The last few nights have seen protests in London at the Russian Embassy and around the country because of the 100 detainees. Norwich held its protest with around 50-60 attendees last night on the City Hall steps. The supporters were addressed by Norwich Pride’s Nick O’Brien, Labour MP Clive Lewis, Green’s Lesley Grahame, Katy Jon Went, Julie Bremner, Andy Futter, and Di Cunningham. (Gallery here)
We can keep the victims in the media eye, gain diplomatic and human rights traction by our voices, standing up for those who’ve lost their liberty because of their sexuality. This is poignant coming, as it does, on the 50th anniversary of the decriminalisation of homosexuality in the UK.
Sadly, over 70 nations worldwide still criminalise homosexuality and male on male sex which includes bisexuality, so let’s not forget that those imprisoned and beaten, even killed, may include gay and bi men, and trans – anyone who is an affront to the macho traditional image of Mother Russia and the two major religions in its regions, the Russian Orthodox Church and Islam.
Chechnya: Men detained for being perceived to be gay must be immediately released & their abuse/persecution ended https://t.co/DbbnIVQbSf
One victim described how Interior Ministry SOBR police officers:
“stripped me naked. One filmed me on his telephone. Three of them beat me. They kicked me, broke my jaw. They said that this is a gay and that there shouldn’t be defects like this in Chechnya.”
Rounding up the “defects”, the “abnormal”, speaks of sexuality eugenics and group genocide.
These are not just rumours, the Guardian spoke to two victims who were “subjected to torture on a daily basis” and activists report this is happening in multiple towns across the region. Helplines have been set up to help LGBT people leave the country and journalists who have reported on it are also fearing for their lives after threats and considering that the rare independent voice of Novaya Gazeta has had several of its staff murdered.
We have no Gays!
Denial that is happening is part and parcel of how this kind of abuse works. Spokesman, Alvi Karimov, for Chechnya’s leader, Ramzan Kadyrov described the Novaya Gazeta report as “absolute lies and disinformation”, saying also that there were no gay people in Chechnya:
“You cannot detain and persecute people who simply do not exist in the republic. If there were such people in Chechnya, the law-enforcement organs wouldn’t need to have anything to do with them because their relatives would send them somewhere from which there is no returning.”
According to the Guardian, Chechen television is reporting that thousands gathered at Grozny’s central mosque to pass a resolution against the “lies and libel” in the Novaya Gazeta stories – “chiefly for suggesting there are gay men in Chechnya”!
“The centuries-old traditions of Chechen society, the dignity of Chechen men, and our faith have all been insulted, and we promise that those behind it will face reprisals, whoever they are and wherever they are.” – Chechen Resolution
Why forget and erase the history of your own great LGBT+ persons?
From Tchaikovsky and Mussorgsky, probably Stravinsky, the son of Rimsky Korsakov, Gogol, numerous artists, dancers like Nijinsky and Nureyev, to Ivan the Terrible with 7 straight marriages but a preference for cross-dressed men. Not to mention dozens of counts and princes of Russia’s past who were bisexual, open or closeted gay Russians.
Legal Prohibition of Homosexuality
Apart from religious condemnation of homosexuality in orthodox Christianity and Islam, I’ve encountered a secular Russian traditionalism that also condemns being LGBT on the basis that it destroys the family, the national image, and is just plain “abnormal”.
In June 2013, Russia brought in a law banning the “propaganda of homosexuality among minors”, not unlike the UK’s Section 28, but given the street-based homophobia much more dangerous. Section 28 of the 1988 Local Government Act stated that councils should not “intentionally promote homosexuality or publish material with the intention of promoting homosexuality”.
Homosexuality “in private” was decriminalised in Russia in 1993, but plenty of discrimination and prejudice remains. Actually, it was decriminalised in 1917 but re-criminalised in 1933. That’s a stark reminder that equality rights won can be lost again, just look at India and Uganda too. Russia is at least 25 years behind the UK on LGBT rights.
