'The last thing I want is to be stereotyped as the gay TD'
It shouldn’t be news that the Dáil now has two openly gay members, but it is. So how do John Lyons and Dominic Hannigan view their roles?
IN 2011 IS IT A STORY or not that two openly gay TDs have been elected to the Dáil? It shouldn’t be, but it is. Homosexuality was not decriminalised here until 1993. So if the newly elected Labour politicians Dominic Hannigan and John Lyons had belonged to a different generation, they would not have been able to be open about their sexuality when campaigning for office.
“The last thing in the world that I want is to be stereotyped as a gay TD,” says Lyons, who stood in Dublin North West. “I hope people see me as a competent young person, with new ideas, who is energetic and capable. But the fact that homosexuality was still against the law in the early 1990s says a lot about things back then, and how Ireland has changed.
“I do think the transition has been quite smudged, though. There hasn’t been one particular event when things changed. The change has been gradual and slow.”
The 33-year-old says he has received many congratulatory texts and e-mails “of encouragement and positivity” since being elected, specifically referring to the fact that he was open about his sexuality. “It’s great it can be said in public. The feedback I’ve been getting since being elected says it all.”
Could he imagine an openly gay candidate canvassing at his door in Ballymun when he was a teenager? “No, I couldn’t. So it’s great that it can be said in public now. Growing up, I didn’t have a role model of someone who was gay and also in the public eye. But I hope the fact myself and Dominic have been elected will show people that you are more than your sexuality. We’re in the public eye in a positive way.”
Lyons, who took leave from his job as a teacher at St Vincent’s secondary school in Glasnevin to run for office, won a seat on his first attempt. Was his decision to align himself with Labour influenced by its manifesto on social policy, which pledges to hold a referendum on constitutional recognition of same-sex marriages?
“Not at all,” he says. “It was a combination of a few things. Growing up in Ballymun meant that I found Labour’s core values the core values I find in myself. Growing up in Ballymun in itself is an injustice. What I mean by that is . . . you’re more likely to drop out of education, more likely to end up in social housing, to get a lower-paid job and to die younger.
“I am driven by an innate sense of justice. In Ballymun I see a community that sometimes isn’t listened to by state agencies and where injustices still go on. And, as someone who has lived there, and still lives there, I might now be in some position to address a lack of fairness.”
Unsurprisingly, given his teaching background, he says education is an area he will be particularly interested in becoming involved with when in office. “When I was at secondary school in Ballymun it had one of the highest drop-out rates in the country – and it still does,” Lyons says.
Does he think the fact that two new TDs who are going into Leinster House are open about their sexuality will make life easier or harder for TDs who may be gay but have chosen not to reveal it? “If it helps some people to do the same that’s great. But it is each and every person’s own prerogative to reveal that information.”
DOMINIC HANNIGAN, who also won a Dáil seat for the first time in this election, represents Meath East. A civil engineer by training, he first became involved in politics in 2004 when he was elected a councillor; in 2007 he was made a senator.
“The fact I was gay would have been known for many years in my circle,” he says. “Then in 2005, when I stood in the Meath byelection, I decided that I’d be upfront about it. It was a worry that people might say I had something to hide if I didn’t, and use it against me.”
Unlike Lyons, who never made a formal statement about his sexuality, Hannigan gave an interview to this newspaper in 2005. It was picked up elsewhere, including by one of his local papers, which published an anonymous letter from a reader referring to Hannigan’s sexuality in derogatory terms.
“It was not nice, put it that way,” he says. “But what happened the following week was that the paper published two pages of letters from readers in support of me, saying that they – the paper – should never have published an anonymous letter. I think those pages of letters showed me how Ireland had moved on.” He says coming out publicly was “the best course of action. Because then there was no chance that someone could hold something over me”.
Like Lyons, Hannigan says he could not imagine an openly gay candidate canvassing in his area when he was a teenager. “Some people have said to me that they admire my honesty. The biggest surprise is how understanding people have been.”
When he was a teenager he had no gay role model who held the kind of position he now has, he says. “Maybe me being open about it will help other young gay people to know they can also succeed.”
Hannigan chose Labour because he has had a long affiliation with its politics. When he lived in England he was a member of the Labour Party there and canvassed for candidates. “As a social democrat those are my politics: fairness, tolerance and equality.”
Although Labour had same-sex marriage in its manifesto, Fine Gael, with which it is likely to form a coalition, did not. “In the next few days we’ll be sitting down with Fine Gael and looking at each part of our manifestos, and that will be one of them.”
Neither Lyons nor Hannigan mentions David Norris at all until asked about him, which is perhaps surprising given the veteran senator’s long association with politics and campaigning for gay rights. Nor does either mention him as a role model. “Unfortunately, some people could have seen him over the years as the ‘gay guy in politics’,” Lyons says. It is, he adds, a reductive description. “He definitely became synonymous with gay rights.”
Both Lyons and Hannigan expect they will be asked by the gay community to lobby on their behalf – a request Hannigan encountered while a senator. They both point out they have been elected by a wide cohort of the electorate and will be working to represent all their constituents. “I wasn’t elected by one section of society,” says Hannigan. Lyons adds, “I’m sure I will be asked to advocate, but there are lots of issues out there, and that’s only one of them.”