us locked up. I suppose we could call that progress, of a sort.

The second red herring is the Asher’s case. The Bill goes well beyond any of the legitimate questions raised by that case, giving people the grounds to refuse LGBTs service or sell them goods on poorly specified grounds that basically amount to whatever the seller or provider feels like. Don’t want to have queers in your hotel, restaurant or shop? Then the Givan Bill gives you carte blanche to do that, with no legal redress.

The Asher’s case is still to be heard by the tribunals. They may well find against the complainants. My reading of the Sexual Orientation Regulations is that Asher’s didn’t break the law in refusing the cake. I’ve hesitated before saying that publicly, because I like and respect the people who brought the case, and despite the misleading coverage in the Daily Mail, I know this wasn’t a set up. They went to Asher’s because it’s a prominent baker in the city centre not expecting anything other than routine service. It’s a difficult case in a difficult grey area.

In that context, it’s intellectually and politically dishonest to propose an amendment to the law, before the current legal situation is clarified, which rather than dealing with a specific narrow case would batter down the entire structure of legal protection for LGBTs in Northern Ireland (still the most homophobic and transphobic society in Western Europe).

But let’s be clear, the whole nature of this debate shows how homophobic the DUP remains. We’re actually having a discussion whether people should have the freedom to discriminate against Billy and Sean the gay couple.

We’re not discussing whether people should have the freedom to discriminate against Billy and Seanín the mixed marriage, Billy and Shakira the mixed-race couple or Billy and Khadija the interfaith couple. Although many people in Northern Ireland have deep prejudices against all those groups, some allegedly constructed on the basis of Christianity or Scripture, no politician, even in the DUP or TUV, would introduce a Bill to support the right of B & B owners to turn Catholic-Protestant or interfaith couples away. But gays are still fair game for demonisation on the Protestant far right.

Whose Freedom of Expression is curtailed in Northern Ireland? If anyone really thinks Christians are persecuted in Northern Ireland, where the largest political party and the First Minister are overtly fundamentalist Protestant and theocratic, I suggest they try holding a prayer meeting in Tehran or Pyöngyang sometime.

LGBT people’s freedom of expression, in contrast, is extraordinarily conscribed. I wonder how two blokes holding hands would fare dandering through the streets of Ballymena on a Saturday afternoon, or a pre-op transgender male-to-female wearing women’s clothes in a North Coast nightclub?

As I was debating this on Naomi Long’s Facebook page, I was told by Colin Houston (yes, that Colin Houston!) that I wasn’t gay, because there are no gays; I was a male possessed by a demon. Now, at first I laughed uproariously at this, but then I thought about it. This guy is involved in a type of church where his view on the genesis of homosexuality is pretty common. What freedom of expression is there for a 14 year old coming to terms with their sexuality in that sort of environment? The freedom to be exorcised or disowned by their family? Because the latter, certainly, still happens distressingly often.

In any debate like this in Northern Ireland, the Bible is quoted with gay abandon (pun initially unintentional, believe it or not). So, I’ll leave the last word to Rabbi Yeshua bar Yosef, as reported by St. Luke and translated by the Second Oxford Company appointed by King James I of England: “And as ye would that men should do to you, do ye also to them likewise.”

I suggest none of you would want to turn up to a B&B at 5.45 pm and be told that if you and your spouses wanted the double bed you’d ordered, you could go elsewhere.

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