The law banning spreading “non-traditional” sexual propaganda to minors is so loosely worded that almost anything could be seen as illegal. Locals say they fear even holding hands or kissing in public for the risk of attracting a £100 fine or worse. Prides in Moscow (2006-2011) have been beset by homophobic violence and since 2012 banned for 100 years by Moscow courts.
Russia’s second-largest and hitherto most open city, St Petersburg, has seen a deterioration with city council members since 2012 pushing Putin to harder lines on LGBT freedoms. Marked homophobia and transphobia worsened in 2016 with LGBT persons and their supporters being hounded out of their jobs, attacked in the street, and denied civil freedoms.
Vladimir Putin, himself, has linked homosexuality to paedophilia and stated strongly that Russia needs to “cleanse” itself of gays if it wants to increase its birth rate. The tagging of population growth on the end of that statement in no way minimises the echoes of a homosexual holocaust that was part of Hitler’s ‘Final Solution’ in “cleansing” 1930s Nazi Germany of Jews, homosexuals, the disabled, and non-conformists, alike.
Chechen Laws and Attitudes
Chechnya, in 1997, implemented Article 148 of the Criminal Code punishing “anal sexual intercourse between a man and a woman or a man and a man”. The punishment was caning but upon a third conviction, the death penalty by shooting, stoning or beheading. Since 1996 and repeatedly reaffirmed, Russia under pressure from the Council of Europe has had a moratorium on the death penalty despite a persistent majority of the population wanting its reinstatement. The death penalty thus remains on the books but not enacted since 1996.
In 2011, the Chechen president, Ramzan Kadyrov, is quoted as saying:
“I have the right to criticise my wife. She doesn’t. With us [in Chechen society], a wife is a housewife. A woman should know her place. A woman should give her love to us [men]… She would be [man’s] property. And the man is the owner. Here, if a woman does not behave properly, her husband, father, and brother are responsible. According to our tradition, if a woman fools around, her family members kill her… That’s how it happens, a brother kills his sister or a husband kills his wife… As a president, I cannot allow for them to kill. So, let women not wear shorts…”
With these kinds of archaic gender stereotype attitudes is it any wonder that LGBT people are ostracised, given up, locked up, with little internal national complaint?
Freedom House included Chechnya in the “Worst of the Worst” list (2009) of most repressive societies in the world, together with Burma, North Korea, Tibet.
Toxic intolerance of Homosexuality
From the Russian Orthodox Church to Conservative Islam and extremist Islamism, religion, tradition and ideology are involved in the toxic intolerance of homosexuality in Russia and Chechnya.
We must support open-minded inclusive faith and practice, but not the closed-minded homophobia of secular and religious pronouncements and laws.
2016 is racing to lay claim to as many great names as possible, Zsa Zsa Gabor, who died yesterday, had a great 99-year 9-marriage innings, and Rabbi Lionel Blue at 86 has just downed his pen and mic. He fell in love with Judaism, Marxism and even Christianity, but will be remembered for his love of life and for being the first British rabbi to admit to his love of men. The grandson of Jewish Russian immigrants he grew up in the East End of London during the racism and hatred of Oswald Mosley and Adolf Hitler.
One of his several autobiographical books was titled “Hitchhiking to Heaven” and with grace and good humour he’s finally arrived there, if and wherever that is. A question he himself asked having explored doubt and faiths extensively in life. Another book of his was entitled “My Affair with Christianity“. It was not his only flirtation with other beliefs and ideologies, and his home testified to many stops along the journey in Hinduism, Islam and more.
“I began to discover that heaven was my true home and also that it was here and now, woven into this life.”
Judaism and Homosexuality
When he came out as gay, people were more interested in the affairs of his heart, not his soul. He’d been open about his homosexuality since the late 1960s and many knew about his private life through the 1970s, but it was in 1980 that he officially confirmed it, so becoming the UK’s first openly gay rabbi. He did so partly out of shame at not having supported a troubled gay contact of the manager of the sauna he frequented, nor having attended her funeral, for fear of a spilling over between his spiritual and sexual, sacred and secular, separated lives.
