Working with young people, we can eliminate homophobia in Ireland

Opinion: Irish people have shown a very strong level of support for the LGBT community


The past two months have been extraordinary for the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community, our friends and families.

Yesterday, as Minister for Education Ruairí Quinn launched the fifth annual Stand Up! campaign against homophobic and transphobic bullying campaign, which is organised by BeLonG To, the national organisation for LGBT young people, he did so in a country that has taken on homophobia as a matter of urgent public discourse in an unprecedented way.

Since Rory O’Neill’s appearance on RTÉ’s Saturday Night Show on January 11th a bizarre but crucial series of events has unfolded. Speeches went viral, solicitors’ letters went flying, large amounts of money were paid out, protests occurred, campaign T-shirts were printed and people shared experiences of homophobia.

Overwhelming support
The Irish people responded by overwhelmingly showing their support for the LGBT community. At BeLonG To we received phone calls, letters and donations from people who were moved by hearing about the injustices we experience and the harm caused by generations of hostility – people who want a better, more just Ireland.

However, there has been an attempt to reduce the conversation over the past months to a debate about same-sex marriage. It is convenient for those who oppose equality to frame this as a defence of “traditional” marriage. This opposition, supported by generations of ingrained structural homophobia, continues to affect LGBT people’s rights to equal education, housing, employment, healthcare and, of course, safety from violence.

LGBT teenagers are the most likely to experience homophobia. Research shows most experience homophobia in school and most teachers recognise the problem. It also shows there is a direct relationship between experiences of homophobia in adolescence and poor mental health, including attempted suicide.

At BeLonG To we have spent a decade working to change this and to analyse why homophobia is so prevalent and damaging among young people. One reason is the strict gender policing young people are subjected to – young men must act like “real” men and young women must learn to be conventionally desirable women. Homophobia is one stick used to beat those who don’t conform.

Another reason is in the nature of the Irish education system. The enduring influence on it of the Catholic Church is perhaps nowhere more clearly articulated than in the exceptionalist bias of Irish employment legislation. At present, section 37.1 of the Equality Employment Act allows religious institutions to discriminate in the hiring and promotion of staff in order to uphold their religious ethos.

Being openly LGBT can, therefore, be legitimate grounds for not hiring or promoting staff in denominational schools. This has created a situation whereby LGBT teachers fear coming out and being role models. In schools the negative consequences of section 37.1 affect the way in which sexuality is discussed, and whether homophobic bullying is challenged and LGBT students are supported. While Catholic-maintained schools can be run in a way that is inclusive of LGBT young people, it is clear they are often alienated within such environments.

Significant change
However, significant change is happening. In 2013 the Department of Education published the first national action plan on bullying, which prioritises actions to combat homophobic and transphobic bullying. It states that a school’s ethos cannot and should not be a barrier to respecting and valuing LGBT members of the school community or tackling homophobic bullying. New mandatory anti-bullying procedures oblige all schools to take proactive, educational measures to create cultures that are safe for LGBT young people. A curriculum on LGBT identity is now taught, and the Department of Education co-sponsors the Stand Up! campaign.

We can now work to make schooling the transformative experience it should be. Schools can be places where young people learn to think for themselves, embracing and respecting the reality that we live in a fascinating diverse society. Working with children and young people we can eliminate any stigma attached to being LGBT and end homophobia.

Michael Barron is founding director of BeLonG To

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