Monday, September 29, 2008

The Last Taboos (Contributor)

They are among the last taboos in modern Irish society: homosexuality, race, ethnicity and HIV.

Ireland may think of herself as a modern, progressive and multicultural society but the Sunday Tribune set out to investigate whether this is really the case.

GAY men kissing in dublin city

The Sunday Tribune sent gay couple Sam Whelan-Curtin and Colin Delaney into Dublin city during the daytime, and again late at night, and asked them to freely express their feelings for one another.

Walking down Grafton Street, arm in arm and occasionally pausing for an embrace, the young lovers attracted plenty of stares from interested passers-by. Many others simply walked on by.

Stopping to stand and kiss across from Trinity College, the pair were joined, albeit unwittingly, by a second couple – this time a man and a woman – standing just a few feet away in a similar embrace.

When they crossed the Liffey, the man sitting beside them at one of Dublin's most visible landmarks, the O'Connell monument, politely moved his seat to his right when our couple embraced, but said nothing.

When the pair repeated this in the Jervis Street shopping centre, two young girls sitting opposite became enthralled by the 'show'.

This reporter overheard a running commentary, with one providing regular updates to the other as to what the pair were doing. Standing outside the Jervis Street shopping centre, a group of young teens payed scant attention to the pair.

But it was by no means unusual for this observer to overhear comments, throughout the day and usually left of stage, as to the couple's sexuality. Many of these were abusive, and predictable in their tone: "Look at those queers/gays/fags" or some other variation.

But others seemed genuinely intrigued, pointing out to their friends and loved ones the simple fact that two men were engaged in a public display of affection.

Perhaps the best example of this was later, when one group of teens and pre-teens also became fascinated by our pair as they stood outside the Central Bank on Dame Street.

At one stage they urged them to kiss, before laughing when they did.

Yet crucially, throughout the day no comments were made directly to the couple, with spectators content to confide to each other their true thoughts on the "spectacle".

When we repeated the experiment a few days later, this time late at night, reactions were far more direct.

In a bar near O'Connell Street, for example, the party was in full swing on the dancefloor. When Colin and Sam got up to join, and kissed, the reaction among the other males around them was unmistakeable.

"It was just kind of talking between themselves, and a good few cleared the area. It was an increased type of machismo, or super-machismo, about them," said Whelan-Curtin. "It was far less concealed than in the daytime. They had no qualms about us seeing them talking about us."

The pair got similar reactions in a nearby bar: as soon as they embraced on the dancefloor, the young men who had been happily dancing in groups began to filter away.

Barring the odd few stares, their female counterparts did not appear to mind, and frequently kept on dancing.

"I felt the reactions were more pronounced probably because people were more drunk," said Delaney. "I did expect more stares… but I didn't expect people to move away, although I didn't feel threatened in any way. It was just weird. I feel like I should be disappointed that people are that freaked out."

Both Delaney and Whelan-Curtin said they had expected a much greater reaction, and believe many of those who stared or commented are just not used to seeing gay people openly expressing their affection for one another.

But at no stage were our pair the subject of physical or verbal abuse – at least not to their faces. As Whelan-Curtin put it: "People will say things to each other. But they won't say it to you."

Swimming and spas when you're HIV positive

Employees of swimming pools around the country are in some cases refusing to allow people with HIV to use their facilities. Similar confusion as to how to react to the disease was also displayed when the Sunday Tribune visited one of two spa centres posing as a HIV-positive customer.

Sitting in one of Dublin's most exclusive spas, I told my masseuse I was HIV-positive. Her response was instructive.

Without batting an eyelid, she said this was not a problem. It would only be an issue if I was getting some sort of waxing done, or a facial, or an extraction of some sort, she said, in which case the specialist in question would want to know so they could wear plastic gloves.

Acting on this advice, I booked a facial in another city-centre day spa, and repeated the lie.

But in an indication of the confusion that surrounds this subject matter, the therapist in this case did not feel it necessary to wear gloves and proceeded with the treatment as normal.

The lack of awareness of the actual risks accompanying a HIV diagnosis was brought home even more clearly when I visited two public swimming pools run by Dublin City Council.

In one case, when asked whether it would be okay to use the pool, the response was uncertain at best. The pool attendant said he did not know and went off to seek advice from his colleague.

When this man returned, after also phoning someone for advice, he said he thought I would need a doctor's note before proceeding and passed on a telephone number to call.

However, in another city-centre pool, the manager was knowledgeable when it came to the subject, saying my condition was not a problem at all.

A subsequent series of phone calls to 10 other swimming pools around the country revealed that while in Dublin most staff who answered appeared to be aware my purported HIV-positive status was not an issue, outside of the capital reactions were more varied.

They ranged from "shouldn't be a problem" to expressions of uncertainty in some cases, to claims it would be necessary to have a doctor's note. It took three phone calls over consecutive days to a Cork-based swimming pool before it could be established that it would in fact be okay to use the pool.

In one extreme case, an attendant at a Kilkenny pool claimed I should "go and ask your GP what the story is. And see if there's any chance of it passing across through the water."

