Utter shock combined with unreserved hatred and fear is the only thing that appeared to greet a couple who were clearly very much in love as they walked down a street in South Belfast on one of the rare days of sunshine we had recently.
As this pair, students from the nearby university, sat together in the Botanic Gardens peering out towards the collection of brightly coloured roses it must have been impossible of them not to notice the family close by; three children flanked by a parent on either side who, having spotted the couple together, reacted with such hostile disgust that even passers-by stopped to stare - yet did nothing to intervene.
"You shouldn't be doing that in public, it's not natural!" exclaimed the mother while her husband gathered the children in preparing an immediate evacuation of the area. Obviously this family did not want to be exposed to these students and just to add clarity on the matter, made their feelings publicly audible. If, by the manner, I've described this scenario so far readers assume this mysterious couple were engaged in something more suited for the privacy of a bedroom you'd be forgiven for being premature.
Our couple, causing such a stir, are doing nothing that most others wouldn't do out in public; they're holding hands, lightly flirting in a manner that can only be described as freshly cute, and occasionally kissing each other gently but with obvious passion.
How then does this seemingly innocent pair create such a controversy and apparent public outrage?
The answer: They are both female.
Conservatism explicitly expressed through a delicate union of politics and religion have shaped a post-Belfast agreement Northern Ireland that still allows for intolerant views to shape our supposedly shared community. Some would suggest that the LGBT community are mentally ill or broken. Far too frequently we witness a continuation of sustained and unashamed bigotry, discrimination and intolerance.
In response permit me to propose that Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgendered people aren't the ones that need a cure; rather it's those inflicted with the social disease known as homophobia that require fixing as soon as possible!
Quite often we are forced to listen to unsavoury, increasingly disturbing views from individuals, politicians and those of high public regard who readily label LGBT people as unnatural, sinful or damaged. According to them LGBTI require a 'cure'. Such ideology unfortunately has and does shape our society to a point where not only is sexism, racism and homophobia existential but also quietly accepted on an endemic scale.
I'd like to discover whether people here who hold negative, overly sexualised views towards the LGBT community can be cured of their irrationality via methods that educate the heart and mind. Passive means of effecting change often yield fruitful results as such a tactful approach doesn't isolate or reinforce the negativity of intolerance.
Never be fooled into thinking intolerance and hatred in all various forms aren't in some ways interlinked; A society that accepts sexism is more likely to be positively receptive to homophobia and even racial discrimination which is why challenging hatred including the casual use of language as an outlet of hate is crucially important.
How can we be proud of Northern Ireland when some in our community, even our politicians, contribute to a culture that at present is making life for those we consider "different" a misery, all because we permit the continued disenfranchisement and isolation of LGBTI and other minorities.
Not all opposing opinions on LGBT issues are borne out of homophobia but out of traditional cultural values. There needs to be a discussion about different opinions expressed through a democratic process, this could help us prevent the causes of homophobia in years to come.
Belfast City Hall during Gay Pride credits: Tyler McNally
I am also unsure we have missed the opportunity to effect positive change with this generation just yet. Young people, especially students give much hope and optimism with an increasingly dedicated affinity for all things based in equality.
Northern Ireland students have shown great leadership on LGBT issues in recent years, just recently the NI student movement (NUS-USI) gave me the opportunity to get some insights from their LGBT officer, Rachel Wallace, who represents 200,000 NI students on LGBT topics and issues.
Discussing the existential challenges faced by this generation NUS-USI LGBT officer Rachel Wallace spoke to me during the build-up to Belfast Pride stating that students working together in unison can help tackle homophobia and all other forms of prejudice. She said that the student movement can play a significant role in shaping a better future for everyone in Northern Ireland.
"The student movement has a massive role to play in tackling prejudice and delivering fairness and a shared society. NUS-USI is a strong voice for equality and equal rights for all. We have been at the forefront of putting the Health Minister, Edwin Poots, under sustained and robust pressure to abolish the unfair ban on gay men from donating blood in Northern Ireland. We have been, and continue to set the media agenda on this very important issue of equality.
Northern Ireland needs to send out the strongest possible message that homophobia will not be tolerated, and fairness and respect for all has to be the cornerstone of our society. NUS-USI has, and also continues to lead the way in tackling prejudice in all its forms."
NUS-USI is not the only groups fighting the prejudice of Northern Ireland; In an area of the UK that stonewall still doesn't operate, it has fallen on the shoulders of smaller but highly effective organisations such as LASI and The Rainbow Project, both do phenomenal work for the LGBT community with the resources available to them.
After such amazing encounters throughout the past year I hold great hope this generation will be the one that can finally stamp out homophobia by shifting societal norms enough to allow LGBT people to be treated as equals in our community.
I am confident Homophobia has a cure!
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