Wednesday 28 September 2016

'She had split glass bottle on me' - victim of homophobic assault in Dublin

A year after same-sex poll euphoria, Dublin put on a hugely successful gay parade last weekend. But following reports of a serious homophobic assault, our reporter asks is Ireland really more about prejudice than Pride?

Tanya Sweeney

Published 02/07/2016 | 02:30

Homophobia: Gay teen Jesse Sleator was attacked in the centre of Dublin. Photo: Martin Maher.
Homophobia: Gay teen Jesse Sleator was attacked in the centre of Dublin. Photo: Martin Maher.

When Cassie Stokes was appointed as a presenter on TV3's Xposé last month, she predictably received many congratulatory messages. Among them, she found a pretty postcard delivered to TV3's offices in Ballymount. The flipside, featuring words like 'queer' and 'bent', was anything but pretty.

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"This person, who I don't know, clearly has strong feelings towards the gay community," says Stokes.

"The reason I talked about it is that so many people were shocked that someone would even send it in the first place. When you're in the public eye, it comes with the territory."

Yet homophobia is not just an occupational hazard for those in the public eye.

Dubliner Jesse Sleator (17), who will sit her Leaving Cert next year, has also felt the sharp end of bigotry a "fair few times".

"I've had people shout at me, and spit in my face," she reveals.

"I was walking through town one day, and a teenage girl approached me and asked if I was gay.

"I said I was, and moments later I felt a sharp pain on the back of my head. The girl had split a glass bottle on me."

Gardaí were in the immediate area, and responded quickly.

"I was so freaked out I bolted," admits Jesse.

"I didn't report it in the end. I didn't feel there was a point.

"I'm one of those people who tends to be a bit too forgiving, so I've assumed that hatred is what (this girl) was taught at home, and she can't have formed a fully rounded opinion."

Last week, Ireland celebrated LGBT Pride Weekend with a heartening flurry of energy, entertainment and colour. It came after a landmark year in which Marriage Equality was passed, with the majority of Irish people voting in favour of same-sex marriage. With the Gender Recognition Bill passing weeks later in July, it seemed as though Ireland was edging ever closer to true equality for all members of the LGBTI (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex) community.

We ostensibly now lived in a country where same-sex couples could walk down the street holding hands without fear of reproach. Ireland had moved on from bigotry and intolerance, we were told.

"That's one of the most dangerous mentalities, to think we live in an equal and tolerant society, when we don't," says Sleator.

"We like to think we're fine, but there's this misconception that we're equal and that it's just old people that are homophobic. The girl that bottled me can't have been more than 15."

Amid last weekend's Pride events, a man in his thirties was seriously injured in what has been widely reported as a suspected homophobic attack. In March this year, presenter/TV producer Anna Nolan revealed that she was subjected to homophobic abuse on a walk home in Dublin. Only weeks previously, theatre-maker Victoria Curtis was punched in the face four times during a homophobic attack on Camden Street.

"I voted Yes for marriage equality but I didn't vote for that," Victoria said at the time.

Elsewhere this week, Cork hurler Conor Cusack - brother of outspoken gay activist Donal Óg - spoke of a threat of being "sliced open" because of his sexuality.

"Came up against many a tough full-back in the hurling but when fellas threaten to slice you open and cut off your nose, it's a bit distressing," he wrote this week on Facebook. "The journey continues."

The journey towards equality does indeed continue inexorably, but in reality there is much work left to do.

"Since the marriage referendum, I have felt more personal freedom in terms of expressing my affection in public, but at the same time I know that the history of homophobia is so long, and so ingrained, that things will not suddenly change overnight, and that I am still putting myself out there in a sense by holding another man's hand on the street," says Brian Finnegan, editor of Gay Community News (GCN).

"As a gay community, we have a long road ahead of us educating people about the value of who we are. But straight people must take a role in that education, too."

Buoyed by the marriage referendum, more LGBTI people are speaking out about their experiences of homophobia.

According to Brian Sheehan, director of GLEN (Gay and Lesbian Equality Network), the findings in a new report published by GLEN make for disheartening reading.

"What we found (in our research) was confirmed in the referendum - most people made the move to fully support LGBTI people, but it means that the real, lived experience of being LGBTI has yet to catch up to this," he explains.