Of Judaism’s attitude to homosexuality, Rabbi Blue said in a 2004 interview:
”Well, the Orthodox Jewish tradition used to regard homosexuality as a terrible sin, but now it’s looked on as a sickness. Progressive Jews, though, accept it as a reality in varying degrees and most try to find a blessing ceremony for couples which is inclusive.”
So, has he never been threatened with excommunication? ”No. But for 15 years I ran the religious court for the Synagogues of Great Britain which meant that I would have to be part of any excommunication machinery, and I’ve never been so masochistic as to excommunicate myself.” – Sunday Herald, 2004
As a student at Oxford, his hidden homosexuality had led to loneliness, depression, and a suicide attempt. Possible refuge in Christianity had led to his mother threatening to do the same!
“‘Lionel, you’re doing this to spite us. I’ll kill myself and your father will kill himself too.’ I realised that I wasn’t quite up for murdering my mother and father, so I backed out.” – Independent
Later, he’d visited Amsterdam and found sexual freedom there, but it was his third faithful relationship with Jim, a former undertaker, that became his longest lasting of over 30 years until his death in 2014.
He combined the sacred and the secular, with a pan-spiritual, homosexually inclusive, here-and-now society, syncretic faith that in a way, he once said, was his own made up religion. Indeed, he irreverently addressed his God or guardian angel as “Fred”.
Thought for the Day
Described by Radio 4’s presenters and book reviewers alike as “engagingly meandering”, Blue was down to earth in his search for heaven and happiness. On the introduction of same-sex marriage debate in 2012 the leader of Scotland’s Roman Catholics, Cardinal Keith O’Brien, described it as “grotesque” and immoral on Radio 4, even akin to slavery. Rabbi Blue had the ‘Thought for the Day’ slot not long after and used it to poke gentle fun at heterosexual marriage as “mixed marriage”! On Twitter, he was regarded as having disarmed the Cardinal’s comments and having countered “bigotry with a gentle dignity that you just can’t beat”.
On another ‘Thought for the Day’ he spoke to students about success and failure, stress and faith:
“I remember asking a God I didn’t quite believe in to turn my failure into goodness. To my surprise my worldly failure opened a spiritual door in me. It’s when you lose your footing in life and your false pride goes down the drain that you learn mercy and compassion and what it’s like at the wrong end of the stick. My advice to my students and you dear listeners is Make friends with your failures – they may be the best teachers you’ve got.”
“I had the mother of breakdowns in my second year. Being gay was criminal so I rejected my body, and as a Marxist I no longer believed in my soul. So my mind had to bear life’s burden alone and it cracked. I even toyed with religion, asking a friendly prior what I needed to become a monk and forsake the world. A low sex drive he said frankly and another fantasy hit the dust.” – BBC Radio 4, Thought for the Day, 6 June 2011
Fears for the Future
Despite growing up in the 1930s and witnessing anti-Semitism, he remained hopeful, and yet “frightened”, of what he saw as recent echoes of those times now.
“I see the same signs that accompanied the end of the Weimar republic and the rise of the dictators. Currencies in trouble. Swastikas at football matches. Massacre at Srebrenica. The search for scapegoats, the rise of media demagoguery. Loving ourselves but not our neighbours as ourselves. The endemic problems of European tribalism, economic and spiritual. Heaven and hell are very close, and the devil is in the detail.” – BBC Radio 4, ‘Thought for the Day’, 10 June 2012
He finished that particular ‘Thought for the Day’ with a joke and a “foody spiritual note” with a misquoted saying from Lao Tzu:
“Govern a state as you would make an omelette, with care.”
The Chinese Taoist philosopher actually referenced a “small fish“, but the point is well made, and perhaps enhanced by Blue’s updated version.
Humour and Scripture
Having once taught classes on humour in the Hebrew Bible I know full well how much satire, sarcasm, innuendo, and punning, there is in Jewish scripture. Blue saw humour as a way to counter economic and personal depression. In a 2010 interview he told the Jewish Chronicle:
“Humour is the unofficial scripture of Jewish life. It takes away the anger and bitterness and replaces it with kindness and charity. That was the scripture my audience could accept”
He joked about death as brushes with mortality, and he had a fair number of those from suicide, to two cancers, and a couple of heart attacks. He described himself in old age as “crumbling nicely”.
