Marriage Equality - An Empathetic Response

Political Context

> Northern Ireland has been without a devolved government since the Stormont Assembly collapsed in January 2017

> Since June ’17 the Conservative Party have governed in Westminster (England) in coalition with the DUP (N.Ireland’s largest party)

> July ’19 - MPs in Westminster have voted to permit same-sex marriage in Northern Ireland by a margin of 383 votes to 73 because the Stormont Assembly is still not functioning.

> Unless the Assembly is running by Oct 21st ’19 this will be implemented.

My disclaimers

> I am straight. I am attracted to girls and always have been. Therefore I have no idea of the difficulty that LGBT people have experienced here in Northern Ireland or elsewhere. The only insights I have are those that have been shared with me.

> I grew up in a Protestant, conservative community. That is my background.

> Like most of my peers in school I used words such as “gay” flippantly. I was wrong. I apologise for that. I wish I had known then what I know now.

> My views do not reflect the LGBT community or Protestants or Catholics or Christians or anyone at all actually. They are mine.

> I know many kind, tolerant and empathetic members of the LGBT community.

> I know many kind, tolerant and empathetic members of the ‘Christian’ community. I use that term in the broader sense.

> I personally disapprove of hate speech regardless of who it comes from and to whom it is directed.

> I will reference abusive comments made by Christians. These are not reflective of all Christians.

> I will reference abusive comments made by members of the LGBT community. These are not reflective of all LGBT people.

> This post is not advocating any particular view, religion or persuasion over another. Should you wish to know my views, I am easily contactable.

> If you read this article carefully and follow my arguments you will see that this blog is in essence all about empathy. Not marriage, LGBT, Christianity etc. But EMPATHY.

My Limitations

I am one person. I would never assume that I can have a wide reaching impact in a country like Northern Ireland. Many people have passionate views. For some those views span generations and it is all they have ever known or believed. For some, they have been hurt badly at the hands of other people and that will naturally have a major impact on the way they engage with this debate.

I cannot change anyone. Nor would I want to or even try. I am simply trying to encourage people to consider how they will engage in this debate and the language they will use. In my opinion personal attacks undermine the validity of any argument. A person will have more respect from me (and I think others) if they can articulate their position without insulting the person on the other side of the debate.

Looking for trouble?

Most of you reading this will be from Northern Ireland so you will understand the delicacy of this issue in ‘our wee country.’ For those reading from other countries a quick Google search of “Gay Marriage, Northern Ireland” will give you a flavour of the intensity of this issue.

I have been accused of looking for trouble with this blog or of writing outside my remit. A good friend has warned me of the backlash I will probably receive. There’s a decent chance it will hinder a project I want to work on in future. The easier thing would be not to write it. The easier thing would be to remove Facebook posts. But you see as I will go on to explain, my conscience will not allow me to do that.

My Inspiration

There are many different reasons why I want to write this blog. Let me however, share the main one.

A while ago, I was talking to a good friend of mine. This friend grew up in a Conservative Christian context. As he got older he began to feel attraction towards members of the same sex. Obviously as a Christian this became a point of tension in his own life. But beyond the massive question of “Does my Faith allow me to be gay” there was something that had a greater impact.

All his life he had been told that gays are disgusting. That they should be avoided. He should never even befriend them. He told me that a member of his family described them as a ‘plague on society.’

What do you think happened? A male who grew up in that context and who began to feel attraction towards the same sex. What do you think happened?

Self - Harm happened. Depression happened. A suicide attempt happened. His family still don’t know. He is still wrestling daily. Aside from me and one other person he has not had a non-judgemental ear in his life. Someone who will just let him express exactly what he is feeling.

Now I’m not gay. Nor have I grown up in a family like that. Yet I have given him the space to just share exactly where he is and exactly what he is feeling. I’m not special for doing that. Shouldn’t that just be the norm? We all know it’s not – especially in this country.

I don’t want more people to be made to feel the way my friend did because of extreme, hurtful language being pedalled by other people. If you undermine the validity of a person and what they feel it has the potential to destroy their mental health. There are people in this country with blood on their hands for that very reason.

Why write now?

The political situation has changed during this past week. The vote in Westminster on extending marriage equality to Northern Ireland has brought this issue into even sharper focus. I expect the debates to intensify in coming weeks and months. A quick scan of social media shows this is already beginning.

