‘Gay cake’ row: Bakers don’t change laws. Politicians do

Sean Moncrieff: The Ashers case may have held back marriage equality in the North

A woman cycles past a marriage equality mural in the Liberties area of Dublin in May  2015. Photograph: Brian Lawless/PA Wire

A woman cycles past a marriage equality mural in the Liberties area of Dublin in May 2015. Photograph: Brian Lawless/PA Wire

 

A hundred years from now, kids in school may be taught that things were pretty strange in the last century. People would queue all night to buy phones and doughnuts. They’d watch TV shows about baking and TV shows about people watching TV shows. And there was once a time when same-sex couples weren’t allowed to marry; there were people who felt that such an idea was repellent, that homosexuality itself was something to be fixed.

Presumably – hopefully – these future kids will be puzzled and a bit appalled by all this, in much the same way that today we are puzzled and appalled by the people who thought white and non-white people should not marry, and that non-white people were inferior.

There have been historic moments where racism was legally defeated: the ending of Jim Crow in the US, the collapse of apartheid in South Africa. But that’s not the same as making racism go away. White supremacists still lived in South Africa the day after Nelson Mandela became president.

After our same-sex marriage referendum in 2015, the same was true of homophobia. But since then this prejudice has been slowly choking. It’s far less acceptable, because a large majority were in favour of equality, and because many in the minority against have accepted the democratic decision, while others have quietly realised that Ireland hasn’t been destroyed, that marriage still exists. Some have simply changed their minds. 

This glacial process will continue, until we reach a point where the definition of sexual “normality” becomes permanently changed, and where the definition of gender is far more nuanced. Call me a crazy optimist, but eventually the few remaining homophobes will get old and die, to be replaced by babies born into a more accepting society. Those babies will go to school and learn about our less enlightened times and wonder how people could be like that. And why queue for doughnuts?

Leading the way

In our last two referendums, the electorate was way ahead of skittish politicians, and that seems to be the case in Northern Ireland too. In the chronically malfunctioning Northern Assembly, the split is 50:50 between those who are for and those who are against legalising same-sex marriage. But the polls tell a different story: they repeatedly indicate that – by approximately two to one – there is a large majority in favour.

Thus the Ashers bakery case from a few weeks back isn’t really representative of where public opinion is at in Northern Ireland. All it tells us is that there is a bakery in Northern Ireland run by conservative Christians who – quelle surprise – don’t support same-sex marriage. Theirs is the minority view right now, and over time it will shrink away. So why take them to court? 

The free speech aspects of all this have been gone into at length elsewhere and have divided LGBT campaigners, but as a matter of practical politics, the case seems to have done nothing to hurry along the introduction of marriage equality in the North. If anything, it may have impeded that process by turning the owners of Ashers into conservative Christian pin-ups, valiantly battling for their beliefs. It’s all too easy to spin this as a legal attempt to change how people think. The fact that this was all about a cake only served to trivialise a profoundly important issue.

Those kids from the future will be appalled that Ashers refused to make the cake, and that people continued to give them business afterwards. Or that in 2018 everything seemed to be about confectionary. But in 2018, the question is how to get to that better future. Bakers don’t change laws. Politicians do. There are 90 MLAs in the Assembly (with a lot of time on their hands) and a further 18 MPs for Northern Ireland. If the law is changed, hearts will eventually follow.  

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