Gay-bashing, gay marriage, and how the media needs to get a grip.
It’s no surprise gay-bashing happens in Ireland when our legislation enshrines discrimination and our media is only happy to stoke the flames.
Last night, my friend Buzz O’Neill was beaten up on George’s Street in Dublin for being gay.
Buzz explained what happened over on GCN, “I kissed my friend goodbye on the corner of the laneway, beside the dry cleaners and there was a taxi stopped beside me. One of the guys in it shouted ‘fucking faggot’ out the window. I told him to ‘fuck off’, and he spat at me out of the taxi.” The man and three others got out of the taxi and proceeded to attack Buzz. Luckily, the bouncers from The George were there to intervene.
Yes, this still happens. Yes, this is Dublin in 2013. Yes, this is gay-bashing.
On Sunday, the Constitutional Convention will be voting on whether to recommend to the government to provide for marriage equality. It’s a tale of two cities. On one end of the spectrum, a kiss-in is being organised to take place outside the Gaiety on Sunday, and Pantibar will show the results of the Constitutional Convention vote live. Meanwhile, homophobes are beating a bloke up outside a bar.
When I tweeted that I hoped Buzz was ok, the reaction from people was one of shock. Wow, people still get beaten up for being gay in Dublin? It’s surprising, right? As cities go, Dublin is pretty gay, but sometimes it’s easy to forget that the city’s general atmosphere of tolerance, open-mindedness, diversity, acceptance and care is in fact a bubble – a bubble that can be burst with a punch in the eye outside The G on a Wednesday night.
Why is this still happening? Let’s get real here. I’m not surprised someone shouted “fucking faggot” at someone coming out of The George. I’m really angry and sad that Buzz got beaten up, but this happens. It’s happening less, but it happens. People have their own personal reasons for engaging in a homophobic attack. But until gay people are actually afforded the same rights as straight people, in their relationships, workplaces, schools and families, until then, we have to face up to the fact that Irish law views gays in pretty much the same way as thugs on George’s Street do. Our legislation gay-bashes us. Our media gay-bashes us. Our TDs who fight the tide of equality gay-bash us. Religious leaders gay-bash us.
The topics of gay rights and specifically gay marriage have received more and more coverage over the past decade. It’s a huge movement, and while some societies are affording lesbians and gays equal marriage rights, many aren’t. Many see civil marriage rights as an inevitability, but there’s a real problem with how the debate has been and continues to be framed here. I’m sick of it. It’s time to stop positioning gay people as punching bags – both figuratively and literally – in the context of this debate.
The main problem with how the Irish media frames the debate is around a skewed view of what ‘balance’ is. ‘Middle Ireland’, the ‘silent majority’, the ‘mainstream’, gay people are told, are not ready for something so drastic as equality. I don’t know about you, but I never actually hear that middle ground. What I hear again and again is yet another articulate gay person trying to hold their temper while they are subjected to ignorant and juvenile arguments. And I hear an opposing view, generally one from the far out end of Catholicism, blustering about children’s rights (which Civil Partnership denies, thank you very much), and trying desperately to fight against equality with arguments based on their own personal belief systems or grievances. I don’t hear middle Ireland. I don’t hear a middle ground. I don’t hear the mainstream. I don’t hear the 71% of Irish people who believe the Irish government should amend the law to provide civil marriages for same-sex couples, or the 75% who said they would vote yes in a referendum to extend civil marriage to same-sex couples, or the 72% who believe that denying civil marriage to same-sex couples is a form of discrimination*. I don’t hear the voices of teenagers and grannies who think “I don’t mind, actually.” All I hear is hate.
Constructing polarised conversations for the sake of ‘good radio’, ‘watchable TV’, ‘lively debate’, or an urge to get a radio programme or TV show’s hashtag trending doesn’t serve anyone because no real information emerges. All you come away with is conflict and division. Facts and reason are drowned out by emotional arguments and inaccuracies. It’s pointless. And while listening to Pat Kenny’s radio programme yesterday morning where the editor of GCN, Brian Finnegan, was met with bizarre anti-equality arguments from Gerry Fahey, a sickening feeling resurfaced. Because there is something more insidiously harmful going on. Broadcasters will cite ‘balance’ as a defense for allowing these views to be broadcast. But I’m sorry, there is nothing balanced about someone going on air and voicing opinions that are hateful and discriminatory. The pro-marriage equality side doesn’t do that, yet the anti side seems to have a free pass to bang on about whatever paper thin argument, conspiracy theory, or downright homophobic view they want. I am OVER it.
Consider the impact of hearing those viewpoints every time a marriage equality debate happens. Think about the psychological damage it does. Being told that you’re subordinate in a society you contribute to is so incredibly hurtful. The pain of being told that you don’t deserve equal rights just because of how you were born doesn’t go away. And every time a Liveline or a Pat Kenny or a Prime Time or a Last Word or a Tonight With Vincent Browne or a George Hook or a Late Late stokes those flames, it burns and blisters inside all over again.
Think about the confirmation and boost that genuinely homophobic people get from hearing their arguments reinforced on radio or TV. Think about the confidence it gives them. Enough confidence, perhaps, to give a “fucking faggot” a thump on the street.
