With its warm and welcoming culture, Ireland has long been seen as a beacon of tolerance and acceptance. Recent years, however, have been marked by a troubling rise in violent, anti-LGBTQ+ rhetoric. Journalist Charlie Hayward investigates the rise in anti-LGBTQ+ rhetoric and violence in Ireland.
When the Republic of Ireland legalised same-sex marriage in May 2015 — making it the first country to do so by popular vote — it marked a seismic shift in public opinion that few could have predicted. Eight years on, however, violence against the queer community is on the rise in Ireland, and anti-LGBTQ+ attitudes are some of the worst in Western Europe. So where did it all go wrong?
According to David Lawrence, a researcher for antifascist advocacy group HOPE Not Hate, the root of this increasing discrimination lies in the growing organisation and coalition of fascist groups operating throughout Europe and beyond.
“Anti-LGBTQ+ sentiment is deep-rooted in reactionary and far-right milieus,” Lawrence writes in the HOPE Not Hate’s annual State of Hate report, “which tend to idealise traditional gender roles and family structures, obsess about societal decline, and scapegoat minoritised groups.”
Now anti-LGBTQ+ “culture war” campaigners are resorting to antiquated stereotypes to inflame their credulous audience of alt-right conspiracy theorists, avowed neo-Nazis and Christian nationalists, both in Ireland and abroad.
Drag queens, who are frequently viewed as representatives of the LGBTQ+ community, have become the latest target for far-right aggression in Ireland. While the current situation has highlighted their persecution, Ireland’s drag scene has a rich history that dates back decades. Danny La Rue was selling out theatres as far back as the 1950’s, whilst in 2022, Northern Irish drag queen Blu Hydrangea scooped the coveted crown of Queen of the Mothertucking World on the first series of the American reality show RuPaul’s Drag Race: UK vs the World. And that’s to say nothing of Panti Bliss: beloved national treasure and self-styled Queen of Ireland.
Drag culture has gained an increasingly mainstream acceptance in Ireland in recent years. Floorshows teem with an array of kings, queens, and non-binary performers, with BIPOC artists and bio queens (drag queens who were assigned female at birth and who identify as women) increasingly taking centre stage.
Over coffee in their hometown of Belfast, TJ Tytler, a transmasc non-binary trans rights activist who performs as drag king Carl Hartt, tells me they work with “an incredible spectrum of drag performers”. They insist that the origins of drag as an act of protest is more vital than ever now. Nevertheless, they add, “there is still a lot of work to be done” to diversify the scene beyond cisgender male performers.
The protests against Drag Queen Story Hour (DQSH) that gained widespread attention during the summer of 2022 were the direct result of a sophisticated far-right campaign.
First launched in San Francisco in 2015 to inspire “a love of reading, while teaching deeper lessons on diversity” to children in public libraries, art spaces and bookshops, DQSH has since become fiercely politicised. Events have been targeted by defamatory leaflets, letter-writing campaigns, disruptive protests and even violence.
Matthew Cavan, a Northern Irish drag queen better known as Cherrie Ontop, had been reading stories to children for several years without incident until a drag storytelling event held to coincide with Belfast Pride was picketed by far-right activists. Cavan found himself the target of death threats and homophobic abuse that attempted to weaponise his HIV status.
“It made me realise how important [DQSH] is,” he told Belfast Live. “Because if it wasn’t, then it wouldn’t have ruffled feathers. I want to make Northern Ireland a better society for young people, a better society than I grew up in where I was terrified that I was gay.
“People think that I was trying to brainwash children. I don’t understand that, because for me, being gay is not a choice, and it is nothing that can be forced upon you.”
It is worth noting, perhaps unsurprisingly, that Cavan has since retired his drag persona.
“I think it’s horrific,” says Tytler when the conversation turns to the abuse suffered by their fellow Northern Irish performer. “It goes hand in hand with how exposed drag is now. It’s a double-edged sword. I think that’s why we’re seeing such a pushback against queer culture. [DQSH] existed for years before anyone brought it to wider attention.”
Sebastian Samuel, who performs as Aida H Dee, launched DQSH UK in 2017. Following coverage in The Daily Mail — the British right-wing tabloid banned by Wikipedia for “poor fact checking, sensationalism and flat-out fabrication” — Samuel’s phone number and address were leaked online, leaving the non-binary performer fearing for their life.
Unfortunately, fear of violent retaliation is not unwarranted. According to ILGA-Europe, an NGO advocacy group “work[ing] for a world in which each and every LGBTI person is free, equal and safe,” 2022 was the most challenging year for the Irish LGBTQ+ community in a decade.
The murders of Michael Snee, 58, and Aidan Moffitt, 42, in Sligo in 2022 prompted calls for Leo Varadkar, Ireland’s then Tánaiste, to pressure Minister for Justice Helen McEntee to prioritise anti-LGBTQ+ hate crime laws and increase the street presence of An Garda Síochána.
In May of that year, less than 24 hours before the International Day Against Homophobia, Biphobia, and Transphobia, two men assaulted a lesbian couple as they waited for a bus in Dublin. A month later, a young gay man suffered a fractured eye socket in a homophobic attack. At Dublin Pride, one 19-year-old trans man was reportedly hospitalised with a fractured skull following an unprovoked attack, continuing a trend that shows no sign of slowing.
