Waiting in the queue for the ATM this afternoon, I overheard a couple of people behind me talking about the referendum.
This ATM is located near a bunch of some of the most odious No posters I’ve yet seen. They feature a picture of a man giving a thumbs-up, and a message that you shouldn’t be ashamed to exercise your right to vote No.
I find this particularly abhorrent. It plays into the idea that LGBTQ people and our allies are nothing more than bullies. Equating standing up for ourselves- no matter how politely or mildly- with shouting down the opposition. From a campaign who do not hesitate to threaten legal action whenever anyone expresses disagreement with their views.
Back to the ATM, though, and those people behind me. You see, they have a friend- let’s call him Steve to make things easier to follow here. Steve is voting No in the referendum. He told his friends about his plans. His friends are disagreeing with him. Vocally. They want him to vote Yes, and they’re telling him so. They’re also being clear that his decision impacts how they look at him. What they think of him.
The two people behind me- let’s call them Nuala and Sarah- don’t think this is okay. Not Steve voting No. That’s his choice. They don’t think it’s okay that Steve’s friends are arguing with him. You see, according to the. The important thing is that we’re free to vote however we like, and people need to be able to express their opinions.
My first thought- after calculating to myself that I would definitely miss my bus if I turned around to talk some sense into them- was to wonder if either of them have ever felt scared to express who they are. It either of them spent months feeling constant tension, wondering if their country was going to decide to keep them down. To choose to uphold a system that sees them as fundamentally unequal. As less than.
Maybe if they had more empathy for their LGBTQ friends, they might understand why Steve is getting a hard time. If they had more empathy for their LGBTQ friends, they might find the decency to educate and persuade Steve themselves.
My second thought? Is that I am tired of hearing people uphold the freedom of bigoted expression at the expense of the speech of others. If Steve has the right to say that he is voting no- of course he does!- then his friends have the right to tell him how they feel about that. In a democracy, in fact, I’d argue that they have a responsibility to do so. The vote is an essential tool for change. Speech- persuasion, expression, and communication- is even more powerful in determining the direction of that change. Of course we care about how other people vote. We have to. That’s why we campaign, canvass, and why we bother voting in the first place. Voting is based on the concept- however well or badly realised in practice- that every voice matters. If our voices matter, then so does how we use them. Steve probably cares about the society we live in. So do his friends. They care enough to do what they can to influence someone else’s voice to help others.
I didn’t get to talk to Sarah and Nuala. I had a bus to catch and a ticket to buy with the money from that ATM. But I’m going to bet that they know some LGBTQ people, because most of us do. And I’m going to bet that they see themselves as tolerant people. I don’t think that Sarah and Nuala see themselves as having a homophobic bone in their bodies.
But this kind of wishy-washy ‘tolerance’ that sees no distinction between granting equality and denying rights to others- that lumps it all in under a freedom of speech that always seems to be more free if you’re upholding the status quo- is every bit as dangerous as outright homophobia. However much it pretends to be something else, it’s nothing more than the soil that lets bigotry grow unchallenged. At a time when we literally find ourselves with no choice but to crowd out homophobia with sheer numbers. I can’t accept that.
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