My article from this year's official programme for Dublin Pride, which was launched last night in Glitz
If the dramatic events that have rocked the globe since we last met for Pride have taught us anything, it’s that the global is the local. The US economy sneezed and the rest of the world caught a cold. Similarly, last November’s presidential election in the US fascinated and engaged the international community like few exercises in modern western democracy ever have, and the resultant election of Barack Obama soon prompted just about every other world leader to start speaking in the language of hope and renewal in the face of worry and despair, even, Lord help us, our own calamitous government here in Ireland.
In the same vein, the age-old chestnuts of gay marriage and homophobia have also weighed heavily on the minds of LGBT communities all over the world this past year. When Californian voters passed the despicable Proposition 8 to revoke gay marriage laws, on the same day as the state and the country elected its first African-American president, it wasn’t difficult for gay people in Dublin to sense what way the wind was blowing. Such a huge setback in terms of gay rights anywhere is bound to have a ripple effect.
Progress in terms of gay marriage here in Ireland has proved to be dependably, frustratingly slow. We’ve been kept waiting. And waiting. And waiting. Is our legislature the ultimate call centre or what? It can be hard to keep up the fight in the face of such legal foot-dragging, but several campaigning groups here in Ireland have refused to stay silent on the matter, and they deserve to be duly applauded for that.
Complacency is a dangerous thing. We have been all guilty of it and I incriminate myself in that charge as much as anyone. So wasn’t it inspiring to see some 700 people turn up at the LGBT Noise protest in favour of gay marriage at the Central Bank in Dame Street in April? There was a real sense of unity and purpose to the march, and it was a fantastic reminder to us all that complaining isn’t enough. Moaning to one another isn’t enough. That anger needs to be translated into (wo)manpower, boots pounding the streets, and a campaign of noisy, inconvenient protest to keep the pressure on our elected representatives to do the right thing.
After all, as quite a few gay people pointed out in recent months, if it’s okay for two total strangers to get married as part of a Waterford radio station’s latest publicity campaign, and all to not a peep of protest from the anti-gay marriage brigade who have charged themselves with “saving” marriage from the apparent degradation we would bring to it, then what’s the hold up allowing gay marriage in this country? Such inconsistencies in our opponents’ arguments need to be pointed out and aired as publicly as possible.
Like many other gay people this year, I was profoundly moved by Gus Van Sant’s movie Milk, which told the story of America’s first openly gay public official Harvey Milk. Every gay person, without exception, that I spoke to after that movie left the cinema feeling fired up and ready to fight.
Even more said they couldn’t help but get misty-eyed listening to that movie’s young screenwriter Dustin Lance Black speak so poignantly about growing up gay during his speech collecting his much deserved Oscar. I think it would be worth remembering those feelings anytime you feel momentum slipping. Get the movie on DVD or watch Lance Black and Sean Penn’s Oscar acceptance speeches on YouTube if you must!
Because we need that momentum. There are still many fights we have to wage. A startling documentary made for Newstalk last summer entitled Faggot, Freak, Dyke, Whatever laid bare the facts of homophobic bullying in some of our schools.
This was backed up by a comprehensive survey of LGBT mental health issues produced by BelongTo, GLEN and the National Office for Suicide Prevention that reported shockingly high percentages of homophobic bullying and abuse. On the other hand, that research also credited gay people for their amazing resilience in overcoming such setbacks, and it’s that resilience that we need to draw on now and in the years ahead.
We need to be resilient when confronted with people like Pope Benedictator, who, true to form, used his Christmas message to label gay people a greater threat to humanity than global warming. Or when Northern Ireland MP, and the region’s effective First Lady, Iris ‘The Virus’ Robinson - this island’s answer to Fred Phelps - unapologetically spewed forth her hateful bilge about gay people being more vile than child abusers.
What’s more, it’s equally important that we challenge the quieter and seemingly harmless, but ultimately no-less insidious forms of homophobia in our midst. For instance, last August singer Brian McFadden casually joked during an interview that only gay men should wear pink, before adding that “saying pink is a form of red is the same as saying homosexual is a form of male”.
There were howls of protest, and he grumpily, reluctantly apologised, if that’s the right word. “I’m sorry if I upset anybody,” McFadden said, though he never atoned for suggesting that gay men aren’t “real men”. He genuinely didn’t seem to think there was anything wrong with that statement.
He shouldn’t be let get away with remarks like that. Nor should BBC DJ Chris Moyles for mocking gay singer Will Young by parodying his song Leave Right Now in a high pitched, effeminate voice (sample of Moyle’s lyrics: ‘It's my birthday today, gonna wear my new dress tonight’). Regarding that incident, the UK’s broadcasting regulator warned that “such material runs the risk of being imitated by children, for instance in the playground, causing unnecessary distress”.
That’s an important point, and one I will throw back at anyone who accuses me of having no sense of humour. I’m quite good at laughing at myself, but I don’t think it’s funny that the word ‘gay’ is bandied about playgrounds as the worst kind of insult. The kind of statements by Iris Robinson and Pope Benedict and the “joking around” of McFadden and Moyles has a very serious trickle-down effect.
If kids as young as four or five are learning that homosexuality is something to mock and be afraid of, what hope do we have for a future of tolerance and respect? Like their language, kids learn their beliefs and attitudes by osmosis from a very early age. If we lose them to ignorance and prejudice that young, then it’s truly an uphill struggle to ever get them back.
We have a vibrant, eclectic, intelligent, brave gay community here in Ireland, brimming with confidence and good ideas. Can you imagine, even 10 years ago, a gay prom being held in the Mansion House and all to extremely positive coverage in the mainstream press?
That shows that things are changing, that equality can be achieved. But it’s also worth remembering the lesson that history has gleamed from such prominent agents of change as Harvey Milk and Barack Obama: equality, and freedom, can only be claimed and re-invented by those with the courage and tenacity to reach out and grab it.