Gay marriage debate divisive but relevant

Rory O'Neil (Miss Panti Bliss) has brought the homophobia debate front and centre.

Rory O'Neil (Miss Panti Bliss) has brought the homophobia debate front and centre.

The debate of recent weeks, catalysed by a ‘Saturday Night Show’ interview with Rory O’Neill (aka Miss Panti Bliss), has certainly achieved one thing: it’s brought the debate about gay rights and gay marriage into sharp focus.

I’ve put this on the public record already here: I’m in favour of same-sex marriage. I do not see how marriage between two people of the same gender in any way threatens marriage between a man and a woman.

A letter that this newspaper received from Tramore resident Seamus Dunphy last week captured a viewpoint I’d suspect a great many readers would share.

“People in Ireland cannot allow people to be excluded,” he stated. “We have to live with our differences and have respect for one another.

“Concerns have been raised that the debate could be stifled ahead of the upcoming referendum on gay marriage (but) if you’re against gay marriage that does not mean you are homophobic.”

But the absolute distinction alluded to by Miss Panti on the Abbey Theatre stage on February 1st – that “almost all of us” Irish are homophobic – well, that doesn’t stack up as far as I’m concerned.

If someone was given a public platform, a platform made incrementally larger by the internet, and, for example, declared that we the Irish are culturally racist, such a person would be roundly condemned for such comments.

In the sphere I operate within, a reasonably large one given (a) the nature of my job and (b) my involvement in many different groups and organisations, including sport and theatre, I can’t recall encountering too many, if any, gay-haters.

Nor have I regularly encountered people whose words are laced with hate-speech, who vilify women, who despise anyone whose skin colour isn’t white, and who are intolerant of gay men and lesbians.

On the whole, I think this country is an altogether more tolerant place than it was a quarter century ago, a time when it was still a criminal offence to be homosexual in this State, lest we forget.

This little country of ours is far from perfect, but it is not Germany of the mid-1930s, nor is it Birmingham Alabama of 1963.

There are no mass movements of physical force haters roaming through our villages, towns and cities violently persecuting minorities. Hate is not being rammed down the throats of the masses by our ruling classes.

But I will say this: ignorance, as opposed to any word ending in ‘ism’ or ‘phobia’, is certainly not uncommon in Irish society.

I suspect there are still a lot of straight Irishmen over 50 in particular who believe that being a gay man automatically means one is attracted to each and every man in sight.

That is, of course, an evidently absurd notion, but try telling me you haven’t heard that comment made at least once down through the years?

Change, and the fear of it, has not been something that this still young democracy of ours has  proven historically speedy in embracing and implementing.

The new Irish State was a cold place to those men who donned British uniforms in two World Wars, particularly those who fought in the 1914-1918 war.

It was a cold place for Protestants, particularly in the 20 years following independence, during which thousands of Church of Ireland members left these shores, never to return.

For many decades more, this State was an equally cold place for female civil servants, who had to give up their jobs once they were married, a ludicrous law which remained in place until 1973.

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