“God comes closest to me in the comedy and tragedy of human life.” – Independent
He will be best remembered for his gentle honesty and genial humour.
Monday evening, just as the heavy rains stopped, 200 people – LGBT and allies, gathered on the steps of Norwich City Hall, to stand with the 100 fallen, killed or maimed in a hail of hate and bullets at Pulse, Orlando. The Vigil against hate was organised by Norwich Pride and featured speakers: Katy Jon Went, Julie Inns for Norfolk Police and the Chair of Norwich Pride, Andy Futter.
Norwich again shows its support for diversity and freedom of expression, as it did with its Charlie Hebdo vigil, demonstrations against the EDL and many more political but peaceful assemblies. The Norwich vigil was marked by a minute’s silence and the lighting of candles on the steps of City Hall. [See below for the texts of the speeches or photos of the event]
Norfolk local and LGBT poet laureate, Trudy Howson, at the Soho event, told Sky News:
“It is very important to show solidarity … we’re all part of the same community and it’s very important that we show love and solidarity. We’ve all been victims at some point of homophobia – we need to stand up to hate and evil and fight for respect.”
One woman held up a sign that said Every Life Matters: “Queer, Black, Muslim, Latino.” Next to me in the crowd a white man in his forties held a sign that said “I’m Gay And Religious – Get Over It.” Squeezed in beside him was a young man in a taqiyah, standing with a girl. “My friend is Muslim,” said the girl.
The London event took place outside the Admiral Duncan pub on Old Compton Street, Soho, where three people were killed and many injured in a nail bomb attack in 1999, just showing that homophobic terrorism need not be of religious origin. The perpetrator, David Copeland, was a far right BNP neo-Nazi extremist who targeted diverse communities in Black, Bangladeshi and gay areas of London in three bomb attacks. He was known to have mental health conditions including paranoid schizophrenia but insufficient, perhaps due to the public outcry, to warrant diminished responsibility as a defence plea.
Orlando Massacre explanations aplenty
As family, media, and commentators explore the reasons for Omar Mateen‘s mass killing spree, families and lovers mourn their dead, who no amount of analysis can bring back. It has been said that Mateen was bipolar, was a wife-beater, had joined several Islamist extremist groups including ISIS (at the last minute). His father says that Omar had recently witnessed two men kissing and had been disgusted by it.
The most recent reports suggest that he’s actually patronised the club and been drinking there – hardly very devout Muslim behaviour, indeed many said he was barely religious at all. Apparently, he’d also been seen on gay dating sites, so the possibility of internalised homophobia, self-hate, and sexuality identity repression seem very strong motives, with the tacking on of Islamic State, more of an afterthought seeking some kind of redemption and forgiveness in the afterlife for his, considered sinful by his faith background, sexuality.
Muslims, Gun Control and the Blame Game
Scapegoating and stereotyping have hit the headlines, making it all about IS or immigrants, religion or lack of gun laws. Some on social media have perpetuated the hate and homophobia by rejoicing in the slaying of sinners – sick! Yes, the US right to bear arms and easy access to not just a pistol or shooting rifle but an automatic weapon are accountable – but not solely responsible, for the extent of the massacre. Getting off 24 shots in 9 seconds was facilitated by the type of gun that was readily available. It was not purchased for self-defence, unless one was expecting a war. The AR-15 style assault rifle – the Sig Sauer MCX, is described by its maker as a “battle-proven weapon system”.
US Presidential candidate Donald Trump has adopted an “I told you so” type of approach, taking credit for seeing this coming and calling for an immediate suspension of Muslim immigration. Some are happy to label it terrorism, others a hate crime, yet more that it is a gun control or immigration issue. Not so many, focus on the fact that this was a very real attack on an LGBT safe space, a gay bar, some have even gone to great lengths to condemn Muslims and avoid reference to LGBT, how else can right wing nationalists stir up Islamophobia whilst avoiding any reference to their own homophobia? The crime does not fall into a neat explanatory box. Journalist, Owen Jones, walked out of a Murdoch-owned Sky News discussion because it failed to acknowledge it as a specific attack on the LGBT community.
