Pol O Conghaile
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
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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."
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."