Hats off to the gardaí of Limerick who have raised the rainbow flag

Opinion: When it comes to gay matters, an extraordinary shift towards tolerance has occurred

‘Henry Street Garda station in Limerick is to fly a rainbow flag during the city’s gay pride parade today.’

‘Henry Street Garda station in Limerick is to fly a rainbow flag during the city’s gay pride parade today.’


Let’s have some good news. Everybody who isn’t a jerk will have celebrated upon hearing that Henry Street Garda station in Limerick is to fly a rainbow flag during the city’s gay pride parade today. That fine locale too often gets it in the neck from people who have never actually been there. Stomping ground of Jim Kemmy, home to a Soviet in 1919, Limerick has a radical tradition that would shame many of the more fashionable Irish cities. That said, when I collected my bike from Henry Street Garda station in 1980 – liberated after a day or two in the hands of thieves – I got no sense that, in a mere three decades, the establishment would become the Stonewall of domestic law enforcement.

In the midst of all the grim discussions concerning abortion rights, we should not forget that, when it comes to gay matters, a quite extraordinary and largely unexpected shift towards tolerance has taken place. If consulted 10 years ago, few citizens would have predicted that same-sex civil partnerships would arrive so quickly and with such limited griping. No supporters of marriage equality will permit complacency about the results of the looming referendum, but most would admit that, until recently, such a plebiscite seemed like the stuff of speculative fiction. Heck, we’ve even got a gay Rose of Tralee now (though this happy intelligence does not render that poorly disguised beauty pageant any less antediluvian).

Keep your focus on the light at the end of this tunnel and you can shut out the reactionary rumblings elsewhere. As Fintan O’Toole has noted, domestic policy on women’s reproductive rights anchors the country in a past many hoped to have left behind. The notion we are on an unstoppable drift towards greater tolerance and unending magnanimity is a complacent nostrum we would do well to leave unopened in the metaphorical medicine cabinet.

Urban liberals

Consider ongoing controversies in the United States. By the 1970s, urban liberals felt able to congratulate themselves on progress as regards gender, race and inequality. Only a fool would have argued that the US had “solved” all such problems, but it looked as if an unstoppable drift had been set in motion. In 1973, the case of Roe vs Wade seemed to have established a woman’s right to choose in case law. The civil rights Bills of the 1960s made progress in cleansing the US of segregation.

Oddly, despite the Stonewall disturbances in 1969 and increasing visibility throughout the 1970s, it was not until the new century that significant legal progress was made on gay issues. Nonetheless, history appeared to be pointing in just one direction.

Where are we now? The Republican party has become a fiefdom of the pro-life movement. To win the GOP presidential nomination, the hopeful candidate must, at the very least, make ambiguous noises in that direction. The National Rifle Association has, despite repeated atrocities, only gained in malign influence. That nation has not yet got around to burning suspected witches, but the continuing presence of religious superstition has allowed some eye-watering lurches back towards the dark ages. It would, not too long ago, have seemed inconceivable that education boards would be fighting battles to forbid the teaching of evolutionary theory in schools.

It involves little hyperbole to wonder whether Copernicus may soon go the way of Darwin and schools in Louisiana may start “teaching the controversy” concerning heretical notions of heliocentricity.

Crackpot theory

Television offers worthwhile lessons here. When David Attenborough presented Life on Earth in 1979, he felt no need to even address the crackpot theory of creationism. Similar, more recent documentaries by Richard Dawkins have begun with that academic making the case for self-evidently sound scientific theory over absurd, prehistoric baloney.

The mainstream US sitcom Maude, starring ea Arthur, featured an abortion plot line back in 1972. Gay characters are now commonplace on mainstream US television, but stories concerning abortion would now be acceptable only on cable channels. Once again we note a shift forwards in one area and a lurch backwards in others.

The lesson here is that social history does not progress in neat arcs and predictable trajectories. Any perusal of Jacobean literature will confirm that, when compared to the Victorians, the citizens of an earlier century were a great deal less prudish and sexually inhibited. Civilisation does not have a direction. It cannot be measured by a vector. It is not inconceivable the advances in gay rights could, within a generation or two, be subject to reversals.

Hang on. This column was supposed to be structured around good news. Hats off to the garda of Henry Street. Hats off to Limerick.

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