FBI Report in US Mass Shooting Incidents
Between 2000 and 2013, 486 people were shot dead, and even more wounded in mass shooting attacks in America. The frequency of incidents has only got worse, more than doubling in the last 7 years of the analysed period, to more than 16 incidents a year. The Orlando attack was the worst mass shooting in peacetime American history.
A Mother Jones investigation going back 33 years shows 670 killed and 650 injured in 80 incidents, with mental health a factor in between 60% and 80% of cases.
The vast majority took place at commercial workplaces or schools, by disgruntled employees or students, or over things as irrationally minor as arguments over a CD player or driving ability. By far the majority were carried out by white males, not foreign immigrants or Muslim extremists. Out of 160 incidents, barely 2% could be described as Muslim perpetrators, a couple were clearly anti-semitic.
“You are no more likely to be shot by a Muslim than by a Christian or an atheist in America.”
If killing 50 LGBT people, and maiming as many, is your response to witnessing a kiss, an expression of love, between two people of the same sex, then you need help not hate, to get open minded not offended, and a change of religious interpretation. I can’t help but think there might have been some internalised homophobia going on besides mental health, anger and other issues already raked up by media, before this individual jumped on the ISIS bandwagon to tag his heinous act.
We forget that London, Brighton and elsewhere have had their own homophobic atrocities, that were not done in the name of ISIS, that Los Angeles Pride just had another violent attack on it averted, nothing to do with alleged Islamic extremism, that Prides in Israel have seen LGBT people attacked and killed by Jewish Orthodox extremism. There is no place for ill-informed Islamophobia now – people of all faiths and none, Communists and Fascists in recent history, have all targeted LGBT people.
Anger is no less a legitimate response than many others at this time. Forgiveness, albeit a healing one, can never be asked or expected of anyone unless freely given and only by the victims and their loved ones. Understanding, love, mercy, and worldwide calls for an end to homophobic judgement and violence are needed, people to challenge bad religious interpretation and attitudes, and show better alternatives. I’m pleased that many faith groups march with Pride, and historically just one small one, against it, here in Norwich.
Religious groups are all over themselves with prayers at the moment but no recognition of the hypocrisy that their slowness to accept LGBT people counts towards the fear and hate that drives confused and conflicted people to carry out these acts. The victims don’t need prayer they need acceptance, the only justice would be churches, mosques and temples overturning their hitherto homophobic attitudes, policies and doctrines. This may sound offensive but so was Jesus. Prayer without doctrinal change and better practice right now is like blessing the homeless with words but not with a blanket and some food. People of faith need to offer more than prayers right now.
I’ll put my hand up in the air, 30 years ago I was a fundamentalist Christian, opposed gay rights etc, years later several members of my University Christian Union, that I’d helped found, came out as gay or lesbian. My views changed, when I had my own coming out and Damascene conversion to LGBT acceptance. Others can too.
Will we see the same international condemnation and responses as in Paris? I doubt it, as the victims were LGBT.
Amidst the EU referendum debate, US presidential campaign and escalating immigration and Islamophobia issues, we don’t need blanket condemnations but change. People in the US and UK have hijacked Orlando as an excuse to condemn migrants, religion etc, but not to call it homophobia.
Hate and fear need naming but the responses need to be love and, ‘out and proud’ confidence.
As Martin Luther King said:
“Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that.”
Julie Inns, Norfolk Police
Good evening everyone it’s so wonderful to see so many people supporting this event tonight. I’m immensely proud to be standing here tonight; I stand here on behalf of Simon Bailey, Chief Constable of Norfolk Constabulary and Lorne Green our new Police and Crime Commissioner who unfortunately at short notice were not able to be here tonight, although they send their best wishes for a successful event.
I am very privileged to be standing in front of you tonight with so many familiar faces some of who I know quite well and some who will be new to me, supporting this Norwich Stands with Orlando Vigil to support our LGBT brothers and sisters across the pond who have suffered this weekend and for which there are no words to describe what went on in Orlando this weekend. I just can’t think of the words to describe it. But from the Constabulary and Police and Crime Commissioners Office our thoughts do go out to the family and friends of those effected but this atrocity.
