The H Word


On The Saturday Night Show last weekend, Rory O’Neill dared to use the word ‘homophobic’ in relation to certain newspaper columnists. It’s high time someone did, says Brian Finnegan.


In 2012, when David Norris was running for the presidency, and was being dragged through fictitious mud that tainted his good name by attaching the vague, untrue whiff of paedophilia to it, nobody – either in the media or in the David Norris camp – dared to call the blackening of his campaign ‘homophobia’.

Senator Norris, an outspoken gay man, was running for the second highest position in the land, and certain powers that be decided that he should be stopped. Stories were leaked and carefully massaged so that the general public would begin internally questioning whether he might be sexually attracted to young boys, or whether he supported relationships between men and young boys, despite the fact that he’s clearly not and doesn’t.

When Helen Lucy Burke went on The Joe Duffy Show to discuss an interview she’d done with Norris a decade earlier in Magill magazine, during which the Senator had academically discussed Greek notion of pederasty. In the piece she casually mentioned that Norris was going on a trip to Thailand the day after she met him. This, I believe, was to plant the notion that Norris might be a sex tourist (since Thailand is notorious for attracting such visitors), despite the fact that he was actually visiting the country as part of a mission to combat poverty.

Anybody who believes that gay men are sexually interested in young boys is homophobic. The spreading of that belief is homophobia at work. But there’s a problem with calling it this, because those who work to spread homophobia also seek to belittle it. If we cry ‘homophobia’ in the face of homophobia, we are told we’re being hysterical.

I believe that Senator Norris did not come out and call Helen Lucy Burke a homophobe – or the media laceration that came after Burke’s Joe Duffy interview, downright homophobia – because he knew this would have been leapt upon and also used against him. He understood that it would become a fight about something else – gays versus homophobes – rather than a fight to keep his own good name and stay in the race.

On Saturday night Rory O’Neill – aka Ireland’s most famous drag queen, Miss Panti – was interviewed by Brendan O’Connor on RTE’s The Saturday Night Show. Much of the content of the interview was taken up with O’Neill growing up gay in the village of Ballinrobe, Co. Mayo, in the seventies and eighties, and the experiences of young gay men back then, but towards the end of the proceedings, the talk turned to certain newspaper columnists and media commentators and their rhetoric around gay issues. O’Neill mentioned the Iona Institute, the Irish Times’ Breda O’Brien and John Waters, and in the same breath used the word “homophobia”.

O’Connor said he knew Waters personally and that he wouldn’t use the word homophobe in relation to him, giving O’Neill a golden opportunity to talk about what homophobia actually is, an opportunity he grabbed with open arms.

He directly compared it to racism, saying that everyone’s a little bit racist, but that our best instincts get us to recognise this and try to alter our mindsets. Homophobia is exactly the same; everyone – even gay people – is a little bit homophobic. But because there is an underlying belief that racism and homophobia aren’t equal, lots of us give in to it. We don’t question our own homophobia as we might question our own racism; we don’t use our best instincts.

The idea that homophobia isn’t equal to racism is rooted in the lie that homosexuality is a ‘chosen lifestyle’. People can’t choose the colour of their skin, but they can sure choose who they sleep with. To some extent, this is true. We do choose who we sleep with. But we are born gay. As Macklemore and Ryan Lewis might say, we can’t change, even if we tried, even if we wanted to. And if we were to choose not to sleep with members of our own gender, never to experience that human love and intimacy we are born to desire, we would be choosing not to really live.

In 2009, when the film Bruno was released, John Waters and I ended up on The Pat Kenny Show to discuss it. Talking about how Sacha Baron Cohen goaded people into homophobic reactions in the film, John Waters suggested that homophobia didn’t really exist. I begged to differ, citing the hanging of two young gay men in Iran around that time as very real proof that it does. Saying that homophobia doesn’t exist is in itself homophobic.

Any columnist or commentator who has the sad temerity to spread the homophobic word while people who were born gay do not have equal rights in our society, and are abused and disenfranchised because of this, is doing a great wrong. Homophobia is as deep as racism, and it is the same as racism – no two ways about it.

O’Neill was also right to call homophobia for what it is. In the lead up to the Family Relationships and Children Bill this year, and next year’s referendum on same-sex marriage, there will be a lot of it about. There might be an argument against using the word – that the use of it will be leapt upon by our detractors and used against us, as it could have been leapt upon when Senator Norris was running for the presidency. But are we to stand back and let homophobes say what they want without naming and shaming them?

Would we do the same with overt racists? I don’t think so.

© 2014 GCN (Gay Community News). All rights reserved.

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