Defending Equality – Promoting Compassion

Conor Houston is a lawyer, influencer, strategist and active citizen. Drawing on his personal experience, he calls upon all in our society to act compassionately in the debate on civil marriage equality.

Conor HoustonI am 32 years of age. I have spent my life revolting against labels, but on this occasion, I will allow myself to be so.

I am gay.

Was I born gay? Yes. I can’t prove it. But I can’t prove I was born ‘straight’ either. As I grew up there was always something within myself that said “I’m different.” But I understood from a young age that this was not a difference that should be celebrated. It was my secret and one I prayed, and begged would go away. As a teenager I convinced myself I would “grow out of it”.

I was brought up in a loving, beautiful family. I still am. I am a son, brother, uncle, nephew, cousin & friend. Our family is founded in the love of my parents – a marriage of almost 35 years. My brother and sister are my best friends. My nephew at 7 weeks old is my new world.

My family are an essential part of me – intrinsic to my very self.

I was 17 when I first “came out” to myself. I looked in the mirror and trembling with fear I finally admitted “I’m gay”. I can still see the terrified boy looking at me when I see my reflection. He was so unsure, so terrified, so filled with self hatred.

I told my close friends I was gay. They all reacted with nothing but compassion and understanding. My best friend told me that in order to love myself and to free myself from the fear consuming me, I should tell my parents. I could think of nothing worse.

How could I disappoint them? How could I let them down? What would they say? Would they throw me out? Would they ever speak to me again? Would they hate me? Should I just kill myself and save everyone from the horror of my evil way?

The darkness was such that these were perfectly rational questions. It is hard to remember how all consuming the issue was to me and how desperately alone I felt.

But with the encouragement and support of my friends, one random evening after school – the 17th January 2001 to be exact, I sat my parents down, I trembled, I cried and I told them “mum, dad… I’m gay.”

They did what my parents had always done – they reacted with utter compassion and love. They hugged me, they supported me, they protected me and to this day have ensured I am a valued and loved part of our incredible family.

Once I told them, I never looked back. That isn’t to say, the journey was over. In fact, it had just begun.

Did my society hate me? Many times it felt that it did. Never underestimate the power of words when people are vulnerable. When I sought compassion and understanding, I was met with words such as “sinful”, “evil”, “sick”, “repulsive”… These are not just words, they are designed to have an effect. And at times this caused so much anger towards those who preached, spoke, tolerated those words.

I have been extremely fortunate. I gained an education. I travelled and I became professionally qualified as a lawyer. As a lawyer I represented thousands of people across this island. This included many people who had views utterly opposed to mine or who had committed offences which offended my very conscience. It was not my duty to judge. I did my duty as a lawyer – I defended people’s right to a fair hearing, no matter how unpalatable their cause or defence may have seemed. I ensured they had a voice. I put aside my own feelings, prejudices and views to ensure justice and the rule of law were upheld without fear or favour.

My journey has got easier. I have witnessed huge social and cultural change. There is no longer discussion of any merit as to whether homosexuality should be criminalised or whether gay pride marches should be banned. We’ve come a long way. All too often, we can think things don’t change, but when I compare the society of my teenage years to today it is almost unrecognisable in so many ways. However, I am concerned that our society still allows young people to ask the dark questions I asked myself. We’ve still some way to go before we arrive on ‘the right side of history.’

Just as our society has evolved, so did my understanding and acceptance of my sexuality. I accept that when I first came out, civil marriage equality wasn’t on any agenda. I have been on a journey of acceptance and understand that this society is too.

In May this year, I witnessed an incredible moment in this history of this island, when the Republic of Ireland voted in the referendum on civil marriage equality. It was a beacon of pioneering and positive hope to the world. It was a defining moment in the history of Ireland – a social revolution. Families voted together, people travelled home to vote, personal stories were courageously told. Most importantly, the debate was dignified & compassionate.

The word compassion is key.

I understand and have felt myself the hurt, isolation and the pain caused to many in the LGBTQ community in Northern Ireland. But when I see the vitriolic language by those in favour of civil marriage equality directed at those who oppose it, I wonder where their compassion, liberalism, humanity and love are?

And for those who oppose civil marriage equality – which is not religious marriage equality – on the basis of “religious belief” – I challenge where their fundamental beliefs of compassion, understanding and love are?

This is not about “us” and “them” and anyone who enters into this debate is only causing hurt to themselves and to each other.

This is about us ‘all’ – the society in which we all live and exist. The society in which we are not a label, but a beautiful and valued member of the community. Let us treat each other with the dignity and compassion we each deserve.

We can all surely agree we want to live in a place at peace with itself, a place where love blossoms?

So if that be the vision, how do we achieve it?

I am quite certain that shouting, insulting, accusing, mistrusting, judging, stereotyping and hating by anyone will not assist.

Compassion must be the new starting point.

I fundamentally disagree with those who do not accept that civil marriage equality is a right for all. But I fundamentally disagree that anyone should be forced to accept a position to which their conscience will not permit.

This is why I am a democrat. It’s why I became a lawyer and defended the rule of law.

Let me be clear, civil marriage is a right that our society recognises to celebrate the legal union of love and commitment between two consenting adults. The state must ensure that a right is bestowed on each and every citizen. The right of civil marriage is not currently offered to all citizens. This offends the principle of equality which is ensuring all our citizens are treated equally before law. Equality is the cornerstone upon which human rights and the rule of law flourish. Democracy values everyone even when the majority does not.

This is the backdrop against which the current Bill presented to the NI Assembly to legalise civil marriage equality must be viewed. I have a concern that the real issues and compassion on all sides may be lacking and this does not lead to proper, informed discussion of a matter that means a great deal to many people.

However, the Bill is now before the Assembly. A petition of concern is to be tabled and this effectively determines its fate. I would contend that the purpose and spirit of the petition of concern was to ensure that equality was upheld, not to deny protection and equality of law to a minority.

This was also at the very heart of our Good Friday & St Andrew’s Agreements – to share power for the greater good, to enshrine equality and to protect the minority from the will of the majority. The very institutions of our state are been used to deny equality to our LGBTQ community.

This issue does in a very real way impact on our LGBTQ community. I’ve never liked the boxing of any group as it can enforce notions of “different” and “other”. The “LGBTQ” are not a separate community. We teach your children, we treat you when you’re sick, we defend you in court, we care for your parents, we serve our community, we live in your street, in your families, in your homes and in the hearts of those who love us.

In fact, civil marriage equality is not about the LGBTQ community.

It is about us all.

It is about the kind of society we want to live in. It is about the future we want to give to our children. And it is not about waiting or saying it will “eventually happen”.

Our future is here. It is our present. Our children are here and they want to be treasured. We need a place right now which says to all our children “this society loves you no matter who you are”. We need to say to our children that it’s ok to love, to hope and to dream. We must ensure that each child is afforded every opportunity to realise their potential.

There’s nothing wrong with our gay children. They don’t deserve to ask the questions I asked of myself and to endure self-hatred, pain and shame.

You see, this isn’t just about civil marriage, this is about validation and love.

So let us act courageously and compassionately and say to all our children that our society will celebrate and love you for all that you are.

This is why civil marriage equality matters.

So let us not think of ourselves. Let us show compassion. But most of all, let us proudly say, we let love win.

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