The celebration of the first same-sex marriage in the North might lull you into the false belief that we are now living in a fully tolerant society that allows people to be who they are, but change does not come fully formed, writes.
I’ve been listening to journalist Lyra McKee over the last week. That’s one of the disconcerting realities of modern technology. You can, at the click of a button, see and hear a brave, funny, incisive woman stand up and speak her truth in the very same week that a man was arrested for her murder in April 2019.
If it was strangely heartening to replay her wonderful 12-minute Ted Talk, it was also unspeakably sad to hear her recount what the LGBTQ community tells young people: “We have a saying. We tell them that it gets better… it gets better for those of us who live long enough to see it get better.”
The poignancy of those words is almost unbearable given the events of the last two weeks; the first same-sex marriage in the North took place the day before four men were held in connection with Lyra McKee’s murder on April 18, 2019. Some newspapers even carried the two stories side by side.
Lyra was planning to marry her partner, Sara Canning, when she but was shot dead by dissident republicans as she watched rioting in ‘LegenDerry’ as she called it (“I avoid that Londonderry-Derry thing, I hate that,” she used to say).
Her death and her partner’s forthright words to politicians of all stripes at her funeral bolstered a more widespread desire for social and political change in the North.
It is simply heartbreaking that Lyra is not here to see the photographs of Robyn Peoples and Sharni Edwards on their wedding day in Carrickfergus, Co Antrim.
The couple said they didn’t set out to make history, they simply fell in love. But they did make history. And what history. Ahead of the ceremony, Robyn said she and her wife were sending a message to the world to say that their love was equal to the love between a man and a woman.
“Our love is personal, but the law which said we couldn’t marry was political,” she said.
Sometimes, as in this happy case, the personal wins out over the political. Though, it is worth recalling, it was a political failure, rather than a political decision, that led to this human rights success. Last October, the DUP, and some other unionists, recalled the Northern Assembly in an attempt to block the introduction of same-sex marriage and abortion laws.
That was the issue that brought them back to the table after an absence of more than 1,000 days. Not the fallout from Brexit. Not the impact of political stalemate on health or education. Not even the murder of a talented young journalist.
When all parties failed to restore devolved power-sharing, marriage equality became law in the North in line with the rest of the UK.
It does get better, as Lyra McKee said. And there are some very encouraging signs that change is indeed dropping slowly all around us.
Earlier this month, there was a huge outpouring of support for TV presenter Phillip Schofield — and his family — when he announced he was gay on Instagram and later on This Morning, where he was interviewed by his co-presenter,star Holly Willoughby.
He has been on holidays but this week he went back on social media to post this: “I may not have been posting, but I’ve been reading your incredible messages of support. You have taken #bekind to the best level on here.”
His wife Stephanie also spoke to the press. Here are her incredible words: “Although this is difficult for us all, I support Phillip in taking this brave step and I will still be there, holding his hand. Everyone should be proud to live their own truth.”
Closer to home — and on a much lighter note — it’s interesting to see that what has caused controversy in Dancing with the Stars on RTÉ was a dancing priest, Fr Ray Kelly, and not the fact that now-eliminated contestant Brian Dowling danced a wonderful quickstep with another man, professional dancer Kai Widdrington.
Given what’s been happening, you might be lulled into the belief that we are now living in a tolerant, open society that does indeed allow people to be who they are.
If only that were so. Unfortunately, change does not come totally formed, as Gavin McCrea, writer-in-residence at University of Limerick, eloquently put it in an article describing how his nose and cheekbone were broken when he was set upon in a homophobic attack by some a group of 12- to 14-year-olds in Dublin earlier this month.
Change, he wrote, is often partial and contested. It breaks out in pockets and networks and little islands.
And, much as we like to congratulate ourselves for voting so strongly in favour of marriage equality in the 2015 referendum, we have to face the fact that homophobia is alive and well, not only among our voters, but our future voters.
Campaigners in that referendum will tell you that they were heartened by the reception they got on many of the doorsteps, but deeply rocked by the naked bigotry they encountered on others. Yes, it was wonderful that 62% voted to allow people to be who they are, but 38% voted against. That 38% Thirty-eight per cent is not nothing.
I’m not, for a moment, suggesting that all no voters condone violence, but did their refusal to accept marriage equality somehow morph into a twisted message to a group of 12 to 14-year-old youths that it was OK to seek out perceived difference and use it as a reason to commit violence on another human being? If not, where are those messages coming from? And, more importantly, what can we do about it?
Well, we can start by calling it out, as Gavin McCrea has done. And, we can take Lyra McKee’s advice; start to have the difficult, uncomfortable conversations that can change minds — and save lives. The late journalist had studied the question and found that extremists who had changed their views often did so because of a conversation.
It is high time we started having those thorny conversations.