Homophobia watchdog needed before marriage equality referendum

LGBT rights debate shows how far Irish society needs to progress

Participants in the fourth annual LGBT march through Dublin in support of same-sex marriage. Photograph: Aidan Crawley

Participants in the fourth annual LGBT march through Dublin in support of same-sex marriage. Photograph: Aidan Crawley


Another week, another landslide of stories about the torrid mistreatment of LGBT people. In Russia, Vladimir Putin reinforced his disgusting attitude towards LGBT people in the run-up to the Winter Olympics in Sochi, saying gay people should leave children in peace. In Nigeria, gay men are being rounded up, arrested, tortured and whipped because of their sexuality. We need to fight homophobia internationally and at home.

In Ireland, discourse surrounding LGBT rights will amplify in the run-up to 2015’s referendum on marriage equality, as well as upcoming legislation concerned with matters of adoption. Teachings of the Catholic Church on homosexuality are homophobic. Hopefully, those teachings will evolve, as other teachings have. Most of the prominent voices in the Irish media who oppose marriage being extended to same-sex couples represent a Catholic point of view, organisation, or the church itself. At the time of writing, the performer and businessman Rory O’Neill has received four solicitors’ letters from associates of the Iona Institute objecting to a brief discussion on the nuances of subtle homophobia in Irish society on Brendan O’Connor’s Saturday Night Show on RTÉ.

RTÉ also received legal correspondence* leading the station to remove the programme from the RTÉ Player. It was later reinstated with O’Neill’s interview edited. But that’s not all. Last week, Ryan Tubridy’s show ran an item asking listeners to text in if they had a “GBF”, or a “gay best friend”. I’m sure there was no harm intended, but there wasn’t much thought put into it either. The trivialisation of gay people as valid only in the context of their friendships with non-gay people, or as some kind of accessory may be “fun” to discuss, but it is also silly and othering.

On Thursday The God Slot, a religious programme on RTÉ Radio One tweeted “Can gays be cured of being gay?” ahead of a broadcast. It doesn’t matter what the answer was, the question is offensive and stupid. The idiocy continued with The God Slot Twitter account hysterically replying to one Twitter user, “can questions not be posed in this age of fascism masquerading as liberalism?” This trend of shouting down fair accusations of discrimination is as transparent as it is insidious.

Everyone is scared of being labelled a racist. Yet the term “homophobia” is being wrestled from LGBT people, as if they are not able to identify it when they see it. Today, it almost feels as though when you call someone on homophobia, the alleged perpetrator reacts as if it is he or she who has been victimised.

In the lead-up to the referendum on marriage equality next year, there is a need for an independent homophobia watchdog to monitor the inevitable destructive rhetoric that will colour one side of the debate, without fear of legal repercussions. Depictions of LGBT people in the media that in any way infer that their relationships or parenting skills are inferior to those of heterosexuals should be condemned. Unlike in some countries, Irish law does not permit the execution of gay people, but that doesn’t mean homophobia doesn’t exist.

Anti-equality rhetoric both in the media and enshrined in legislation is, in my opinion, directly responsible for physical and verbal attacks on gay people. It creates an invisible atmosphere that gives homophobic people a sense of entitlement. It can be subtle or blatant; it can be words or knives.

“Free speech” is not a free pass to inflict psychological trauma just because you don’t want lesbians or gay people to get married. Opponents of marriage equality are not the victims in this debate.

In Ireland, LGBT people have been beaten, murdered, bullied, verbally abused, fired, shouted at in the streets, ghettoised and othered for decades and longer. Remarkably, this culture of discrimination against LGBT people in Ireland has not resulted in a victim complex, but in a brave resilience. If there’s anger, it is in O’Neill’s own words, a righteous anger. LGBT people have risen out of a darkness imposed by society, with dignity, to become fine leaders and fine people. LGBT people have supported each other; they have been there for each other to heal the psychological trauma of harassment and discrimination.

Political capital
While LGBT citizens have contributed vast amounts to our society, culture and economy, the State has twiddled its thumbs, wondering whether and when political capital can be gained from letting a majority decide on the rights of a minority. Meanwhile, the media encourages religious doctrine articulated on secular legislation for the sake of “debate”. And when any issue of discrimination is raised, there are legal teams waiting in the wings to claim doublethink victimhood.

An enlightened Irish public is now overwhelmingly in favour of marriage equality. So if opponents of full equality for LGBT citizens want a fight, they should prepare for defeat, with dignity.

*This article was edited at 9.30pm on Monday, January 20th, 2014

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