Comment: Peter Tatchell can’t have his cake and eat it over bakery row
National Union of Students LGBT+ officer Rob Young responds to veteran activist Peter Tatchell, after he spoke out to defend bakers who wouldn’t make a ‘gay’ cake.
The owners of Ashers Bakery in Belfast are currently pursuing a legal challenge backed by the anti-LGBT Christian Institute, after they faced action for refusing to bake a cake showing the message ‘Support Gay Marriage’ above an image of Sesame Street’s Bert and Ernie.
Earlier this week, LGBT activist Peter Tatchell voiced his support for the bakers.
Let us have cake.
Freedom of speech isn’t absolute, in fact quite the opposite. If an individual wants to get up on a stage and make homophobic and racist remarks about others, should that be allowed?
Or if a landlord wants to put a sign up in their shop stating: “No blacks, No gays, No Irish”?
I think not.
Too often the debate on free speech fails to take into account how marginalised groups have their individual and collective voices trampled down and de-legitimised.
Peter Tatchell has decided to use his not immeasurable platform to allow a free speech argument to trump the rights of LGBT people across our nations, within a deeper rooted issue that we are facing around homophobia in Northern Ireland.
The LGBT movement should be standing in solidarity with LGBT people across the world, but instead this creates further dividing lines, and is not getting to the heart of the issue that businesses are allowed to have discriminatory practices.
This is a crucial time, not just for equal rights in Northern Ireland but for human rights on the whole. I was shocked and appalled at Peter Tatchell’s decision to, dare I say ‘come out’, in support of the Ashers Bakery.
This was not just a business turning someone away because of a message they wanted on a cake, but was in fact denying the right to self-expression.
To have this public debate at a time when the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) has called for a ‘conscience clause’ to alter equality law in Northern Ireland and let businesses turn people away based on their identity, is dangerous.
Whilst LGBT activists are fighting to obtain marriage equality, a prominent LGBT activist decides to speak in favour of some of those who standing in the way of our right to equal status in marriage. Why is that one voice more valid than those of many?
The decision to not allow someone to have a pro-equal marriage message on a cake is homophobic, and is an ideology that has no place in today’s society. We must not shy away from the fact that not allowing the cake to be made is an example of outright homophobia.
While his argument leads on to some thought provoking topics, instead of ackowledging the nuanced debate that needs to be had, Tatchell paints his argument in black and white.
Comparing a wedding cake that includes a pro-gay marriage sign to asking Jewish bakers to make a cake with a Holocaust-denying message printed on it is morally abhorrent. For thousands of years LGBT people have been, and still are, persecuted and killed by the state, in the name of religious and political ideology.
This is clearly change that people want, as marriage equality is becoming increasingly recognised around the world (as it was in Ireland last year) and LGBT rights are progressing every day.
But to compare this to a shameful part of human history where over six million Jewish people were murdered for no other reason than their identity is not only an irresponsible argument to make to raise a political point, it is a dangerous and shocking to equate Holocaust denial and gay marriage.
This leads me on to a debate that is being had within the student movement, centred on what should and shouldn’t be able to be said on campuses by external speakers. This is something I know Peter and I disagree on.
I fundamentally believe No Platform is a legitimate tool in preventing people who have racist and fascist views onto campus.
‘No Platform’ policy, as devised from the 1970s onwards, protects the rights of students from violent attacks by far right neo-Nazi groups, such as the National Front, by not giving them a platform to speak or assemble in students’ unions. This has continued to protect students of faith, LGBT, black and women students since its conception.
It has developed to meet new challenges, such as fringe street groups like National Action and the EDL.
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By having this policy, students’ unions far from infringe on free speech, but granted the right to free speech for many who may otherwise not be able to enjoy it due to a violent threat against them. This is why I have so strongly defended the need for No Platform.
It is true to say that some groups have harmed the image of No Platform by using it to stifle debate, but this is rare, and in no way changes the continuing need for No Platform policy under its original intention.
Students’ unions have a primary responsibility to protect the rights and safety of their students, and thus can and should be able to stop groups who threaten or incite violence from having a platform to speak and assemble within their institution.
Peter’s view seems to be that everyone should have the right to say whatever they like in society, not matter what the view, because of freedom of speech.
He applies this thinking to the Ashers case. By allowing this narrative to go unchallenged means that this pernicious ideology can roam around free without being called into question.
So I am proud to say that I defend the rights of women to walk through society without fear of abuse or harassment.
I am proud to defend the rights of Jewish, Muslim, LGBT, disabled and other minority groups on campus, to be able to be free from racists and fascist rhetoric.
Rob Young is LGBT+ Officer (Open Place) for the National Union of Students