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Pride and Prejudice
Irish Examiner 22/06/2006

by Pol O Conghaile

Discrimination from the State and Church still helps foster a negative attitude to gay people, writes Pol O Conghaile.

When details of what The Sun dubbed a "sordid" ad on a gay website were splashed across newspapers last month, the Gorey councillor who placed it was in little doubt as to the challenges facing Irish lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people. "It remains difficult to be a young gay man in Ireland today", responded Fianna Fail councillor Malcolm Byrne. "I've done nothing illegal or immoral. I just happen to be a public representative who is also gay".

With more role models, civil partnership legislation on the cards, confident urban scenes and Irish business waking to the purchasing power of the pink pound, it's easy to assume the human rights of LGBT people in 21st century Ireland are a given. This is far from the case, according to Brian Finnegan, editor of Gay Community News. "There is still a lot of homophobia out there and it's fostered by the media in different ways. Trying to find a partner is not sordid". Nor is the outing of Malcolm Byrne, for what many believe was political gain, at the nasty end of the spectrum of homophobic behaviour in Irish society.

Last May, after leaving a gay venue, Brian O Callaghan was attacked on Dublin's George's Street, thrown into a park and left in a coma. In December, plans for a new gay nightclub in Athenry, Co Galway, were put on hold following anonymous homophobic threats. This January, gardai appealed for witnesses to a number of homophobic attacks involving an attacker posing as a gay man and luring his victims into Dublin's St Audeon's bar, before severely beating and robbing them.

Overall attitudes may be improving, says Ciaran Reilly of Gay and Lesbian Action Midlands (GLAM), a group organising social events predominantly in Athlone and Mullingar. But there are still some dark corners. When people do try to contact us there still is a strong element of fear, of being unwilling to give any information, he says, pointing to a discrepancy in the development of gay scenes in rural Ireland and the major cities.

Those who do not attend GLAM social events look for reassurances that the group is mixed and not overtly camp, Mr Reilly says. "There's a reluctance to go out and meet other gay people on their own doorstep. They'd actually rather go to Dublin." LGBT city-dwellers may live "in a bubble of acceptance as Brian Finnegan puts it but, urban or rural, none share the full human rights of heterosexuals in Ireland. A working group is to report on civil partnership legislation this June. In the meantime, however, the All-Party Oireachtas Committee on the Constitution has opposed broadening the definition of family beyond the traditional interpretation. Taoiseach Bertie Ahern supports equal tax and inheritance rights, but does not think a referendum on single-sex unions would be carried. According to Senator David Norris, Mr. Ahern's "dithering" has been instrumental in knocking Ireland from a European leader on the human rights of gay people to "the tail end of the queue, and I think that's a pity."

Anti-gay edicts continue to issue from the Vatican. Controversial guidelines published last November reaffirm that active homosexuals and "supporters of gay culture" may not become priests. Homosexual acts were termed "grave sins" that can't be justified. Whilst the guidelines were widely reported with incredulity - a situation that would have been inconceivable a decade ago - members of the LGBT community are not happy with much coverage of gay issues in the Irish media. "There wasn't a universal withdrawal of support," Mr Norris explains. Such guidelines "give legitimisation to thugs who are only looking for an excuse," he adds. "It makes them feel morally justified." In other words, some believe that if the Vatican describes homosexuality as "intrinsically evil" and the state discriminates legislatively, a culture could be said to exist that both incites homophobic behaviour and demoralises LGBT people.

"It's quite difficult to work with young people and encourage them to be active citizens when they know at the end of the day when they turn 18, they're not going to have equal rights with everybody else," says Michael Barron of BeLonG To, a youth project serving LGBT people aged 14-23. As LGBT people come out at younger ages, BeLong To believes the biggest challenge for Irish society is education. To this end, the project has circulated information booklets for young people about LGBT identity.

"The extent and severity of the bullying that some gay young people experience in school is really unbelievable," Mr Barron says. He has encountered physical assaults and gay students bullied out of education without completing their Leaving Certificate. According to a member of Parents' Support, a disabled gay student who approached his principal about homophobic bullying recently was threatened with expulsion. "It's just bizarre that the school system is dragging its feet when other parts of society are moving forward," Mr Barron says. "What schools need, and have a duty to recognise, is that there are gay and lesbian people in every classroom in the country." "I don't think anybody is going to be 'turned gay' by simply having facts," adds Mr Norris. "But I think it'd be reassuring to the 10% of children who are in the process of discovering that they're gay. That is very confusing for them in this society."

The Department of Education should, according to Mr Barron and Mr Norris, look to the Gardai. Who, they say, have made enormous moves in terms of embracing diversity, according to Mr Barron. However, agreement is not universal here. Fundamental training "of all police officers in the issues around homophobia" is lacking says Brian Finnegan of GCN, and despite the efforts of individual liaison officers, the force is not trusted by the gay community. "Overtly homophobic comments from members are commonplace as they are in most policing environments," a gay garda told Garda Review magazine recently. "Homophobia is accepted, or at best unchallenged." "We're taking it seriously," counters Garda Liaison Officer, Inspector Finbarr Murphy. "We're getting there. But you won't change the culture within the gardai overnight. These things take a little bit of time and work."

Like many others, Insp Murphy points to a problem at the core of society; a problem that despite great strides made since decriminalisation in 1993, continue to knit the language of prejudice into Irish lives, from the State right down to the schoolyard. "My six-year-old was playing in the garden recently with another kid and one turned to the other and said, "You're gay". The significance was that neither had a clue what it means, but it was a derogatory term. "That value wasn't passed from me, in my house. But it's out there. And my kids have picked it up. How do you break that cycle? I don't think their parents or schoolteachers are saying being gay is bad. But the culture within the kids themselves is "I don't know the answer, but how to change that is a challenge."