Wednesday 16 August 2017

Over the rainbow? With Leo's election does Pride still matter

With a gay man now leading the country, has the LGBT community come full circle and does Pride still matter

True colours: Dolores Quinlan and Valerie O'Dwyer at the LGBT Pride parade in Dublin last year
True colours: Dolores Quinlan and Valerie O'Dwyer at the LGBT Pride parade in Dublin last year
Then Minister for Health Leo Varadkar and Minister for Justice Frances Fitzgerald at the Pride parade in 2015
Strength and diversity: Panti Bliss

Stephen Moloney

For Ireland's lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community, the last two years have been a wild ride. Marriage Equality, Gender Recognition, an easing of the ban on men who have sex with men donating blood and recent progress within the Oireachtas to allow young people to self-determine their gender are just some of the major milestones the LGBT rights movement has achieved. Should Leo Varadkar's election as Ireland's first openly gay Taoiseach be added to that list?

Often criticised for, among other positions, his economic conservatism, Varadkar proves that gayness is not necessarily a panacea for progress even if the fanfare of international media suggested otherwise. Elected during LGBT Pride month, it seems timely to reflect on what Pride means today, as seen through the lens of Varadkar's appointment, for Ireland's LGBT community and how they celebrate themselves.

This weekend sees the annual Pride celebrations take place in Dublin, the first in a series of LGBT Pride events taking place across the country throughout the summer months. Among the plans for the Dublin festival are theatre performances, club nights and dog shows, along with the colourful Pride parade, which this year changes route from Parnell Square to St Stephen's Green.

With a gay man leading the country, walking the same corridors as those who oversaw criminalisation until 1993, has the LGBT community come full circle and does Pride still matter?

Then Minister for Health Leo Varadkar and Minister for Justice Frances Fitzgerald at the Pride parade in 2015
Then Minister for Health Leo Varadkar and Minister for Justice Frances Fitzgerald at the Pride parade in 2015

"Although some of the political urgency of Pride in Ireland has diminished as the LGBT+ community here has slowly achieved most of its political aims… it reminds the wider community that we exist and exist in large numbers, it reminds ourselves of our communities' strength and diversity," says Rory O'Neill, aka Panti Bliss.

Student and activist Síofra Dempsey recalls being overwhelmed by the positivity of their first Pride, noting how it can be "life-changing for queer youth who don't always find acceptance and love among their peers or school or family".

In recent years, Pride has seen more and more large corporations joining in, with tech companies like Facebook, Twitter and Google entering large floats in the parade - a shift which some LGBT people, including Dempsey, feel detracts from Pride's political significance.

Sara Phillips, chair of the Transgender Equality Network Ireland (TENI), calls for a balancing of corporate interests with community interests.

"Remember (Pride's) roots, celebrate its achievements but most of all, ensure that we protest. Protest the injustices, the lack of rights and understanding, even within our own communities. It is an opportunity for all our voices to be heard."

With so much already accomplished, what remains to be done for the LGBT rights movement? One of the most pressing issues now facing the community is intra-LGBT politics, a turning inward to look at how people treat each other along the lines of class, race, ethnicity, ability and HIV status. Intolerance towards bisexual people and transphobia, even from within the community, endure.

Strength and diversity: Panti Bliss
Strength and diversity: Panti Bliss

Another item on the agenda is providing education for young LGBT people on how to negotiate sex and intimacy, while the battle to secure the HIV prevention drug PrEP in Ireland is also being fought.

Phillips explains: "Ireland has no Hate Crime Law, a fact that is very apparent in the LGBT community. LGBT children are still among the most vulnerable in society and trans children are not even recognised.

"Non-binary identities are clearly ignored and misunderstood. Trans healthcare is a mess and for the most part non-existent," she adds.

Lisa Connell of the monthly magazine Gay Community News points out the global significance of Pride, describing it as "an act of solidarity". "We must march for every LGBTQ person who cannot," she says.

While Varadkar's election to Taoiseach would have been unimaginable until very recently, it neatly demonstrates the integration (or assimilation) of the LGBT community into a straight society.

"The fact that the country now has a gay leader is powerfully significant, reinforcing the idea that Irish LGBT citizens can aspire to anything, and more importantly, that our fellow citizens recognise that also," says O'Neill.

"I'm proud of the Ireland that is comfortable having a gay man as leader, and I'm proud of the 40 years of hard work our community did to get us to this point."

Likewise, law and politics student Adam Houlihan appreciates the reassurance a gay Taoiseach will provide to younger people almost by default: "For the 15-year-old in the closet whose role models may not be actors or footballers, it could be a strong message that your sexuality will not limit the capacity for you to succeed in public life."

Odhran Allen, a mental health advocate and occupational therapist agrees: "It reaffirms for LGBT people that while our sexual orientation and gender identity are different, this difference should in no way be an impediment to us living full and happy lives of equal opportunity."

Phillips, however, offers a caveat: "(It is) one more advance for LGBTQ+ inclusion… it remains to be seen whether it will bring benefit to our community (when) his own community is still marginalised."

To many, the re-routed parade will probably be more of a talking point than our new gay Taoiseach this Pride. That said, Dempsey urges people to "avoid complacency": "Homophobia didn't end when marriage equality was passed, and it won't be ended under a gay Taoiseach."

There's also a sense that Varadkar is just another middle-class gay man at Pride, Taoiseach or not. Gay men are frequently the most visible members of the community, while other members of the LGBT umbrella get sidelined.

"Pride has been all about building community (yet) the definition of that community consistently excludes the margins," Phillips points out. O'Neill agrees, saying: "There is always more to do to make sure that Pride is more inclusive of parts of our community that have a smaller voice."

He will celebrate Pride, as he does every year, but in 2017 he will do so, "with a member of that community now the leader of the country".

"I'll also be celebrating, and be proud of, the incredible journey Ireland has made."

Irish Independent

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