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Carol Hunt: Schools and church hotbeds of homophobia

Last week about 3,000 schools nationwide took part in the Stand Up To Homophobic Bullying campaign.

An initiative of the BeLonG To Youth group, to all intents and purposes it was a terrific success and the added involvement of rugby star Ben Cohen and GAA hero Donal Og Cusack generated a fair amount of prime-time media coverage.

For those of us who grew up when homosexuality was a criminal offence, this is indeed progress. For parents with LGBT children it may even prove a lifesaver. And for those who think that a little innocent name-calling is potentially harmless, and some people should really toughen up, here are a few facts:

In Ireland today at least 58 per cent of LGTB young people experience bullying with over 50 per cent of them admitting to suicidal feelings; 27 per cent have self-harmed and at least 20 per cent under the age of 25 have attempted suicide at least once.

The habit of using words like "gay", "faggot", "lesbian" and "queer" as terms of abuse begins early in life. Some time ago I caught my own small boy denigrating his sister with the worst insult he could think of; "you're so gay".

"What do you mean by 'gay', honey?" I asked. "Flamboyant, witty and well dressed?"

"What? No; thick -- bad -- eh, horrible," he continued ... "like she is"; he pointed at his sister as if that would clinch his argument.

I mentioned a few friends of mine -- gay, but certainly not stupid -- whom I knew he admired. He was astonished. That is all being "gay" means? Fancying a boy if you're a boy or a girl if you're a girl? Sure that's not even interesting.

So, that's primary school.

But what about secondary?

The average age when a person realises -- or suspects -- they are gay is 12, but the average age when they tell anyone for the first time is 17 -- the most vulnerable period in terms of mental health for a young person. To have to live such a double life at that time must be unbelievably stressful and very, very lonely.

Attending school can become a nightmare: especially where teachers turn a blind eye to what's going on; perhaps because they don't know how to deal with the situation or perhaps because sometimes, unconsciously, they agree with the bullies.

Now that wasn't a nice thing to suggest, was it? We would be very loath to think that teachers would do anything but protect bullied kids, wouldn't we? And we are not intrinsically a homophobic nation, are we? Quite the opposite in fact.

A whopping 73 per cent of us (RED C poll commissioned by the Government) recently revealed that we would like to have the right of gay couples to marry enshrined in the Constitution.

The majority of us also profess to be Roman Catholics and we send our children to Roman Catholic schools: over 90 per cent of primary schools are run according to the Roman Catholic ethos and over 50 per cent of secondary schools.

(Now, before the "militant secularists are taking over the world" brigade start spluttering, I must add that most religions have less than "Christian" attitudes to homosexuality, but I concentrate on the Roman Catholic Church because that is the religion of the majority and the general culture in which most of us were reared).

So, what does the church have to say about homophobic bullying? In his Letter To The Bishops Of The Catholic Church On The Pastoral Care Of Homosexual Persons (1986), Pope Benedict (then Cardinal Ratzinger) said: "It is deplorable that homosexual persons have been and are the object of violent malice in speech or in action.

"Such treatment deserves condemnation from the church's pastors wherever it occurs... The intrinsic dignity of each person must always be respected in work, in action ... "

This is what I'd expect the Christian attitude to be. Especially when one considers what Jesus said about homosexuality in the New Testament which is, eh, precisely nothing. It obviously wasn't an issue with him. However, the Roman Church -- and many who follow its tenets -- seems to have a bad case of cognitive dissonance going on.

Because in the same letter Pope Benedict says: "Although the particular inclination of the homosexual person is not a sin, it is more or less a strong tendency ordered to an intrinsic moral evil, and thus the inclination itself must be seen as an objective disorder."

An intrinsic moral evil?

That's strong stuff. It trumps "dirty faggot" any day. It certainly does not respect "the intrinsic dignity" of a gay person. And no, there is absolutely no way to interpret it otherwise: It is homophobic -- a classic case where the hypocrisy is there for all to see except of course for the hypocrite who screams that his views have been misquoted or wrongly interpreted.

It's the sort of language most of us would usually reserve for paedophiles or serial killers. We wouldn't apply it to people like, well, Donal Og Cusack or Anna Nolan, would we? But the church of the majority insists we should.

Last week Pope Benedict said that gay marriage was one of several "threats to the future of humanity".

No wonder children in our Catholic schools are confused. And not just the children: In a news article published last December, Leo Kilroy -- who had taught in a Dublin inner-city Catholic school -- said: "I know of gay teachers who have been passed over for promotion, they have been verbally abused and discriminated against and had to suffer jokes about gay or lesbian people."

Even if many school principals ignore the homophobia inherent in Catholic doctrine -- the fact that it exists, the fact that a teacher cannot be openly gay in a Catholic school is plain wrong.

If we as parents in a civilised society are serious about tackling injustice and discrimination against LGBT children, we really have to cop on to the contradictions inherent in our value system.

We need to confront our own hypocrisies. And we need to have the courage to name, shame and condemn the real "evil" and "disorder" in archaic attitudes to homosexuality without apology or delay.

Sunday Independent