Lyra McKee
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There are people in the world who if they're telling you a story need to tell you 19 other stories first before they can get to the point. I'm one of those people. I want to tell you a story about a conversation I witnessed in a mosque, which changed my life. But to tell you that story, I have to tell you another story first, and I've only got 12 minutes. And that story starts in late night, early June, this year. I got the opportunity to go on a trip to the United States with a delegation from around the UK - I was the only one from Northern Ireland - and we were going there to learn about 'American values'. We were going to be travelling across Washington, Florida, and Texas, meeting with everyone from guns rights lobbyists to religious leaders and LGBT groups, people who spanned the spectrum of American values. So the thing about these trips is they offer you a number of perks. They offer you carrots they can dangle in front of you whenever the going gets tough, when you are in the 100th meeting of the day with someone whose views you find absolutely reprehensible and you're really struggling to stay the course. In our case, they took us to Disneyland, which I can confirm is definitely one of the happiest places on earth. I was in my element. Then they took us to NASA, which, as a Star Wars nerd, I have to say, competed in my heart for the title of 'Happiest Place on Earth'. Someone very helpful pointed out to me - because I was posting selfies of myself at that time, running around Florida in vest tops - and someone very helpfully pointed out that I seemed to have more vests than Rab C. Nesbitt. (Laughter) I know the theme of the conference is 'bridges': I felt like burning that one, to be quite frank. Then we got to go to this beautiful beachside resort called Cocoa Beach and sip cocktails on the beach; it was absolutely wonderful. You're probably thinking, "Where do I sign up for this trip?" "This sounds amazing, it's a free jolly!" That's what I thought it was when I looked at the itinerary. But I had to go through hell to get these perks. I realise that Disneyland and NASA, that these were all carrots they were dangling in front of us, whenever I found myself less than 10 feet away from the chief orangutan in the White House. (Laughter) El Trump. People ask me, "What's the hardest thing about standing 10 feet away from Donald Trump?" I think it was seeing how badly his fake tan was applied. (Laughter) I did redeem my conscience when I got to Florida, I should say, and we met these lovely protestors, who, in case you can't see, are holding a 'Stop Trump' sign. They were right up my alley; I thought they were fantastic. Our next visit was to a place called the National Rifle Association. It is all the guns rights lobbyists who come out in wake of every mass shooting and defend the right of Americans to bear arms. For a number of people in the group, this was the most difficult part of the trip. They found it very difficult to sit there and listen and exchange views, which was what the whole trip was about. For me though, the hardest part of the trip was when we got to Orlando and they told us we were going to be visiting a mosque. Now you ask yourself, Why would I find it hard to visit a mosque? Well, for those of you who don't have Gaydar, I'm gay - don't worry, you can laugh, it's okay. (Laughter) I hated myself for much of my life because of what religion taught me about people like me. And when I stopped hating myself, I started hating religion. But I was intrigued by this mosque because it was in Orlando, and a year to the week that we were in Orlando, 49 people were slaughtered in a gay nightclub called Pulse. This mosque had led the response to that tragedy and had condemned it. I was intrigued by that. This was at a time when Christian churches in Orlando were refusing to bury some of the dead because they were gay. To have a mosque come out and condemn this was a big deal. One of the victims of Pulse that always stuck with me was Brenda Marquez Mccool. She was a woman who was out with her gay son that night in Pulse, supporting him. When the gunman unleashed his bullets, she threw herself in front of her son. He survived but she didn't. So I decided that I would go into this mosque with an open mind. I did, and we met with this lovely man called Bassem, who was one of the leaders in the mosque. We talked about everything, and eventually, Bassem and I had a conversation about LGBT rights and what Muslims think of gay people. Difficult, thorny subject, but we had a really pleasant conversation, but neither of us knew what was about to happen next. There was a young man on our trip who I'll call Mahmud, a young Muslim man. He was listening to the exchange between Bassem and I, and when we were finished talking, he spoke up and addressed Bassem. And he said, "My best friend was gay, he was Muslim, and he comitted suicide." And at this point, Mahmud burst into tears. He said, "I did everything I could to save him, but I couldn't." And he