Think about the impact it has on people who are struggling with their sexuality, who have to listen to people saying: you’re not equal to me, you don’t have an equal role in society, you don’t deserve the things that I have, your relationships aren’t as important as mine, you are less than me, you shoudn’t have children, and I will fight tooth and nail to ensure discrimination against you remains enshrined in law. How long can you expect people to block those punches for? How long must a minority remain on the ropes and be told just keep taking it.
LGBT people have a unique set of psychological and mental health challenges because of discrimination in society. A 2009 study of over 1,100 LGBT people in Ireland** titled Supporting LGBT Lives: A Study of the Mental Health and Well-Being of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender People yielded the following results and more. 80% of LGBT people in Ireland have been verbally abused as a consequence of their sexuality. 25% have been punched, kicked or beaten as a result of their LGBT status. 8% have been attacked with a weapon – a knife, gun, bottle or stick – on at least one occassion as a result of being LGBT. 9% have been the victim of a sexual attack as a consequence of being LGBT. 50% have been called abusive names related to their sexual orientation in school. Over 25% have been verbally abused in the workplace. 10% admit to missing work because they were afraid of being attacked or threatened in the workplace for being LGBT. A staggering 90% of LGBT people have experienced feelings of depression at some point, and 60% directly link that depression to social and / or personal challenges connected with LGBT identity including stigma and social isolation. 25% have taken medication prescribed by a doctor for anxiety or depression. 84% engage in binge drinking intermittently or regularly, 60% feel they should reduce their intake of alcohol. The study found that heavy alcohol consumption was strongly associated with a need to ‘mask’ distressing emotional states, and using alcohol as a coping mechanism or form of self-medication. 27% have self-harmed at least once. 18% have attempted suicide at least once. If producers and presenters looked at these statistics, and realised the heightened vulnerability of LGBT people’s mental health before engaging in another ruthless marriage equality debate, they might rethink ‘balance’.
If you honestly think the anti-equality rhetoric doesn’t have an impact, check out what’s happening in France right now. Homophobic attacks have tripled in the wake of the anti-gay marriage movement. We need to stop giving hate a platform. It has real consequences.
The polls say Ireland is ready for marriage equality, but a referendum might have to be part of that change, even if many would argue that it’s not necessary. I’ve been working on an oral history of the marriage equality movement in Ireland over the past six months, and there’s one common reaction when talking to gay rights campaigners about the prospect of a referendum: aprehension bordering on fear. LGBT people don’t fear a referendum because of the result. We all know the Irish public is ready to accept their lesbian and gay brothers and sisters, children, friends, colleagues and parents as equals. The terror associated with a referendum is not about the score, it’s about the fight. It’s not going to be a clean one. The vitriol and misinformation the anti-equality representatives spread is traumatic for LGBT people.
The messages of hate, the horrible insinuations, the derogatory remarks, the bigotry and ignorance and spitefulness, are all trademarks of those who fight equality, and in a referendum setting they have the potential to become amplified to a piercing level. It takes a lot of resiliance not to feel beaten down by that. LGBT people need strength in the roaring red face of hate, but also solidarity, support and kindness. LGBT people have thick skin. But that hate gets under your skin no matter how thick it is. It permeates every part of your psyche, it can make you feel angry and isolated, lonely and hurt. And I don’t think any minority should be asked to put up with that.
A dead argument
At the heart of all the arguments against gay marriage are two things that are also at the heart of gay-bashing. The first is fear. Fear of change. Fear of progress. Fear of disrupting a status quo that serves those who control and maintain it. Fear of sexuality. Fear of examining one’s own sexuality. The second is homophobia. I’ve never been met with an argument against gay marriage that isn’t rooted in homophobia. It might be homophobia as defined by religion. It might be homophobia defined by ignorance, or by living a closed, single-minded life devoid of contact with other people of different races, creeds, upbringings, sexualities, professions and political philosophies. It might be homophobia born from insecurity with one’s own sexuality. There are some opponants to gay marriage who at this stage are so obsessed with gay people that they would almost qualify for having their own float at Pride. Often when listening to their emotional red-eyed arguments, I can’t help but think of that proverb – when you point a finger at someone, three point back at yourself. Then there’s the arguments against gays having and raising children. It comes down to the outrageous belief that gay people, particularly gay men, are a threat to children. It’s such a horrible accusation and insinuation to make, but it’s one that’s out there and one that almost without fail is subtly or blatently projected in every debate about gay marriage and gay parenting. When I hear it, my stomach lurches, and I can’t imagine how the amazing gay parents I know feel. And when that insinuation is made by members of the Catholic Church, an organisation that for decades colluded and covered up the rape and abuse of children… well, what can you say?
Now I know marriage isn’t a perfect institution. I know there are problems with it. I know some gay people feel as though marriage has monopolised the gay rights debate. I know some people feel it’s a middle class debate. I know some lesbian feminists and queer men have a problem with gay people supposedly buying into a heteronormative institution. I also know other lesbian feminists and other queer men who recognise all of these things and still say lesbian and gay people deserve the right to marry. We all deserve equality and access to every institution straight people have access to, even if those institutions are a bit shoddy. Like many people, I have no intention of getting married. But I fervently believe everyone has the right to. Because as long as legislation gay-bashes, so will thugs on the street.
Over the past four years, there has been endless discourse about rebuilding Ireland, questioning what kind of future we envisage, and what kind of society we want. And while it most certainly is always darkest before the dawn, when the sun eventually rises, it should rise for everyone.