Historians will no doubt come to look at these early months of 2015 as being pivotal in the evolution of the LGBT rights movement, says Adam Long.
Two key pieces of legislation were enacted in Ireland recently, namely the Marriage Equality and Children and Family Relationship Bills.
The passage of the Marriage Equality Bill enables the Referendum to take place on May 22, and was subject to strong and passionate debate in the Seanad. Senator Katherine Zappone (pictured above) spoke in very personal terms about the issue and was applauded by colleagues at the end of her speech.
Senator Averil Power was sharply critical of efforts by many of those advocating a No vote to muddy the waters and pointed out the factual position that a Yes vote on May 22 will have no bearing whatsoever on the laws concerning adoption and guardianship issues. Senator David Norris made a typically passionate speech and was scathing of those religious organisations seeking to deny same-sex couples equality under civil law.
There was predictable opposition from Senators Jim Walsh, Fergal Quinn and Ronan Mullen, the latter making unsuccessful attempts to introduce wrecking amendments. However the Bill passed by a resounding majority and the result received a standing ovation from Senators on the conclusion of the debate.
Justice Minister Frances Fitzgerald praised the nature of the debate and firmly ruled out the inclusion of any so-called ‘conscience clause’ that would allow service providers discriminate against LGBT people under law.
While the large political consensus in favour of this progressive constitutional change is very welcome indeed, ultimately it is the hearts and minds of the Irish electorate that we need to win over. No one should be in any way complacent about the outcome.
The Children and Family Relationship Bill was passed by the Oireachtas in advance of the same-sex marriage referendum. This important and comprehensive updating of Irish law will extend legal rights and protections to the many diverse family units that exist across modern Ireland, including those headed up by same-sex couples and parents.
It represents a major advancement for children growing up in what are described as ‘non-traditional’ families and should ensure that no child is discriminated against on account of their family circumstances. All the major child advocacy groups supported the Bill and it has been described as the law finally catching up with the lived experiences of many Irish people.
The ability of same-sex and cohabiting couples to jointly adopt – central provisions of the bill – enjoy widespread public support, as evidenced in an Irish Times opinion poll in March, which measured support for both reforms at over 70%.
Comments made by Senator Jim Walsh during the course of the debate drew wide condemnation. In a bizarre contribution, Walsh claimed to have spoken to a gay man who apparently believed that the money being spent on the marriage equality referendum would be better devoted to funding HIV testing for gay men.
The deeply offensive remarks served to conjure up the kind of negative and damaging stereotypes of gay men that belong to a bygone era. Walsh had previously warned that LGBT relationships could never be afforded the same status as heterosexual unions. Clearly the notion of equality of rights in the Irish Republic is not one embraced by this senator.
The announcement of a referendum was always going to serve as a magnet for some deeply unpleasant, reactionary voices whose opposition to LGBT rights goes far beyond the issue of marriage equality. We have already seen hateful leaflets produced with spurious claims about the lifespans of gay people and other odious statements.
Broadcasters and others reporting on the referendum have a special responsibility not to facilitate or legitimise prejudice in their coverage. This referendum must not be allowed to serve as a kind of ‘free for all’ where any type of anti-gay commentary is considered acceptable under a distorted view of what constitutes balanced debate. For example, unchallenged statements comparing LGBT relationships to incest and such like have already been heard on the airwaves.
Existing equality legislation and incitement to hatred laws have not been suspended for the duration of this campaign. Indeed, rules issued by media regulatory bodies themselves such as the BAI (Broadcasting Authority of Ireland) make specific reference to programme material not facilitating discrimination against groups that are protected under the nine equality grounds, including sexual orientation.
We know from published studies that incidents of self-harm and suicide are already far higher among LGBT youth than the population more generally, due to bullying and other forms of homophobia. The impact of hateful discourse, often defended on grounds of ‘balance’, must not be underestimated.
Speaking of ‘balance’, the state broadcaster circulated a memo to all its staff recently, instructing them not to reveal even the slightest support for a particular side during the marriage equality referendum on their social media pages. This ‘gagging order’ does not just apply to high profile RTÉ presenters or those working in current affairs, who are reasonably expected to refrain from expressing a personal opinion, but indeed to everyone who works for the station in any capacity.
Incredibly, any LGBT staff member, including someone not even connected to news output, is now prohibited from simply sharing or re-tweeting a statement of support for what is the single biggest and most high profile LGBT civil rights issue of this generation.
The circular is excessive and does a huge disservice to RTÉ’s LGBT employees. And more broadly, people have an expectation that expressions of personal views will be respected, once it is clear that they are speaking solely on their own behalf and those views adhere to certain basic standards.
Historians will no doubt come to look at these early months of 2015 as being pivotal in the evolution of the LGBT rights movement in Ireland. There exists a real opportunity to dismantle the legacy of discrimination we as LGBT people have had to contend with. And while securing a Yes vote for marriage equality on May 22 will not in itself bring about an end to societal homophobia, it will represent a powerful statement that LGBT status is no longer grounds for second class citizenship in this republic of ours.
© 2015 GCN (Gay Community News). All rights reserved.