Irish grapple with gay rights in New York and Ireland
- 19 February 2014
Gay rights has become a subject of intense debate in Irish communities on both sides of the Atlantic this month. It is perhaps a reflection of the Catholic Church's position on homosexuality and the rapidly changing perceptions of gay equality in the West.
We'll start in New York City, where Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that he will be sitting out the city's massive St Patrick's Day parade next month because the event organisers do not allow gay Irish-American groups to openly participate.
For homosexual rights organisations, and many of the city's left-wing activists, it was yet another sign that Mr de Blasio is living up to his reputation as an unabashed liberal crusader, in contrast to his predecessor, multi-billionaire Michael Bloomberg, who governed with the firm backing of the city's establishment.
"Hooray for Bill!" writes Matthew Breen in Out magazine. "It's a mean-spirited exclusion, and the organizers should once again be ashamed of themselves. We're glad to see de Blasio is giving it a miss."
Others expressed some disappointment that Mr de Blasio didn't prohibit city employees, including police officers, from marching in uniform. In an open letter to the mayor, a group of gay rights groups, former and current elected officials and city residents wrote:
The presence of uniformed police and firefighters in such a procession sends a clear signal to LGBTQ New Yorkers that these personnel, who are charged with serving and protecting all New Yorkers, do not respect the lives or safety of LGBT people.
The decision was quickly condemned by critics on the right.
"De Blasio's refusal to participate in the parade out of supposed solidarity with homosexual activists signals a hierarchy of political priorities," writes Gregg Campbell of the Tea Party News Network. "It appears obvious that de Blasio is more than willing to offend the city's Irish population by snubbing their parade in order to further honor the gay community."
Bill Donahue of the conservative Catholic League said the event should be about Irish pride, not politics:
The great myth has always been that the parade is anti-gay: in previous years, I have gone on the radio inviting gays to march with the Catholic League, provided they do not draw attention to themselves or to some extrinsic cause.
Cahir O'Doherty in the New York-based Irish Central website counters that it's important for gay Irish-Americans to be able to carry a banner in the parade "because if you are not seen you are not heard. And when you are neither seen nor heard, bad things can happen to you without anyone noticing. Gay people know this, but apparently quite a few others need to be reminded."
The parade controversy is making waves across the Atlantic, as well, where Irish government officials are split on whether to participate or join Mr de Blasio's boycott. Irish Minister for Social Protection Joan Burton, who will be in New York on St Patrick's Day, has announced she will not march. Fine Gael leader Enda Kenny, on the other hand, has said he will travel to New York to attend.
The parade is just a blip compared to the larger debate going on in Ireland over gay rights, as a national referendum on same-sex marriage is scheduled for next year. The issue caught fire earlier this month after prominent Irish drag queen Panti Bliss called two journalists and a Catholic lobby group "homophobic" during a television interview.
The Irish national broadcaster, RTE, paid $116,000 (£70,000) to settle defamation charges stemming from the interview, prompting Panti (Rory O'Neill when not in drag) to take to the stage at a Dublin theatre and offer an impassioned speech about feeling oppressed as a gay man in Ireland and the meaning of homophobia.
"For the last three weeks I have been lectured to by heterosexual people about what homophobia is and about who is allowed to identify it," he said. "And so now Irish gay people, we find ourselves in this ludicrous situation where are not only not allowed to say publically what we feel oppressed by, we're not even allowed to think it because the very definition, our definition, has been disallowed by our betters."
He continues: "Now it turns out that gay people are not victims of homophobia, homophobes are the victims of homophobia."
Michael Clifford in the Irish Examiner disagrees. He writes that just because you're against gay marriage doesn't mean you're a homophobe - any more than President Barack Obama was a homophobe up until a few years ago, when he came out in support of gay marriage.
"Conflating ignorance and violence against gay people with holding different views on same sex marriage is far from reasonable," he writes. "And projecting an image of arrogance, or intolerance to opposing views, is not the way to campaign" for marriage equality.
The Irish Times' Fintan O'Toole, on the other hand, thinks it's just a matter of time before "an honest belief that it is OK for the law to discriminate against gay and lesbian couples" is considered homophobia.
It's good that most of those who oppose gay marriage love and respect and cherish individual gay people, though they should hardly expect a pat on the back for not hating their fellow citizens. But they need to recognise that that's not enough. The whole point of the law is that it's not about giving people equal status because you like them. It's about freeing people from subjection to the arbitrariness of other people's benevolence.
The Independent's Ian O'Doherty writes that the contentious back-and-forth risks alienating the majority of the population in Ireland, who "don't really care that much one way or the other".
"They are the ones who have a healthy dose of contempt for the strident, tedious militants who have hijacked the debate from the original participants and are duking it out in an increasingly ridiculous war of words," he writes.
Back on the US side of the ocean, Irish Central's O'Doherty wonders why the gay rights issue has so divided the Irish community.
"I have been personally shocked by the deep contempt that's unleashed by some within the Irish community over Irish gay groups," he writes. "I wonder at the intensity of it.
"Don't people realize that it could be your own kids that you're blackguarding? Or your neighbor's kids? Or your niece or your nephew? The thing about poison is that it's indiscriminate."