When asked if a note from the GP would be necessary, the response was: "Yes, you would, you'd need it from a qualified doctor." Pressed as to whether this was a prerequisite to using the pool, I was told: "Oh definitely, yes."

Dr Colm Bergin is a consultant physician in infectious diseases at St James's hospital in Dublin. He said there should be absolutely no question of stopping someone who is HIV-positive from using a swimming pool.

"I think if somebody has a medical health issue, they should either ask for everybody to provide a letter, or no one," he explains.

"If you are going to say there might be a blood episode, which can happen anywhere, this should be addressed through universal precautions for any blood leakage."

Mary O'Shea of the Dublin Aids Alliance says, "The reactions [of the swimming pool employees] really are extraordinary in this day and age," she says. "If people are running these places, they should have up-to-date knowledge on these things and on routes of infection. You can't contract HIV by swimming beside somebody."

African experiences of job and housing market

Last month, the annual report of the Equality tribunal revealed the number of complaints which it received on the grounds of racial discrimination had more than doubled last year when compared to 2006.

In the context of a society which has undergone significant immigration in recent years, the Sunday Tribune set out to examine how difficult it was for a member of the African community to access both private housing and the job market.

After drawing up a list of 40 Dublin properties displayed for rent on the Daft.ie property website, we asked two African assoc­iates, one male, one female, to telephone each of the landlords or letting agencies in question to ascertain the responses they would receive.

We then followed it up with a similar phonecall from the Sunday Tribune, posing as an Irish person who was also interested in the same properties.

Where a response was received, there was generally little or no difference in the approach, with some landlords "quizzing" us on our backgrounds and references, while others were happy simply to organise a viewing time.

When we visited one of the properties, the couple who owned it were more than happy to rent it to each of us, subject to our references being checked.

None of the responses we received appeared to be race-specific.

Separately, we placed four CVs – two for a Nigerian person and two for an Irish person – on the Monster.ie recruitment website, and sought to establish the level of interest.

Again, all four candidates received a similar number of phonecalls and emails from recruiters interested in discussing potential roles. Often, we were contacted by the same individuals in relation to the same jobs.

According to Philip Watt, director of the National Consultative Committee on Racism and Interculturalism (NCCRI), the findings of our research are to be welcomed as they indicate societal attitudes are progressing.

"People are more used to the fact that there is more diversity here. People know others as people – for example they see them playing with their own kids in school," he says.

But despite this, he says there is little doubt access to housing and jobs for the immigrant community can prove extremely difficult, particularly those who are most vulnerable, such as asylum seekers.

Travellers try to book a hotel for a wedding

It is not unusual for members of the Traveller community to dress up in their finest clothes and attempt to hide their background when trying to book wedding venues, confided Nancy Collins as we visited Dublin hotels in the hope of doing just this.

"You think they will tell you where to go as soon as they look at you, so you feel you have to," she explained. "But I will definitely tell others that there is no point really. If they are going to take your booking, then they will, and there's no point in trying to hide it."

She made her observation after spending much of the afternoon, along with two other female members of the Traveller community, approaching city centre hotels to gauge their openness to hosting a Traveller wedding.

Using a well-known (and fake) Traveller family name, and providing an address at a halting site in Dublin, they enquired about dates in late autumn 2009.

They were told three hotels – the Alexander on Merrion Square, its nearby sister hotel the Mont Clare and the Royal Dublin Hotel on O'Connell Street, had dates available.

Two others – the Morgan in Temple Bar, and the Temple Bar hotel, had no available dates, while the Clarence hotel, which is owned by rock band U2, could only take bookings up to January 2009 due to uncertainty surrounding its much-publicised refurbishment plans.

As part of our investigation, Collins later phoned 10 other hotels, located outside the city centre and elsewhere around the country, and received a variety of responses.

While several were quite open about their available dates, two others – the Killiney Castle in south Dublin and the Newgrange hotel in Navan – refused to disclose these without first meeting her or a representative face to face. But both were perfectly happy for her to visit the premises.

Crucially, however, when we followed up all of these visits and calls with a similar enquiry, this time as a member of the settled community, all of the hotels provided the same or similar responses. None appeared unwilling to accommodate the wedding on the basis – or even suspicion – it would be a Traveller wedding.

We outlined our findings to Ben Archibald, information officer with the Traveller representative group Pavee Point, and suggested perhaps gaining access to such venues is not as big a problem as some have claimed.

Not so, he maintained.

While stressing he was not referring to any of the hotels which we contacted or visited, he said there is strong anecdotal evidence that it is often not until a later stage in the process that things go awry.

He had heard numerous reports of couples looking to pay a deposit, having visited a venue and met with the staff responsible, who may have previously been welcoming, only to be told it is no longer available.

In other cases, couples had even been told their wedding has been cancelled "due to circumstances beyond our control" – and sometimes at short notice.

"There is a prejudice there that exists, and prevails," Archibald said. "All we ask is that they be seen as human beings."
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The placing of an article hereupon does not necessarily imply that I agree or accept the contents of the article as being necessarily factual in theology, dogma or otherwise.

Sotto Voce

(Source: ST)

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