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Sympathy leaves us open to reverse discrimination

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Rory O'Neill aka Panti Bliss

Rory O'Neill aka Panti Bliss

Photo: Ronan Lang

Rory O'Neill aka Panti Bliss

WHAT do Rory O'Neill and President Barack Obama have in common? For a start, they are both damn good communicators, helped by the fact that both are intelligent, personable, and very good-looking, O'Neill doubly so as he has an alter ego in the outrageously glamorous Miss Panti Bliss.

Rather more seriously, both have argued from the particular to the general on separate, very important issues. And neither should have done so.

Obama made a speech some months ago in which he said that he knew, as a black man, what it was to walk across a car park wearing a hoodie, and have people hit the lock button on their car doors. He implied that they did so only because he was black, and therefore they were exhibiting signs of racism.

Some such people may well be of a racist disposition, and would not dream of fearing that a white man approaching them on a dark night in a lonely car park was about to rob them, and therefore not take the elementary precaution of locking their car doors. Not to do so, however, might better be described as idiotic rather than racist.

O'Neill, passionately arguing the case against homophobia in Ireland from the stage of the national theatre, on which he had been given a platform due to the escalating public row over what does and does not constitute homophobia, claimed that all heterosexuals are guilty of homophobia somewhere in their being.

The row had begun when in a television interview he implied (in their opinion) homophobic motives against the Irish Times journalists Breda O'Brien and John Waters, and against other members of the orthodox Roman Catholic think tank the Iona Institute (where O'Brien is a board member).

They threatened to sue, and RTE speedily paid out a large sum in damages.

It would be fair to say that this caused blue bloody murder inside and outside the Dail; the row, instead of disappearing, escalated. But when O'Neill went on to suggest that all heterosexuals are homophobic "down deep", it's on a par with Obama believing that nervousness at seeing a hooded man in an isolated car park is because he's black.

I find that intensely offensive. Just as I find it intensely offensive to be told that because I'm heterosexual, I'm probably homophobic "down deep".

I may loathe individual gays, or individual black people, because they're unpleasant, ignorant, violent, right-wing, cruel, or criminal. That doesn't make me a racist or a homophobe: such people are not worthy of being liked or respected, and it has nothing to do with colour or sexual orientation.

And further, I find it alarming that so far, the heterosexual population has taken Rory O'Neill's sweeping statement lying down. We seem to be falling into the trap of allowing our sympathy for a group of people who experience frequent discrimination and insult to make us accept their right to be unjust towards the rest of us. That is condescending, and could actually be described as reverse discrimination.

I don't go round saying "some of my best friends are gay" but, as it happens, it's true. Frequently when people say that, they're protesting too much, and could be accused of a tinge of homophobia. If you are of an age to remember the heroic battle waged by Senator David Norris to have homosexual practice decriminalised in Ireland, you will also remember that gays lived in the shadows before that.

And if you thought then (or think now, for that matter) that the shadows of shame is where they belong, then you are undoubtedly homophobic: you fear and loathe homosexuals for what they are, and regard them as lesser citizens and human beings.

But if you now accept without a blink because it is frequent and commonplace, the sight of young gay lovers holding hands in public, just as young heterosexual lovers have always been free to, but can remember a time when it would have made you cringe, then the accusation of "deep down" homophobia probably does fit. Because you have been dragged against your will into acceptance of the sexual equality of gays.

But it is deeply unfair of Rory O'Neill, even in his hurt and frustration, to put us all into the same category.

It's as unfair as heterosexual people assuming that all gay men mince, and wear far too much make-up. (Some do, as it happens.)

The Catholic Archbishop of Dublin, Dr Diarmuid Martin, who has proved himself on numerous occasions to be a deeply compassionate man, agreed with O'Neill insofar, he said, that there had been "a bit of the homophobe in everyone" when he was growing up. We had to grow out of it, he added.

He also, understandably given his vocation and mission, reiterated Church teaching that marriage is only about heterosexual union. But he also, significantly, said that the Church can't impose this teaching on an individual or society, but that it has a right to state its case.

And he also admitted that it was possible for Catholic teaching on homosexuality to be used in a homophobic way.

Many people, even some Catholics, think it is impossible to read it any other way.

The Catholic Church teaches that homosexual practice is morally and sexually aberrant. In other words, gays are freaks of nature, but the Church is kind enough to have sympathy for them. However, if they love as nature formed them to love, they are in grave and irredeemable sin: they must live celibate in order to avoid eternal damnation.

Some clerics use less brutal language; but the facts remain the same. Pope Francis is gentler in tone than Pope Benedict was: but the teaching remains stark and undenied. And it's homophobic in a lot of people's books. (In this context it is perhaps worth repeating that the Iona Institute exists to promote Catholic practice and belief, in Irish society.)

Yet when it comes to same-sex marriage, it is not necessarily homophobic to oppose it. Many people believe that to oppose it is cruel, unfair, narrow-minded, defies the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and even denies dignity to a whole swathe of the population. But if you do oppose such marriages being permitted, you can have a whole slew of reasons, one of which, or the only one, may be homophobia.

One way of furthering the debate on a definition of homophobia would have been for RTE, which is supposed to operate in the public interest, to have allowed those offended by Rory O'Neill's interview to bring their action to court, and let the law decide, rather than rushing to hand out taxpayers' money before the issue was even aired. In fact, many people would say that it was the duty of RTE to do so as a public service broadcaster.

Archbishop Diarmuid Martin has said that the debate on same-sex marriage has got off to a bad start. Indeed.

Sunday Independent