Martina Devlin: I support gay marriage – now let's have a civilised debate on the issue
Ireland is a peculiar country. It takes a drag queen to force us to discuss a serious issue about equality for citizens and whether there can be any justification for withholding rights from one sector of society.
Still, the matter has our attention now, between Madonna sending a message of support to the drag artiste in question, the national broadcaster fielding accusations of being a wuss and an argy-bargy in the Seanad – where the level of intellectual contribution remains pitiful, even when it operates for only two days a week. No, two days is not a printing error.
Gay rights in Ireland are on the mainstream agenda, thanks primarily to a Mayo man in his mid-40s called Rory O'Neill, who dresses up as a glamazon by the name of Panti. His intervention in the debate, which hadn't particularly caught fire before he sashayed into it, has been memorable.
Whether speaking as Rory or Panti, he is articulate and passionate, but his greatest gift as a communicator has been to allow the straight community to walk a mile in his cripplingly high heels.
No wonder a YouTube post of his 10-minute monologue on the stage of the Abbey Theatre last Saturday, where he spelled out why he feels oppressed as a gay person in Ireland, has been viewed worldwide.
The Irish public, which hasn't spared much thought for gay rights in recent years, is now interested in the subject. Finally, attention is being paid to a proposed referendum next year, when we can vote on whether or not to legalise same-sex marriage and give gay couples the right to apply to adopt.
This public engagement is surely a positive development, irrespective of how the majority votes.
Incidentally, gay rights are also making headlines in the US, where New York's mayor Bill de Blasio has announced he won't be marching in the St Patrick's Day Parade because it excludes gay groups. Mayor de Blasio's stance shows that he, too, understands what it's like to walk a mile in Panti's or another gay person's shoes.
A series of twists has occurred since Panti used the H word on RTE television, including Senator Jim Walsh frothing at the mouth about "dangerous, vicious elements within the gay ideological movement" and making bizarre reference to "social re-engineering" yesterday. That's a choice example of why the gay community feels itself under attack. By the way, ideological movements don't have a sexual orientation, Senator.
RTE stands accused of censorship for letting the H word be decommissioned. But paradoxically, Pantigate has had a positive outcome for freedom of speech because the debate is finally under way.
The H word is now radioactive. So what? Other words can be used by the gay community to express their sense of marginalisation. The beauty of language is the variety of words it offers to convey meaning.
And so to Panti's oration at the Abbey, which I'll precis as follows: "I don't hate you, fellow Irish people, but I hate how you make me feel – nervous, insecure, a target for random abuse."
He spoke about trying not to look conspicuous at pedestrian crossings in case passing troglodytes throw insults and missiles at him, as has happened.
"Have you ever been on a crowded train with one of your best gay friends and inside a tiny part of you is cringing because he is being so gay?" he asked. "And you find yourself trying to compensate for his gayness by butching up a little or by trying to steer the conversation on to safer, straighter territory?"
At this point, his audience – from Madonna on the internet to someone's mum in Carlow or Donegal – has a real sense of the inner life of a gay person.
SOCIAL attitudes to gays – by people who would be horrified to find themselves described themselves as prejudiced – has led to some members of the gay community self-hating and self-regulating their behaviour. Feeling stigmatised in Irish society, they can grow to loathe their own natures. How hurtful, damaging and dehumanising that must be.
For the record, I don't believe that those who seek to deny marriage rights to gays are homophobic. Some people are convinced that marriage should be defined as a relationship between a man and a woman. I don't share that belief, which I regard as discriminatory and intolerant. But not necessarily homophobic.
It is a viewpoint. That's all. Liberals can be as illiberal in the stances they adopt as fundamentalists and 'homophobe' is not a word to toss about without concrete proof.
Name-calling doesn't help to advance any cause. The gay community has suffered more than most from insults, but it has right on its side – it doesn't need to fight fire with fire.
A key element in democratic debate requires people to treat those holding dissenting views with respect and good manners. It can be difficult when someone feels under attack personally, but it is an essential standard.
This debate still has some way to run – many more battles remain to be fought. And it is possible to win a battle and lose the war, as any student of history knows. For example, I am convinced that those who accepted a cash settlement from the national broadcaster scored an own goal and lost moral authority by it. Certainly, they lost the PR battle: the protest on the streets, Panti's invitation to speak at the Abbey and the widespread international attention are testament to that.
My perspective is that gays pay the same taxes as everyone else and should be afforded the same rights. Their State – our State – is letting them down. But let's have the debate.