In 21st century Ireland, we like to pride ourselves on our modern, accepting and equal society. Gone are the archaic prejudices of the past where individuality was suppressed and uniformity prospered. Anyone of any faith, of any gender and of any belief can enjoy an unobtrusive existence in our utopian society. At least, that’s what we like to think. For though our horizons have broadened and our society has become more welcoming to people who deviate from the norm, there is a final taboo that lingers – homosexuality.
It must be noted at first that a lot of progress has been made in Ireland in the past 20 years with regards to homosexuality. Indeed, up until 1993 it was illegal to be a homosexual. And while legislatively at least Ireland has become increasingly liberal towards homosexuality, discrimination and prejudice remains.
A recent poll on thejournal.ie showed that 69% of Irish people have witnessed incidents of homophobia in Ireland and just under half of these people see it on a regular basis. Homophobic bullying is becoming increasingly prevalent with co-founder of BeLong To, an organisation for young lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people, Michael Barron, referring to it as an issue of “huge urgency”.
A 2009 survey by the Children’s Research Centre in Trinity College seems to echo Barron’s concerns. It showed that a jaw-dropping 50% of LGBT people under 25 had considered ending their own lives and that 20% had attempted suicide.
What these harrowing statistics show is that for all our pretentious and vainglorious talk of a so-called “modern society”, a portion of our population still face discrimination on a regular basis.
To learn more about the LGBT community face in 21st Century Ireland, I spoke to Kate, a student in the University of Limerick from Waterford. Kate said that her friends were very understanding when she told them that she was a lesbian but that it “took almost a year to tell the parents”.
“It’s still a taboo subject and you wouldn’t tell your grandparents, I suppose”, Kate claimed. “I’d imagine it would be difficult if you lived in a small village or somewhere like that”.
Kate claims that she has never faced any homophobic bullying, possibly, she claims, down to the fact that she isn’t “stereotypically lesbian”.
Kate seems happy in her own skin and confident in her sexuality. When talking to Kate, I got a sense of the strides we have made in the past 20 years but also the obstacles we have to overcome. She told me that show knows of people who have been subjected to homophobic bullying and that that may be down to the fact that those people are openly active in the LGBT movement. That’s it there for me. It’s ok to be gay as long as you hide it, that’s what that tells me. It tells me that people who conform to the gay stereotype are more likely to face abuse.
The way forward is to get people talking, to get the issue out in the open. When discrimination is subtle it is at its most potent. One of the most significant developments in Irish LGBT culture in recent times was the “coming-out” of Cork hurling star Dónal Óg Cusack. Cusack’s announcement was met with widespread commendation as he was the first GAA player in history to openly admit that he was gay.
The significance of Dónal Óg’s brave disclosure cannot be overstated. Dónal Óg is a well-respected and decorated hurler with three All-Irelands and two All-Stars in his back-pocket. He is a role model. It showed young people, and in particular young boys, that being gay is not a life choice. You are who you are. It also confounded the heterosexual stereotype of an Irish sportsman and will hopefully make it easier for players to come out to their team mates in the future.
Dónal Óg has been heavily involved with BeLong To and in particular their initiative ‘Stand Up! National Awareness Week Against Homophobic Bullying’. It’s organisations like this that can truly make a difference in young LGBT people’s lives. Indeed, BeLong To can count a Hollywood superstar among their listen of patrons. ‘Stand Up!’ has been resoundingly endorsed by actor and Dublin native Colin Farrell, whose own brother is gay.
Farrell had this to say, ““Whether it be the attacking of Gay students, which I witnessed first-hand happening to my own brother, or students who are in the minority as a result of race or religious beliefs or any other such characteristic that separates them from 'the norm', it is all wrong and has no place in a just and compassionate country such as I know Ireland to be.”
When I asked Kate about Farrell’s comments and Dónal Óg Cusack’s situation, she praised both men and said, “I think it’s great. When very influential people show support, people back off”.
Great progress has been made against homophobia in the recent years and we as a nation can be proud that we have come so far in such a short space of time. But the fight is not over. Homophobia is still a gargantuan problem and one that refuses to go away quietly. As the study by Trinity College shows, homophobia can claim lives. And as long as it still does we cannot simply brush it under the carpet.