Homophobia in Ireland

Huw Lemmey

‘Enlightenment does not produce tolerance; tolerance is the result of boredom,’ Quentin Crisp said in 1968, when asked about changing social attitudes towards homosexuals. ‘The facts have to be repeated over and over and over, and in the end people say: "All right, so you’re queer. Just talk about something else." And then the work is done.’

It seemed that the moment of peak boredom had come for gay people in Ireland in their fight for equal marriage rights. With a referendum timetabled for early 2015, and the government getting behind the ‘Yes’ campaign following strong recommendations from the Constitutional Convention, gay rights campaigners seem confident, if not complacent, about a change in the law.

But they haven’t won yet. Catholic pressure groups are campaigning against gay marriage. The Irish Times commentator John Waters called it ‘a satire’. ‘It’s not that they want to get married,’ he wrote, ‘they want to destroy the institution of marriage because they’re envious of it.’

The drag performer Rory O’Neill said on the Saturday Night Show last month that attitudes such as Waters’s represent a ‘subtle homophobia’. O’Neill, better known by his drag name Panti Bliss, is a forthright defender of the gay community in Ireland and something of a mother figure to Dublin’s gay community. He also criticised the Iona Institute, a right-wing Catholic lobby group prominently involved in the campaign against equal marriage, calling its members ‘homophobes’.

O’Neill soon heard from lawyers acting on behalf of the Iona Institute, claiming defamation, and from Waters, asking for public clarification that he was not homophobic. RTE, the state broadcaster of the Saturday Night Show, apologised for O’Neill’s statements, removed them from their online playback service and offered all complainants (including members of the Iona Institute not mentioned by name) a right to reply and an opportunity to appear on the show. They all turned the offer down.

In his column for the Irish Independent, the Iona Institute’s director, David Quinn, wrote that a ‘calm and respectful debate’ on equal marriage was now impossible in Ireland, while Waters said the debate was effectively over, and the taoiseach might as well end the charade and pass an equal marriage act into law.

If only. But Quinn and Waters seemed to be right about the stifling of debate, with most papers limiting their coverage of the row as the atmosphere grew increasingly litigious. Until, that is, it emerged that RTE’s apologies had been accompanied by an €85,000 pay-out to the complainants, which put the story back on the front pages. The communications minister, Pat Rabbite, said it was a ‘matter of serious concern if recourse to our defamation laws was to have a chilling effect on the conduct of public debate on this issue, in the lead-in to the forthcoming referendum on gay marriage’. The Iona Institute made the most of the increased publicity, running full page adverts in the Irish Catholic claiming ‘the true nature of marriage… is under threat as never before’ and asking for donations.

These tactics may have backfired spectacularly for the Iona Institute, not least thanks to a powerful and nuanced speech that O’Neill, in character as Panti Bliss, gave on stage at the Abbey Theatre on 1 February. More than half a million people have watched it on YouTube. It is precisely this normalisation of gay voices that the Iona Institute and John Waters seem intent on preventing. O'Neill described the compound oppression of gay people who are not only victims of homophobia, but are prevented from defining what they experience as homophobia, and feel compelled to police their own behaviour. He called out his entire audience, and himself, as homophobic: ‘It would be incredible if we weren’t. To grow up in a society that is overwhelmingly and stiflingly homophobic and to somehow escape unscathed would be miraculous.’