Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Won't somebody think of 'poor Iona'? (Opinion)

There were no gays in Ireland when I was young. No homosexuals, and very few queers. 

There was a scattering of what we called sissies and nancy-boys. 

There were also two prominent theatre people named Hilton Edwards and Michael Mac Liammoir – everyone knew they were a couple, but they were so self-confident, theatrical and likeable that no one minded. 

(Besides, it was impossible to imagine "the boys", as they were known, indulging in actual sex. Their lifestyle suggested that homosexuality consisted mostly of lounging about in a good suit, speaking in a posh voice about "the awts".)

Last summer, I stepped out of the GPO and a man walked past me wearing some kind of leather holster. It was just about big enough to carry a ham sandwich. Somehow, this guy had squeezed his entire naked body into the holster.

He was chatting away to another chap dressed in something equally imaginative. The street was full of joyous crowds, waving multi-coloured banners – and a parade of buses and trucks went by on the far side of the street, bristling with people celebrating gay pride.

Mr Holster, his mate and a few other exuberant souls stood out in a crowd that was dressed as unremarkably as the crowd you might see on its way to a rugby match. The first thing that occurred to me was to think about where all the homosexuals were in the old days. 

After all, "that kind of thing" (which was what we used to call that kind of thing) didn't suddenly arrive in the Nineties, along with hip-hop, mobile phones and the Tamagotchi. It's as old as time, and there must have been similar numbers of gays back in the day – and, yet, apart from Hilton and Michael they weren't to be seen.

The answer, of course, was that all those uncounted thousands of people were in hiding. We frightened them into the shadows.

A combination of sneering, shaming and beatings did the trick. Occasionally, an upright citizen would beat the life out of someone they thought too much of a sissy, which most of us believed was taking things a bit far.

However, if you were caught beating a homosexual to death there was a fair chance you'd be up before a judge who shared your point of view. Like most people, I unthinkingly absorbed the attitudes of the time.

We now know that, along with the pride of nationhood and the depth of religious feeling, for many people the Ireland of those days was one great, big knot of fear and shame.

Abused children, frightened pregnant women and people who deviated from the sexual norm lived in a fierce, cold, punishing Ireland from which the rest of us firmly averted our gaze.

The second thing that occurred to me on seeing Mr Holster was that the changes of the past decades didn't happen by chance – much less through any kind of moral awakening on the part of the majority of us. A lot of very brave, sometimes abrasive, people decided that they were entitled to every right of citizenship enjoyed by everyone else.
They wanted their lives decriminalised, they wanted an end to the fear, the ridicule and the shaming. It took huge courage to be David Norris back in the Seventies. And in every decade since then.
There were a lot more people, with a lesser profile, and they marched and chanted and harangued the rest of us, held meetings, wrote articles, leaflets and pamphlets – and, if they felt like it, dressed with Mr Holster's flamboyance – and they made it clear that what they represented wasn't going back into hiding.
For many – perhaps most – young people of today, gays aren't odd, lesser people, they are their brothers and sisters and friends and neighbours. And who they fall in love with isn't an issue. Fewer people feel the need to hide their sexuality. The mainstream now accepts that there should be no discrimination on grounds of sexuality.
That's the bright side. Gay people still get beaten up. "Gay" is still used by many young people as a term of abuse. 

A group within Fianna Fail steadfastly opposed civil partnership legislation, demanding the right of "freedom of conscience" to refuse goods and services to homosexuals. This was not the first occasion on which "religious freedom" was used to legitimise discrimination.
One Fianna Fail chap, Senator Jim Walsh, once publicly questioned why he couldn't refer to homosexuals as "fairies". 

We might speculate on what it is within Mr Walsh's psyche makes him want to use a term of abuse against people he doesn't know – but let's not.
When countless thousands of gays hid their sexuality, the oppression of so many people was taken for granted. It was as natural as the ringing of the Angelus bell at noon and six.
Every step away from that fierce, cold, punishing Ireland has been strongly resisted. The loudest clashes came over contraception and divorce, the current issue is marriage equality – but if you went back far enough you'd find similar Catholics fighting to hold onto the Latin Mass and the fish-on-Friday rule.
The moral authority of the hierarchy was broken by the revelation that senior Catholic figures for decades actively protected child rapists. From the laity there emerged grouplets such as the Iona "Institute" – picking up the ball and running with it. 

Oh no, we're not standing in for the disgraced hierarchy, we're merely concerned intellectuals, worried about the future of marriage, children and the family.
For some reason, the media – not just RTE – bought this. It seemed like no social issue could be reported without a comment from the "Institute". 

(What, by the way, is the Iona view on flooding? Come on, RTE, I think we should be told.)
When Rory O'Neill used the H word the "Institute" and John Waters reached for their lawyers. 

The defamation laws are loaded in favour of plaintiffs, because that's the way the politicians want it, so an RTE that's terrified of the libel courts collapsed, apologised and paid up.
Since the Sixties, there's been a struggle between tolerance and compulsion.
Once, the State automatically enforced the word of the bishops. Now, the Catholic right aren't satisfied to argue their case – a right they do and must have. They don't want birth control, so no one should have it.
Ditto marriage equality. The given reason used to be that it was sinful. Now that the bishops tolerance of certain sins has discredited such notions, it's concern for the family and society.
Tolerance suggests that issues that are disputed by significant numbers should be matters of individual conscience, not state compulsion. 

If people of the same sex have a right to get married it's not compulsory for anyone else. 

And the argument that it somehow devalues anyone else's marriage is just silly.
In the old days, the Catholic absolutists ruled. 

Now, they play the victim and ask the people to vote to abolish individual conscience.
Some day, marriage equality will be as normal as women voting is today – though that too was resisted as injurious to society. 

Or it could go the other way, and Senator Jim Walsh, King of the Fairies, can again feel free to use an abusive term about people he doesn't know.

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