Now we all know that Norwich is statistically a safe place to live, it’s a safe county and we encourage people to come here to live, to work or come on holiday and visit and we say to you, you can come and you can bring your religion, your sexuality, you can eat your food and wear your traditional clothes and come one come all and we are really accepting of that. However we must be mindful that unfortunately in this day and age that terror can strike anywhere.
But for this to happen to them during their PRIDE celebrations in a club where they should have felt free, welcomed and happy to be who they wanted to be, I don’t know about you guys but I find that even more heart-breaking and gut-wrenchingly awful that I have no words to explain it.
So I’d like to think that we would be lucky enough in Norfolk never to have to experience anything like what happened in Orlando over the weekend and our county will never see such an atrocity. But we have to remember that it does go on and we all have a part to play in keeping all our citizen’s safe. So with that in mind let’s not blame the actions of a small minority of the people who commit these acts on the majority. And when we talk about what happened in Orlando and bandy the word hate crime around it doesn’t quiet cut it for me, it just seems to be a bit beyond that. But I want to be really really clear on this and this is important for me. Norfolk Constabulary is absolutely committed to the LGBT community in Norfolk that we will keep you safe and we will shield you from harm wherever possible. But in order for us to do this, people have to come and talk to us and sometimes that can be difficult. But we want you to be who you are, to be authentic at work and out in the community and to be safe while you are doing that, but for us to do that if there is a problem you need to come and tell us about it and I know for some of you that is going to be difficult so I’ll be here afterwards if you would like to come and talk to me or take my contact details so we can talk in private, that would be really great.
The one thing I would like to reassure you on is that when anyone reports incidents of hate to us whether it be about your sexuality, your race, which religion you follow or if you live with a disability, whatever the issue is I can assure you now, we will believe you, we do take it seriously and with your help do whatever is possible to pursue the perpetrators through the criminal justice system until we get a conviction and that is my personal promise to you on behalf of Simon Bailey and Lorne Green. So I’d like to say that Norfolk Constabulary and the Police and Crime Commissioner wholeheartedly support this vigil tonight and say no to hate. But not just no to hate, No to hate in our county, No to hate in our fine city, No to hate across the world and finally we believe in hashtag #loveislove.
Andy Futter, Chair of Norwich Pride
In the early hours of yesterday morning, at the Pulse Nightclub in Orlando, Florida, a 29-year-old man carrying an assault rifle and a handgun and began shooting and murdering individuals before taking hostages.
Once the horrific event had played out, fifty people lay dead and a further fifty-three were hospitalised.
These people were a part of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community. They were enjoying a weekend night out with their friends at a venue in which they should have been safe.
I ask those of you who do not have to experience this particular brand of hate to understand that – despite it being 2016 – the LGBT+ community – my community – still needs these spaces.
They are our sanctuary.
And if you can’t understand the concept of a bar or nightclub being a sanctuary, then be grateful. It means you’ve probably never been afraid to hold someone’s hand in public. It means you’ve probably never been afraid to tell people that you met someone new – simply because of the gender of that new partner. It means you’ve probably never been afraid to leave your house for fear of being mistaken for another gender and the violence that so often goes hand in hand with that ignorance.
I mean that utterly sincerely. Be grateful if you have experienced none of those things. But try to reflect on the experiences of those who have and understand that we need those safe spaces – just like the Pulse nightclub.
That should have been a safe space. But yesterday, that peace; that sanctuary, was shattered in the most brutal way.
Those individuals were no longer safe. They were targeted for being lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgendered; or for being a friend of the LGBT+ community.
Being gay or lesbian or bisexual or transgendered is not a choice. Getting out of bed and deciding to walk into a bar to target those of us who are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgendered is most definitely a choice. But so is being an ally.
So for those of you here tonight who are not L,G,B or T, I thank you for your support.
Our community is strong and across the world right now and the coming days, you will see how just strong this worldwide family is; but we are all the stronger for having you on our side.