Pádraig Rice, a Policy and Research Manager with LGBT Ireland, has called 2022 Ireland’s “year of hate.”
“Every month for the last 12, there has been [a] serious attack on an LGBTQ+ person,” he told the Irish Independent. “The truth is homophobia, biphobia, and transphobia are an everyday reality for many LGBTQ+ people in Ireland. It spans from the slurs that go unchallenged in the schoolyard and the workplace to LGBTQ+ people being attacked on the streets and murdered in their homes.”
A pervading mistrust of the police continues to hamper efforts to assess the scale of the problem. According to a recent study carried out by The Rainbow Project, 51% of those who experienced a hate crime did not report it to the Police Service of Northern Ireland. Last year, Northern Ireland saw a 15% and 24% increase in homophobic and transphobic hate crime incidents, respectively, compared to the previous 12 months. In the Republic, the latest statistics published by An Garda Siochána show that of 448 hate crimes and hate-related incidents recorded in 2021, 15% were motivated by bias towards the victim’s sexual orientation. Given the reluctance to report such incidents, the true figure is likely far higher.
Despite recent polling indicating a growing acceptance of the queer community, prejudice remains deeply ingrained in Irish society. According to research conducted by the National LGBT Federation, cisgender gay men enjoy a comparatively high level of acceptance, with an 89% approval rating. The acceptance rate towards trans people, however, is low, with non-binary individuals scoring the lowest result of all, at 65%.
The rise in anti-LGBTQ+ hate crimes highlights the urgent need for greater legal protection in Ireland. A new bill designed to tackle hate crime and hate speech is expected to be signed into law soon. Its forerunner, The Prohibition of Incitement to Hatred Act 1989, did not include gender, disability or sex characteristics, and was widely considered ineffective, with only about 50 prosecutions made in the three decades since it was enacted. The new bill, which recognises anti-LGBTQ+ violence as an aggravated offence, is designed to be more effective in securing convictions in Ireland.
“Members of minority and vulnerable communities have spoken time and again about the horrendous and unacceptable prejudice, contempt and hostility they face daily,” said Minister McEntee when introducing the bill to the Dáil.
“Many individuals in our country live their lives hiding a part of themselves, modifying their daily routines and changing the way they dress, speak and present themselves to the world, all in order to avoid being targeted,” she added. “This is not the vision I have for this country, nor is it that of many others. It does not reflect the tolerant society we want to live in.”
The Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission has released a report detailing over 60 recommendations on how Ireland’s Equality Laws need to be reformed, updated and improved. In Northern Ireland, the Department of Justice launched a consultation on a similar hate crime bill that includes “age, sex/gender and variations in sex characteristics” as protected characteristics. A second consultation is expected later this year.
The Taoiseach told TheJournal that he believes Ireland is one of the best countries in the world for people to live in regardless of their sexual orientation. However, when pressed about the recent increase in anti-LGBTQ+ violence, he rejected the notion that Ireland is “a particularly violent country”.
“Discrimination, homophobia, and homophobic bullying exist,” he conceded, “but perhaps not to the level that it exists in other places. And we have things like marriage equality, for example. I never forget the fact that there are 70 countries in the world where it’s still illegal to be gay and only 30 where you can marry the person you love.”
Tytler, who uses he/they pronouns, can see progress being made, albeit slowly. (Due to indefinite wait times to see a gender specialist, they, like many trans people, are fundraising for gender-affirming healthcare.) Drag, they tell me, is about “getting up and putting on a persona and sharing your message. If your message is 14 different renditions of Britney Spears, or if your message is that you want to share something about yourself or something you’ve experienced in life, that’s all valid.
“Not everything has to be serious. But it’s important to communicate a message. And if I can do that without constantly shouting facts and figures at people then maybe the message will stick.”
The past several years have seen a meteoric rise in the number of drag artists performing north of the Irish border. “When I started doing drag five years ago, I could have named 20 of us who were doing drag,” says TJ. “Now that number has more than quadrupled. There are definitely over a hundred. Someone tried to make a list a few weeks ago but we just kept adding more names!”
With the 2023 Pride season about to begin, the potential for Drag Queen Story Hour to attract more violence remains to be seen. According to HOPE Not Hate, “Against a backdrop of discriminatory legislation and brutal, sometimes fatal attacks on LGBT+ communities [from] far-right groups, Hitler-saluting Nazis and violent thugs,” the potential for violence remains “frighteningly high”.
And yet, despite the challenges faced by the Irish LGBTQ+ community, the outlook for the future looks positive. Dublin Pride regularly attracts crowds of over 50,000. Trans and Intersex Pride has seen increasing numbers of attendees each year. Last year a large crowd turned out to support the first Pride parade in Inishowen, a small town in County Donegal. And the North of Ireland boasts several Pride celebrations, with Belfast Pride being the most popular.
As Tytler puts it: “Drag is revolutionary. It breaks boundaries. It has always existed. And the more vocal queer people have become, the more want there is to silence us. But we won’t be silenced. Being able to share stories, share experiences, and just have fun … you will never have more fun than you’ll have backstage with other drag performers.
“We’re not hiding,” he says, undaunted. “We’re up for the challenge.”
The full article on the rise of anti-LGBTQ+ sentiments in Ireland titled ‘Ireland’s decade of hate’ originally featured in issue 378 of GCN magazine. You can read the full issue here.
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