Readiness to hurl the word ‘homophobe’ may not help the liberal reform agenda
Opinion: Many liberals seem to be unwilling to let counter-arguments to their own get a hearing
Marching for gay and lesbian rights in O’Connell Street back in 1984.
‘That Homosexuality is Perverse and should be Discouraged” was the title of a debate I organised when auditor of the Commerce and Economics Society (C&E) in University College Dublin in 1989. The C&E, which as it happens celebrates it 100th anniversary this year, was in the late 1980s the largest society on the Belfield campus.
It packed a 300-seat lecture theatre every Wednesday night with commerce and arts students who came to watch or participate in a debate on a controversial issue.
The C&E committee was on the right wing of the student political spectrum – at least on economic issues – but this debate on homosexuality was organised jointly with the UCD Students Union, then a hotbed of left-wing political activism.
The union took some persuading to go with the deliberately provocative title. Its instinctive preference was for a more worthy event which might discuss the discrimination felt by gay and lesbian students and be addressed by prominent gay rights activists.
Many among the union leadership resisted the notion of the student body being seen to give a platform to those who condemned homosexuality.
We managed to persuade them, however, that putting the other point of view at the centre of a high-profile event and then challenging it before the widest possible audience would do more to change hearts and minds on the need for decriminalisation of homosexuality, which was a topical issue at the time.
We found it difficult to find speakers in favour of the proposition that homosexuality was perverse. Eventually a postgraduate philosophy student stepped up to the podium to make the case for the motion and he was followed by Mark Hamilton, a prominent lay Catholic who was the driving force behind some publications putting the conservative position that were then circulating widely on third-level campuses.
Against the motion the main speakers were then chair of the UCD Gay and Lesbian Equality Society, Emma Donoghue, now a celebrated writer, and Senator David Norris, who had recently had success in the European Court in his campaign to decriminalise homosexuality.
The debate on the night was lively, informative and entertaining. The audience was very large and the vote overwhelmingly against the motion.
It is hard to believe that more than quarter of century later some of the same apprehensions are still playing out in the debate around gay rights in this country. Many liberals seem to be afraid to let a conservative position be heard in the debate. Do they lack confidence in their own ability to counter it?
It is worrying at this important moment, a year out from when the people will directly decide on the issue, that a pattern has already developed of seeking to edit out opposing views rather than confront and defeat them.
In their anxiety to advance the issue of gay rights, some liberals indeed are seeking to set aside the basic tenets of free speech. Two recent examples illustrate this.