We are all the stronger for you understanding that despite huge legal steps forward – lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans people still face hate on a daily basis, for simply loving the people we love and expressing our true selves.
We are all the stronger for you understanding that, so I would ask you to understand something further. Yes – every life matters; every act of terror and murder should be condemned; but make no mistake: this was an attack directed squarely at the LGBT+ community.
Right now we are scared.
But we are also empowered by our love and solidarity.
Right now we are vulnerable.
But we are also strong in ways which may surprise many – including ourselves – and we will not be beaten.
Right now we are upset.
Right now we are angry.
So when you reach out to your LGBT friends, loved ones, brothers, sisters, colleagues: hold us closer and hug us tighter than before.
Right now, we need it.
Every one of us here tonight owes it to every one of those who died at the Pulse Nightclub in Orlando to stand taller. Be prouder.
We will not hide in the shadows.
We will not quietly clamber back into the closet. We will not stop living our lives.
So for all of those who died on Sunday in Orlando; to those who still lie bleeding in hospital; to those who have had loved ones ripped mercilessly from their lives, I say this: the people of this fine city stand with you.
Marriage in Northern Ireland is still “defined as being a union between one man and one woman” says NI Christian bakery company that refused to bake a “gay” Bert and Ernie queer cake and is taking “a stand” according to a trending BBC story.
It seems that the cake request came from a volunteer LGBT activist from Belfast’s QueerSpace, as the cake design was to include their logo. QueerSpace is a “volunteer-led collective which has been serving the LGBT community of Belfast and Northern Ireland since 1998. It does this by raising LGBT visibility, supporting LGBT community activities and facilitating communication.”
The cake was designed for their event to promote the International Day Against Homophobia as can be seen in the alternatively sourced cake that features prominently in several Facebook photos.
Described by Channel 4 News as “Sesame Street’s most sexually ambiguous couple”, Bert and Ernie have long been considered possibly, if not probably, gay.
The official Sesame Workshop position is that they are just “good friends”. In a 1993 statement they issued, it said:
“Bert and Ernie, who’ve been on Sesame Street for 25 years, do not portray a gay couple, and there are no plans for them to do so in the future. They are puppets, not humans.”
CEO Gary Knell in Sesame Street: A Celebration – 40 Years of Life on the Street, was a little more vague, hinting at sexual ambiguity as well as their sexual inability:
“They are not gay, they are not straight, they are puppets. They don’t exist below the waist.”
In a 2011 statement it was reiterated that they “do not have a sexual orientation”.
This didn’t stop some Christians complaining that they represented a gay couple. Reverend Joseph Chambers on his radio show, in 1994, said:
“Bert and Ernie are two grown men sharing a house and a bedroom. They share clothes, eat and cook together and have blatantly effeminate characteristics. In one show Bert teaches Ernie how to sew. In another they tend plants together. If this isn’t meant to represent a homosexual union, I can’t imagine what it’s supposed to represent.”
Eric Jacobson, in a 2011 interview for Vanity Fair, said that Bert and Ernie were more “The Odd Couple” than a gay couple, if anything they emulated the close friendship of Jim Henson and Frank Oz.
All these assertions and denials, it makes one wonder, because we all know what hides behind denial, lol! 😉
Ashers Baking Company
Ashers Baking Company and its Christian founders and directors have taken their stand based upon their religious beliefs against a customer’s request to bake a pro-equal marriage cake. Whether the gay rights activist’s order was a test and if the bakery’s Christian views were well known beforehand is not clear. What is clear, is the law. Refusal of goods or services based upon someone’s actual or perceived sexuality is an offence. The Equality Commission wrote to the bakery saying that they had discriminated against the customer on the grounds of his sexual orientation and that they had seven days to recompense and “remedy [their] illegal discrimination” or end up in court.
According to a YouTube statement the company was named after Asher, one of the twelve tribes of Israel, recorded as having “gifted bakers” in it. It runs itself on what it perceives to be Biblical guidelines, not opening on Sundays either.
