Opinion

Thursday 22 August 2019

It's easy to do the right thing when it's cool and profitable

Leo Varadkar and Charlie Bird did nothing for gay rights - but now that it's cool to be gay they embrace the rainbow flag, writes Donal Lynch

New friends: Leo Varadkar at last year’s Dublin LGBTQ Pride march. Photo: Laura Hutton/PA
New friends: Leo Varadkar at last year’s Dublin LGBTQ Pride march. Photo: Laura Hutton/PA
Donal Lynch

Donal Lynch

Pride, one look around Dublin at the moment will tell you, has gone from counter-culture to corporate in the blink of an eye.

Now, three years after the marriage referendum, every other business drapes itself in the rainbow flag, as they try to portray themselves as right on enough to take your money. This is to be expected, some might even call it progress, but what is less appetising are other cynical bandwagon jumpers, the campaigners who came out of the woodwork well after it became acceptable to be gay in Ireland, the ones who want a medal, even though they barely ran in the race.

The most prominent of these is Leo Varadkar. The Taoiseach last week mentioned the bleak situation that gay people found themselves in in the year he was born, 1979. He drew a line between the prosecutions of that era and the categorisation of homosexuality as a mental illness and the ordinary gay people of Ireland who lived "under the stigma of prosecution, who feared having their sexuality made public, and their lives destroyed". He pointed out that at one point it would have been "unthinkable" for a gay man to have become Taoiseach of the country.

This seemed, to me at least, like the most heartfelt line in the whole speech. It was only when being gay became a political asset, into his own middle 30s, that Leo Varadkar seemed to care about the issue himself.

By his own admission he always put his career first, and political progression was more important than being personally open. This might be your prerogative if you're a private citizen, but it's bothersome when you and others are later going to hold yourself out as a figurehead and the icon for a cause. Varadkar was happy to let others do the heavy lifting of bringing gay rights forward before he could sail in at the end, and accept the worldwide plaudits for becoming the first gay Taoiseach.

This is important because while Varadkar's speech made ample reference to the truly bad old days of the 1970s and 1980s, he neglected to mention that gay rights continued inching forward during his adult life, while in public he personally did little to help. Aside from lacking the bravery to simply let his identity be known - which would have been a huge thing in those years - he, in fact, actively expressed anti- gay sentiment. In 2010, six years before Ireland voted to legalise gay marriage by popular vote, Varadkar expressed his disquiet with the 2009 Civil Partnerships Bill. In a speech that could have been written by any of our more notorious social conservatives, he said: "Two men cannot have a child, two women cannot have a child… That is a fact, nobody can deny otherwise. Every child has a right to a mother and father, and as much as possible, the State should try and vindicate that right, and that the right of a child to have a mother and father is much more important than the right of two men, or two women, to have a family."

The hypocrisy of this statement, suffused as it is with internal homophobia, would make for a much more fascinating subject for a speech than the Taoiseach's bland tributes to the gay heroes of yesteryear. It might explain that one of the biggest problems with gay life in Ireland was always the complicity of gay people themselves in their oppression, their embracing of the values that made them second-class citizens.

The speech reveals Varadkar's lack of involvment in the gay movement, making the case that his own legal rights to a family are secondary to concerns for children. It is incredible to think that just a few years later he was on the cover of Time magazine and draping himself in a rainbow flag at Pride, secure in the knowledge that it enhanced his career. It had the whiff of Charlie Haughey on the podium at the Tour De France about it.

But then, the lure of the new gay cool is strong, as we also see from the success of Charlie Bird's A Day In May - the play (written by Colin Murphy), based on the book, about the marriage referendum, will be staged at the Olympia next weekend.

Bird was installed as the chairman of the launch of the Yes Campaign, despite having never done anything in particular for the gay cause in Ireland. And, as you will know from his Late Late appearance to promote the book is "one of the most heterosexual people in the world". He hammered home the point in an interview with me in which he said "I'm probably the most heterosexual man in Ireland. You know what I mean? I know you're not asking that but I'm just saying. It's not something that was there". He mentioned it again last week when I spoke to him - "a lot of people had the wrong idea".

So nothing at all wrong with it, of course, but make bloody sure nobody thinks you're it, was Charlie's message. The No Voters in the referendum weren't homophobic, he assured me - you'd have to actually "abuse" or bully a gay person in your everyday life for that to be the case.

One of the most difficult things about growing up gay in Ireland during the bad years was the depiction of gay people in the media - very often we were predators and there was a widespread conflation of homosexuality and paedophilia. I asked Bird about this in the context of a 2005 report he did on gay men using a gay dating website to allegedly groom minors.

He replied: "I would approach a piece like that differently now. At the time I was involved in doing investigations and these things were being thrown up at you. But at the same time you have to be aware of people trying to use others. It's like walking on eggshells, steering a middle course." When I cited the report to him last week, he added, "probably like a lot of people of an older generation I could have done more (for gay people). When I joined RTE there were people who I was aware were gay and I wouldn't necessarily have put the hand of friendship around them… but people mature and grow up and people can change: it was the grannies and uncles and aunts up and down the country that swung the referendum, it wasn't just gay people themselves".

Which is true, of course, but there is something slightly strange about being the principle chronicler of a group, which you keep telling everyone you don't belong to.

We heard a lot last week about murder, violence and criminalisation, but the truth is that the bad old days for gay people in Irish society weren't solely caused by the theocratic criminal law and backward judges; on a day-to-day basis the atmosphere of shame was preserved by seemingly innocuous things like politeness, discretion, careerism and a media prurience, which saw anything gay as automatically salacious, something less-then, something you wouldn't want to be.

These values were the wallpaper of our lives and they were maintained, first and foremost, by powerful politicians and journalists.

Leo and Charlie rightly pay tribute to those who did the real work but they themselves had the opportunity to make a difference when it counted, and, all these years later, the idea of either of them as the leading lights of Pride is pretty hard to stomach.

Sunday Independent

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