told us this story of how this young Muslim man couldn't live with being Muslim and being gay; he felt that the only option he had was to die by suicide. We were all crying in the mosque, I think, by that point. We were all mourning for this young Muslim man that we had never met and now that we would never get the chance to meet. You know, when I left religious education at 16, I swore that I was done with religion and I was never going back to it. I was never going to have another conversation that I could not help with another person of faith again. When I was in that mosque that day and I was there to learn about American values, I ended up getting schooled on my own culture by a Muslim. Because I realised that I couldn't run away from religion anymore. Within the LGBT community, we have a saying that we tell people. We tell them that 'It Gets Better'. What I realised that day was that it gets better for some of us; it gets better for those of us who live long enough to see it get better. I realised that I couldn't run away from religion anymore, because religion shapes how LGBT people are treated in the world. It shapes the laws and how they treat LGBT people, which we can see from the lack of equal marriage in this country. And it shapes how we, LGBT people, feel about ourselves. The first lesson I learned about being gay was that it was evil and that I was going to hell for it. I learned that from the Bible. There were times I would cry in my bedroom as a teenager, bargaining with God, asking him not to send me to hell, because I was so convinced that I was going there. This text, this Bible, I know for so many people it offers them hope, it offers them salvation, but for me it offered a prison sentence. I think it's the same for a lot of other LGBT young people. LGBT suicide rates are through the roof. This is the percentage of trans youth alone in the UK who have attempted suicide over the course of the last year. We see these numbers play out in Northern Ireland locally, and we know this from trans youth services, who say they see it play out among their young people. What do we do about this? I feel the only answer is to change religious teaching of homosexuality and LGBT issues. I don't mean we berate Christians and shout at them or berate Muslims and shout at them. We need to do the one thing that I didn't want to do when I left school at 16: we need to have conversations, difficult conversations, and fight for the hearts and minds of those who oppose us. I've studied this, and when you ask people like Megan Phelps-Roper, who was a member of the Westboro Baptist Church, a hate group in America, when you ask people like this, when you ask former neo-Nazis, the most extreme people, when you ask, "What changed your mind? What made you abandon your views?" they'll tell you the same thing: It was a conversation. Someone who they were opposed to struck up a conversation, and they learned that that person was not who they thought they were, and they got to a point where they could no longer hold those views. People tell me this isn't going to happen; there's no way the churches will change their teachings or the mosques will change their teachings. "You're mad." And I would have agreed with them. But six weeks ago, I was out in a gay bar - not this one - with my friend Jordan. He's from a Free Prebystarian DUP-voting family, from "County LegenDerry." I avoid that Londonderry-Derry thing, I hate that. We were out there with his mum, who is a Scottish Free-P who goes to church every Sunday, and she was out in this bar, supporting her gay son, just like Brenda Marquez McCool was out in Pulse that night supporting her gay son. Don't tell me there's no hope because for too many LGBT young people, that is the only thing they have that keeps them living. And by the way, that Free Presbytarian mother went into work the next day and told everyone about this amazing thing she'd been to called a 'drag show'. (Laughter) Now if you had told me that I'd be sitting in a gay bar with one of Ian Paisley's disciples drinking cocktails, watching a drag show, I'd have told you you were mad. (Laughter) What can you do? If you thought you were here to passively listen to me rant on: No, I've got a job for you all. If any of you are uncomfortable with the thought of someone like me, please come up to me after this event and talk to me. I won't bite your head off, I won't call you a homophobe. We'll just have a conversation, and I'll show you that I'm human just like you. If you are comfortable with the thought of someone like me, have a conversation with someone who isn't and try to change their mind. Because you could be saving a life. Finally, I'd like to send a message to all LGBT young people that are currently struggling, especially those from faith backgrounds. "For I know the plans I have for you," declares the Lord, "plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future." Jeremiah 29:11 This talk is in memory of the Pulse 49 and all LGBT people who died by suicide. Thank you very much, folks. (Applause) (Cheers)