According to the report, around 75pc of respondents have been verbally abused (30pc of these in the past year).

"Many LGBTI people spend their twenties, thirties and forties recovering from their childhood and teenage years," says Sheehan.

"We now know that the most common age that someone realises they are gay is 12, but the most common age they will say it to another living being is 16 or 17. In those years, you learn the burden of shame.

"For a lot of people, while six in 10 said yes to marriage equality, one in three pretty much voted and said, 'no you're not entitled to marriage equality'," says Sheehan. "That's a hard number to take."

Quite apart from anything else, there is the ongoing presence of a more insidious, 'casual' homophobia.

The Ireland soccer team manager Martin O'Neill may have been a hero to many during the Euros, but he didn't endear himself at a press conference beforehand, where he joked that he didn't want people to think he and assistant Roy Keane were "queers".

"I suppose it goes back to Rory O'Neill's (Panti Bliss's) comment on RTÉ last year, that we're all a little bit homophobic," reflects Sheehan. "It's the culture we grew up in.

"Part of this is about what we learned growing up in Ireland, where LGBTI people were different in a bad way.

"There is an architecture of homophobia and transphobia in largely Catholic societies," Sheehan adds.

"LGBT people are seen as 'objectively disordered and morally evil'. It's in the catechism. And if the Catholic Church look after the vast majority of Irish schools, it comes as no surprise to find that this might have been an underlying ethos in many schools."

A generational shift towards a society in which one's sexuality is moot is happening, albeit at a glacial pace.

According to GLEN's report, only 20pc of LGBTI students felt that they belonged completely in their school, while 67pc had witnessed the bullying of other LGBTI students in their school.

"As the national LGBT youth organisation, we hear directly from young people all across Ireland about the homophobia and transphobia that they experience," explains Moinne ­Griffith, executive director of BeLonGTo.

"Half of them have experienced bullying because of their sexuality or gender identity, and one in four of them skip school to avoid negative treatment due to being LGBT. We have a lot more work to do to achieve the kind of Ireland we voted for last year."

Jesse Sleator is full of praise for the youth group.

"I think, in all honesty, if it weren't for BeLonGTo, I'd probably be dead. I'd suffered with self-harm and suicide ideation when I was younger, but now I no longer have depression. Hands down, it's due to counselling and BeLonGTo. Through them, I got to feel 'normal' for the first time."

Plans are afoot to further deal with ingrained homophobia from within the architecture of Irish society.

Senator Katherine Zappone ­announced that her department will be leading the development of a dedicated LGBT Youth Strategy this autumn. GLEN, too, are working alongside education partners, and recently launched - along with the Education Minister - a guide for primary school teachers.

Elsewhere, GLEN hopes to work alongside the Department of Agriculture to ensure support is in place for LGBTI people in rural areas. They also work in tandem with sports organisations like the GAA to eradicate the homophobia deeply ingrained within sports culture.

"Schools are one of the most crucial areas to ensure change... and that young people feel not just safe (because of anti-bullying measures), but affirmed in school," explains Sheehan.

"The aim is that a young person discovering their sexuality will do so in an atmosphere where they learn only positive things."

"In an ideal society, being gay wouldn't be talked about, but not 'not talked about' in the way it was before. You wouldn't have to come out as gay or trans. It would be as simple as, 'I'm gay, you're a brunette'," says Sleator.

Homophobia: The numbers

* One in three respondents in the LGBTIreland report (2016) have been threatened with physical violence, and one in five have been punched, hit or physically attacked in public due to being LGBTI.

* One in four people who have come out have not yet told their mother or father they are LGBTI.

* Only one in three LGBTI people feel safe showing affection to, or holding hands with, a partner in public.

* One in four transgender or intersex people have been punched, hit or attacked in public.

* One in six LGBTI people have experienced sexual violence.

* 17% of the general public in Ireland report being uncomfortable seeing a heterosexual couple kissing, 40% are uncomfortable seeing a male couple kissing.

* 50% of LGBTI students have personally experienced anti-LGBTI bullying.

* One in five have had hurtful things written about their LGBTI identity on social media.

* 56% of 14 to 18-year-old respondents have self-harmed, with 77% doing so in the past year.

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