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22 June 2015

Two very different sides of the sexual equality debate

Jeff Dudgeon at the City Hall in Belfast

Those of you who worry about the speed of social change and feel bullied by those who dismiss you as dinosaurs, homophobes and so on, might take some comfort from recent words from two gay men. Benjamin Butterworth and Jeffrey Dudgeon are both campaigners for sexual equality, but both believe opponents have a right to be heard.

Butterworth is a young, Left-wing Londoner, who writes mainly on gay issues, but who was horrified to hear that Ukip's LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) wing had been banned from next Saturday's London Gay Pride parade. "People fighting to reform Ukip from the inside," he said, "are much-needed friends of Pride, not foes."

In his view, the organisers had "managed the unthinkable: to be more narrow-minded and ignorant than a party that exists to serve that very purpose". Who was next, he wondered. Gay Catholics or lesbian Muslims?

He reminded his readers that what the equal rights movement had wanted was simply to be included, equal and have a clear voice: they had been so successful that the UK is now Europe's most gay-friendly nation.

"Yet," he went on, "the modern gay community - equal in law and thereabouts in culture - has turned in on itself.

"It brandishes the attitudes and outlooks that once-upon-a-time it would define itself against. Looking like an inward, aggressive group of judgmental trolls."

Those of you who don't use social media are mercifully spared the trolls, but I can assure you there is no shortage of gays among those flinging abuse at total strangers who don't agree with their liberal opinions.

I had a quick look at a few random comments (if you read too many of them you'd go away and drown yourself) and offer you this choice example: "Just because you don't have the sense to realise that Ukip are fascists who would exterminate you all (even the Ukip-voting LGBT people - Google "night of the long knives") given any real power doesn't mean that everyone else hasn't picked up on this by now."

It reminded me of the paranoid raving of some of my critics who tell me I'm too stupid to grasp that the Orange Order are the same as the Ku Klux Klan.

It is not. And Ukip is not fascists. Which doesn't mean that, like most organisations, including gay ones, they have their crazies.

Butterworth pointed out that, in the UK, gay campaigners were successful because they had reached out to others, including Tories.

He would, I imagine, regard Jeffrey Dudgeon, a UUP Belfast city councillor, as a hero. And he'd be right.

I've known Jeff for years and have always admired how he fought bigotry without bitterness.

It was mostly his patient work that led to the decriminalisation of homosexuality in Northern Ireland in 1982 after he took a case to the European Court of Human Rights.

He made a speech recently in the council apropos demands to legalise gay marriage immediately, pointing out wryly that this was being pushed by people who had never helped in the struggle for decriminalisation, including Sinn Fein, "who were not supportive of law reform when it was unpopular".

He was, he said, "nervous of opponents getting demonised for opposing something that was common currency a few short years ago".

While he had no respect for those who wanted to reverse reforms, "I have respect for those I know who cannot support this motion, either because of theological beliefs, or simply traditional views".

In Jeff's view - and he knows better than most - change had come about because gay people came out, "and the world realised we were not what they were led to expect. That then became a geometric process. Everybody had a gay person in their family, or one amongst their friends."

He had been selected and elected in South Belfast as an openly gay man, "and have been treated with respect and courtesy by all the other members. This has warmed my heart like little else".

It is people like Jeff who change hearts as well as minds and people like Benjamin Butterworth who rein in the worst of their own community.

I hope LGBT activists are paying attention to these two wise men.

Ruth Dudley Edwards

© Ruth Dudley Edwards