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

'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.


Homosexuality condemned
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.

Last week, RTÉ Radio's The God Slot, as part of advance promotion for a programme on the topic of homosexuality and religion, tweeted the question: "Can gays be cured of being gay?"

Like our motion at the C&E, this was obviously deliberately provocative. The producers quickly found themselves compelled to withdraw and apologise for the tweet because of a storm of protest which seemed to suggest that raising the suggestion that homosexuality was something one might need to be cured of – clearly with a view to debunking it – was not permissible.

Libel threats
I did not see RTÉ Television's The Saturday Night Show last weekend. I have not seen it since because the relevant segment has been taken off the RTÉ player after libel threats from some of those referred to by the guest, Rory O'Neill. Several people have told me since that he suggested that anyone who opposed equality for gay and lesbian people was homophobic.

Homophobia is a horrible word. It is defined as “an extreme and irrational aversion to homosexuality and homosexual people”. In ordinary usage in the current debate, the term is even harsher. Those who accuse others of being homophobes are not only branding them extremists but also suggesting they hate gay and lesbian people. Given its potency, it is an adjective which, if used at all, should be used sparingly.

The suggestion that anyone who disagrees with full equality for gays and lesbians is homophobic is surely a misuse of the word.

An overwhelming majority of our parents’ and our grandparents’ generation opposed equal rights for gays and lesbians; indeed most of them supported the continued criminalisation of homosexuality.

'Shower of homophobes'
To many of us today that seems irrational on their part, but which of us would brand our parents or grandparents as a shower of homophobes?

Calling opponents homophobes may bring some level of satisfaction to those who do it and may attract cheers of applause in their own circles and on microblogs in the liberal realm, but it does nothing to advance the cause of debate.

It is also counterproductive in the effort to engage and persuade the mass of the moderate Irish electorate to support and vote for marriage equality.

Ill-informed or irrational commentary on this, as on all issues, is best confronted by better-informed and better-articulated counter-argument.

Having watched the progress of referendum debates for three decades and participated in some of them, including the most recent one on the Seanad, I have found that the single thing most likely to make Irish people suspicious of any proposal is a sense that they are not being given the opportunity to truly debate it.

I am, and have long been, squarely on the side of those campaigning for marriage equality.

My worry at this early stage of the campaign is that the intolerance shown by some liberal advocates on the issue will undermine the prospects of achieving constitutional reform.