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Monday, November 19, 2007

Weekend's 10th birthday

My contribution to the 10th anniversary feature of Weekend magazine in the Irish Independent, 17/11/2007

From the vantage point of 2007, it’s almost inconceivable to believe that the same laws that were used to persecute Oscar Wilde in 1895 were still on Irish statute books in 1993. But in June of that year, Ireland’s first female Justice Minister, Maire Geoghegan-Quinn, courageously introduced and pushed through legislation to decriminalise homosexuality.

With that most fundamental hurdle overcome, the past ten years have seen a flourishing of equality legislation that extended further rights to gay people. A year after Weekend began, the 1998 Employment Equality Act was introduced that outlawed discrimination in relation to employment and the workplace on 9 grounds, including sexual orientation.

I don’t think that the effect of this can be overstated. Since that law was first implemented by the Equality Authority in 1999, it has helped to usher in a crucial, trickle-down change in attitudes towards hiring practices, as well as issues of respect and dignity in the work environment. Today, it’s so much easier, and indeed common, for many gay workers to be out in the workplace, with some more progressive companies even having their own LGBT societies! The glaring exception in this regard is religious-owned organisations, which are exempt from the equality legislation, making life as an out worker more difficult for some teachers and medical staff.

The law has also changed life for Irish gay people in a wider sense since 1997. The Equal Status Act 2000 looked beyond the workplace to outlaw discrimination in the provision of goods and services on 9 grounds, again including sexual orientation. Even though decriminalisation was in place since 1993, it was still possible 5 and 6 years later for gay people to be refused an apartment, a hotel/B&B room or even to be served a drink in some establishments. This, again, seems unbelievable in 2007, but there are many gay people of a certain generation who will be painfully able to recall meeting such hostility, even in the late 1990s.

This all seems like a history lesson to me, even though I’m only 26, and this has occurred in the past 10 years. Mine is the first Irish generation to come of age at a time when homosexuality has become ‘normalised’ by rapid social and legal change, so much so that many of my peers, and younger, see the proposed Government civil partnership legislation as a given right, and cannot understand the current delays and hesitation. Things are not perfect, but that sense of innate worth that seems to be instilled in gay people today has only been achieved by reaping the benefits hard won over the past decade.

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