Attacks on LGBTQI+ people prompt call for robust hate crime laws

Situation has worsened since marriage equality referendum passed, says student

Eoghan Ryder (28) has been threatened at a fast-food restaurant, on public transport and in the workplace. He was "bashed into" by a passer-by who called him "f****t" while he was holding his partner's hand, and has been verbally abused, followed and physically threatened.

The UCD student describes himself as “quite reserved” and generally is “left alone” as a gay man. He has never been physically attacked. However, a “sense of threat” is there if “even slightly intimate with a partner” in public.

Following the homophobic assault of Evan Somers in Dublin's city centre at the weekend, and the killings in Sligo this week that gardaí said are being investigated as possible hate crimes, he says the environment for LGBTQI+ people appears to have worsened since the "euphoria" that greeted passage of the marriage equality referendum in 2015.

“There was a sense after that we could be calm and relaxed in our identities.” In the months that followed, he agrees, gay couples were more open about embracing, kissing and showing affection in public. “But since Trump, Brexit and the rise of the far right, there has been a decline in that.

“I do think young trans and non-binary people are more open and relaxed about their identity in public [but less about open displays of affection].”

Without hate crime legislation – due to be enacted by the summer, according to Minister for Justice Helen McEntee – data on hate-motivated assaults are not systematically recorded by gardaí. Data recorded by helplines, however, indicate homophobic violence is increasing.

‘Huge under-reporting’

LGBT Ireland, which runs a helpline, received five calls about violence or harassment in 2019, 15 such calls in 2020 and 21 last year.

"We know there is a huge under-reporting," says the organisation's chief executive, Paula Fagan. "What is very widespread is homophobic slurs, homophobic language, threats."

While the 2015 referendum has made Ireland “friendlier” for the community within families, workplaces and friendship groups, she says there has been a discernible shift to “far-right influences, certainly online, with negative and very vicious hate speech.

“That seems to be more noticeable and spilling out on to the streets, which we saw on Dame Street at the weekend.”

Of particular concern are some older, or newly arrived, LGBTQI+ people who “may not be fully out”, she said.

“They are meeting people in secret. Their closest loved ones often don’t know about this aspect of their lives, so they aren’t able to have the same safeguards in place when meeting people on dating apps.

“Certainly we would see a lot of older men on the online dating apps who end up being blackmailed or threatened to be ‘outed’.”

Underpinning all this, she says, is the “ongoing, prevailing stigma” which some in the community have internalised and still hold very strongly.

“Irish society has come on but there are lot of people still holding that. We can’t just get rid of it in five years. There’s an awful lot of work still to be done.”

She urged people to call the LGBT Ireland helpline, “to build support around them”.

There is a safety issue for people who aren’t fully out, she said. This was especially necessary for people who were meeting people on apps or in secret. “There is a vulnerability people may underestimate, that may not be there in a heterosexual context,” she said.

‘Normalised’

Liam Herrick, executive director of the Irish Council for Civil Liberties, described hate-motivated crimes as "message crimes" and said they "result in entire communities feeling silenced and marginalised". He and Ms Fagan reiterated their calls for robust hate crime legislation.

Mr Somers, speaking on RTÉ Radio's Liveline programme on Wednesday from hospital, said he had suffered a fractured eye socket and broken ankle. The attack "was and is" a trauma, he said.

“I don’t know any gay or trans who hasn’t got a comment here or there. I have definitely been called f****t before. It’s almost become so normalised it’s become accepted,” he said.

“I think 2015 I remember the sense of euphoria that I felt and that the LGBT community felt when marriage equality was passed, it was such a proud moment and I think looking back that will always be a proud moment for this country . . . [but] it’s not the end of the story.

“Just because that was passed it’s not okay to say, ‘Okay that’s done, we’re equal’, because clearly as we have seen over the past while we’re just not.”

LGBT Ireland helpline is a freephone: 1800 929 539

Kitty Holland

Kitty Holland

Kitty Holland is Social Affairs Correspondent of The Irish Times