Tuesday 13 November 2018

Gay nation: Are gay people still living in the shadows in Ireland?

Courageous Leo Varadkar was roundly praised this week for coming out. But despite huge advances, Ireland is still seen by many as a hostile place to be openly gay.

Is Ireland is still seen by many as a hostile place to be openly gay?
Is Ireland is still seen by many as a hostile place to be openly gay?
Kim Bielenberg

Kim Bielenberg

It was a week of striking contrasts for gay and lesbian people in Ireland. Leo Varadkar made history by becoming the first Irish cabinet minister to come out as gay.

On the very same day, Pope Francis fired off a salvo of indignation at proponents of same-sex marriage as we prepare for our own referendum on the issue.

In an echo of more traditional church teachings that have by no means disappeared in Ireland, he warned that the redefinition of marriage "disfigures God's plan for creation". He said it was nothing less than a "threat to the family" and "a threat to society".

Then, on Monday, there was a live debate on RTÉ about same-sex marriage; and on the same day we learned from an Equality Tribunal how a nun on a school interview panel was alleged to have asked a teacher: "What about the homos?"

A diminishing but still significant minority clings to the teachings of the catechism of the Catholic church, which brands gay sex as "acts of grave depravity" that are "intrinsically disordered".

When Leo Varadkar came out to Miriam O'Callaghan live on radio, with an uncharacteristic nervousness in his voice, the move was welcomed overwhelmingly.

An even more spectacular public self-outing happened in Dublin earlier this month when a priest in a Dublin church called at the altar for support for same sex marriage. He then calmly revealed: "I'm gay myself" - before the congregation gave him a standing ovation. At this point Archbishop McQuaid was not just turning in his grave but spinning faster than the blades of a helicopter.

In liberal Ireland coming out may be the new staying in but not everyone feels that they can make such a forthright declaration of their sexuality as Varadkar and Father Dolan - especially in the workplace.

Recent research by the Gay and Lesbian Equality Network (GLEN) found that 12pc of people felt unable to come out to anyone at work, while a further 26pc were out to just a few people.

More worrying, the study found that 30pc of lesbian, gay and bisexual employees were harassed at work and 10pc had been forced to quit because of discrimination.

Tonie Walsh, a long-time observer of the gay rights movement and founder of the Irish Queer Archive, says that in liberal Ireland, people tend to live in a cultural bubble.

"We shouldn't kid ourselves that Ireland is free of naked prejudice. People will couch it differently, but it still exists."

We still have many generations whose lives were tainted by the fact that homosexual acts were still a crime until 1993.

Walsh says: "We have developed quite a good culture of anti-discrimination, but there is still a residue of homophobia.

"There is an echo of fear and remorse that haunts gay people and forces them to live in the shadows."

A survey by GLEN of older lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people found that: 35pc fear friends will reject them if they tell them of their sexual orientation; 28pc are not out to any of their neighbours; and 27pc fear harassment if people find out.

As one 55-year-old transgender woman said in GLEN's report: "You're hiding all the time. You can't come out with it. You don't know what reaction you're going to get."

A high number of gay and lesbian people in the older generations get married to someone of the opposite sex and face immense difficulties in deciding to come out to their spouses and children, if indeed they ever make the leap at all. The complexity of human relationships and the different levels of attachment are underscored by a gay man who talks of his difficulty in coming out:

"Most of my younger life I attempted to be something that I wasn't. I came to the point of getting married to a woman who was my best friend and love dearly.

"For 20 years of that marriage we almost succeeded, but for three years we went through hell, and that situation led to a separation."

Looking back, the 58-year-old says he had to come out for his own sanity, but every inch of progress he made brought added difficulty, because of the effect on his wife.

Tiernan Brady of GLEN says: "Our research shows stories from all over Ireland about people who came out in their sixties and seventies, some of whom were married.

"They came from a different era where there was no way they could lead a full life as a lesbian woman or a gay man."

At the age of 36, Varadkar probably spoke for many gay people when he described a weight lifting off his shoulders.

The generational differences in attitudes are huge. A growing number of Irish teenagers do not come out any more - because they were never in.

Economic busts may come and go, but the transformation in attitudes to gay and lesbian people is perhaps the most radical change in Ireland of the past two decades.

A survey published in The Sunday Press in 1993 showed that almost two-thirds of Irish people (64pc) opposed decriminalisation of homosexual acts.

Now, 22 years later, the polls show that 70-75pc of respondents are in favour of equal marriage rights.

The coming out of Varadkar is timely, as LGBT campaigners place a new emphasis on how people live their lives in the workplace.

We spend so much time of our lives in offices and factories, exchanging banter with colleagues with talk of holidays, births, engagements, weddings and funerals. But still so many gay employees keep their personal lives a secret, and that suppression of identity can have a negative effect on their state of mind.

Brady says: "Research shows that people are much happier at work when they are out."

In most workplaces, the decision is a matter of personal choice, and a person bases their decision on what the response might be.

But in many schools there is still a legacy of Catholic doctrine. Teachers say it has a chilling effect on how open they can be at work.

An exemption to the Employment Equality Act gives a broad exemption to religious-run schools to discriminate against anyone who is "undermining the religious ethos of the institution".

"It is a huge problem," says Brady. "The law leaves a very unclear situation where, potentially, a lesbian or gay teacher could be denied a job or a promotion, or even fired."

Anne Marie Lillis, a junior infants teacher, told Weekend Review it took her 15 years before she felt confident enough to come out as a lesbian.

"It is not a dignified or comfortable position to be in if you have to keep such an important part of your life a secret.

"There is a culture of silence, and in some ways I was complicit with it," says the teacher, who moved from a Catholic school in Co Kildare to an Educate Together school in Dublin.

"I think you do get teachers who feel that they have to keep quiet about it, because it might affect their chances of promotion."

Other teachers say the comments at interview panels may seldom be as blatant as the nun who was alleged to have asked: "What about the homos?". But there may be more insidious, quiet hints dropped to teachers that if they want to get ahead, they might be better off not talking openly about a gay or lesbian relationship.

Just as profound as the dominant religious ethos on teachers is the experience of pupils in schools.

GLEN's research show that a shocking 58pc of gay or lesbian pupils had been the targets of homophobic bullying, and 20pc missed school because they felt threatened or feared getting hurt.

The most common age for young people to become aware of their sexual orientation is 12, but it is another five years before most gay and lesbian people begin to come out to other people.

So why did Varadkar come out publicly at 36?

The minister explained: "In part, it is because I am sort of comfortable to talk about it."

Leo and many other gay people will feel satisfied at the warm response, but in parts of Ireland where conservative attitudes still linger, the experience of coming out or keeping sexual orientation a secret can still be difficult.

Indo Review

Life Newsletter

Our digest of the week's juiciest lifestyle titbits.

Editors Choice

Also in Life