General Manager, Daniel McArthur, said of the customer order that:
“The directors and myself looked at it and considered it and thought that this order was at odds with our beliefs. It certainly was at odds with what the Bible teaches, and on the following Monday we rang the customer to let him know that we couldn’t take his order.”
It was not the first time the bakery had declined orders, McArthur, said they had also refused to bake cakes containing “pornographic images and offensive vile language”. They made no direct link between gay marriage and pornography but by offering up no other examples their statement makes a less than subtle and unfortunate, if not downright offensive, connection between the morality of pornography and homosexuality to some Christians.
Rev Andy Marshall, a Church of England priest, has written a fabulous piece pointing out Ashers’ biblical failings according to Leviticus and the New Testament. I mean what is a non-bearded man doing selling pork sausage rolls and then condemning dubious Levitical laws allegedly condemning homosexuality? Not to mention not representing the love and acceptance that Jesus showed towards ‘outsiders’, the oppressed and minorities. I can imagine Jesus being more likely to storm angrily into the bakery and upset their dough wielding a “whip of cords“.
Whilst Northern Ireland is the only part of the UK not to have passed a same-sex marriage law, this particular incident depends entirely on existing legislation prohibiting discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation.
Northern Ireland and Devolved Equality -The Equality Commission
Unlike Wales and Scotland, anti-discrimination legislation is devolved in Northern Ireland has devolved anti-discrimination legislation, what this means is that whilst Wales and Scotland fully comply with the Equality Act (2010), Northern Ireland implements it incompletely, in its own way. The Northern Ireland Assembly, rather than the Westminster Parliament, is responsible for equalities law. Sections 73, 74 and 75 of the Northern Ireland Act (1998) established the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland and placed public sector bodies under an equivalent though not entirely identical to British Public Sector Equality Duty (PSED). Notably, pregnancy and gender identity/reassignement are not explicitly protected characteristics.
The Equality Commission for Northern Ireland has responsibility for enacting and enforcing the Employment Equality (Sexual Orientation) Regulations (NI) 2003 and the Equality Act (Sexual Orientation) Regulations (NI) 2006 acts. It is the latter regulations , which came into force in 2007, which make it unlawful to discriminate on the grounds of sexual orientation in the provision of, among other things, “goods, facilities or services”.
Whilst some religious organisations in Northern Ireland are exempt from the regulations, a bakery is a business, Christian-run or not, and as such must comply.
A Defence of Religions and Political Freedoms?
The Christian Institute, which is mounting their defence, disagrees and their director, Colin Hart said:
“All the McArthurs want is to run their bakery according to their Christian beliefs. There won’t be many situations where they need to turn down an order but this is obviously one of them. No one should be forced to use their creative skills to promote a cause which goes against their consciences.”
In an interview with the Daily Telegraphthe initial story of which made front page news, Hart described this in apocalyptic terms:
“[It’s] a sign of things to come exactly as we predicted…. Now this nonsense, more usually associated with the public sector, is being applied to the private sector … This means millions of ordinary people who do not agree with gay marriage, face intimidation and the real threat of legal action from the forces of political correctness if they, out of conscience, decline to provide good or services to campaign groups they do not agree with or support. It establishes a dangerous precedent about the power of the state over an individual, or business to force them to go against their deeply held beliefs.”
Their defence will be based upon arguing that an equal marriage cake is a political campaign and that it is not discrimination to refuse to endorse a political position.
The issue has now made it to the UK Parliament with Prime Minister’s Question time (PMQs) raising the issue and David Cameron, knowing little about it, being challenged to defend religious freedom.
Burwell v Hobby Lobby Case
The case has some similarity with the recent SCOTUS (US Supreme Court) judgement on Burwell v Hobby Lobby in which despite a federal mandate to provide employee health coverage, Hobby Lobby’s owners, David and Barbara Green, refused to comply as they felt that 4 out of 20 of the health insurance registered contraceptive drugs were morning-after and week-after life terminating abortion pills, based upon their view of life beginning at conception. SCOTUS upheld their refusal by 5-4 and ruled in their favour with “important implications for over 50 pending lawsuits brought by non-profit religious organizations … also challenging the mandate”.
[An earlier version of this article first appeared here]
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