I’m all for debate. I like listening to others share their opinions and articulate their views – whether they differ from me or not. I can have healthy debates with people without having to resort to personal slurs or insults. I don’t have to dehumanize someone just because I don’t agree with them. I can argue passionately, I can state my case yet I can shake their hand and maintain a friendship.

Sensitive debates like this one tend to shift quite quickly to insulting language. While you can perhaps understand this because of the emotion on either side, surely it can’t be justified?

Members on both sides are guilty

In reading the article up to this point, I would hope you would have acknowledged that I am not advocating one side over the other. This isn’t the point of the blog. If you feel I am supporting one agenda over another then I would suggest you have misunderstood my purpose and vision.

Below I will give two examples. These examples are not necassirily the most extreme examples. The reason I cite them however is because they have both happened in the last ten days and I have been involved in them both personally. No doubt many of you will have more extreme examples. That’s fine – not a competition.

An unempathetic Christian

Last Friday Night an elected representative wrote a tongue in cheek post on Facebook alluding to the absence of both GAA shirts and Pride Flags at the local Twelfth celebrations. I personally thought that wasn’t necessary and rather pointless. But hey ho… tis his right.

What really irked me however were some of the comments that followed. Unsurprisingly the issue of equal marriage is a hot topic in Northern Ireland. Yet comments such as “Yay, no fag flags… happy days” are quite frankly wrong.

The ‘fag flag’ comment pricked my interested. I clicked on the profile of the one who made it. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. There were videos of him preaching and his bio referenced a passage from 1st Thessalonians. When challenged about his “fag flag” comment his response was “You’re so old. Stop being a tout.”

This young man is perfectly entitled to his views in my opinion. He is also entitled to express them in an articulate way in my opinion. But are comments like this ok? In my opinion, No! They are derogatory and completely counter the saviour that he represents in his Facebook Bio.

I am not for one second suggesting that his views and his comments represent the majority of Christians. I know many kind, empathetic Christians who even though they don’t necessarily support the motion for equal marriage, they would never make harmful comments such as this.

An unempathetic LGBT member

Over a week ago I was chatting with a lesbian girl. Somehow the conversation came around to a local Christian. I know this Christian, I consider them a friend and I know them to be incredibly kind and non – judgemental. The girl said to me, “I bet he’s another one of those bigoted *ank*ers. Taken aback I asked, “why do you think that?” “Because all Christians hate gays.” she said.

We had a healthy discussion which thankfully we had the time and space to do. She explained to me that it was the comments of one local priest 13 years ago that had shaped her entire view on Christianity. That is the power of such comments.

Whilst the conversation gave me more understanding into why she felt the way she did. I was still honest and said “That’s just not true, I honestly think you are wrong.”

Twitter tirades and abusive comments made in passing unfortunately do not allow for the same types of healthy discussion.

All Christians do not hate gays. I know that for a fact. But comments such as “all Christians hate gays” have the potential to affect those who are perhaps not so well informed.

A Final Thought

There are bigots out there. There are narrow minded people. There are people who will just say what they think and *uc* the consequences. Some of these people are Protestants. Some of them are Catholics. Some of them are gay. Some of them are anti – gay. Some call themselves Christians while some of them detest religion in all forms.

Over the coming weeks and months this debate will be in the news, in social media and in your work canteen. You will hear extreme comments from both sides.

If you take one thing from this article may it be the importance of empathy. Being kind and listening to the opinion of someone else is not you surrendering your beliefs. If anything it shows a greater confidence in what you believe because you’re willing to engage with others. You’re willing to hear where other people are at without feeling insecure in yourself.

Personal insults undermine the validity of your own argument and are actually counterproductive to your cause – whatever side of this debate you happen to fall upon.

Please choose kindness


This article was by no means comprehensive. There are many things I haven't discussed and many of you will be able to suggest many things I "could have" or "should have" said. Many of you would have written many different things. And nothing is stopping your writing your own article.

I am just thankful that you have read it. I truly hope that you could take something from it regardless of what side of the debate you fall on.

I am more than willing to engage with anyone about any aspects of anything I have written.

The best place to reach me would be Facebook Messenger

Or by Email

By all means make public comment if you wish, but my responses will be in private.

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Darren Shields

Healing through Honesty

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