Twenty years ago, when Paula Fagan first began working on the LGBT Ireland helpline, the parents who rang for support in dealing with a child who was gay or who had just come out, were often profoundly distressed.
“The three things a parent would generally be upset about and grieving over, would be the fact that their child could not get married, could not have a family of their own and could potentially be beaten up,” says Paula Fagan, now chief executive of the organisation.
She says, parents were often also deeply uncomfortable with the concept of gayness and aware that they may not have responded well to their child’s disclosure.
Nowadays, just five years after the ground-breaking Marriage Equality Referendum, things are much better. “We still get loads of parents ringing the helpline,” Fagan says.
However, while many mums and dads are not so devastated anymore, and in fact, are often deeply supportive, a sense of sorrow still remains.
“The marriage equality referendum has normalised same-sex relationships. Parents know their child can get married and they can now see a future for their child,” she says. “We can now celebrate a same-sex couple getting married and that celebration is what will eventually overcome the stigma.
“Children nowadays may be attending the weddings of an uncle and male partner, for example. The marriage equality referendum brings that chance for people to have the legal protection of marriage and it also gives people the opportunity to celebrate their relationship. There is that traditional family recognition of their partnership, and marriage weaves in so much of the wider family in-laws,” she says.
However, she acknowledges, many parents today are still fearful that their child will have a hard life as a result of their sexual orientation and are upset for this reason: “Parents often say they cannot believe how upset they are when a child comes out, even though they themselves may have gay or lesbian friends or have gay relatives in their own families who are out.
“They are not necessarily upset about the child’s orientation, but they do fear their child may have a less fulfilled life. The stigma is still there and many people don’t realise that,” she says.
This stubborn sense of stigma around the topic of homosexuality is one of the reasons, she believes, why the Pride campaign remains so important: “It’s important for the visibility it brings, the opportunity it provides to highlight issues of importance and the celebrations which will eventually overcome the stigma.”
That’s the good news. The bad news, and something that the wider Irish society often does not always realise, is that the marriage equality referendum did not provide legal recognition for same-sex parents.
“Earlier this year, the final part of the Child and Family Relationships Act was enacted. This means that for the first time in Ireland, both partners in certain female same-sex couples will each be recognised as their children’s legal parents.”
However, she emphasises, there are strict criteria around this which proscribes many other same-sex couples from having that automatic legal recognition of their status as parents.
“This is a very important issue and Cork Pride has made the issue of family matters its theme for the 2020 Pride festival next September.
“This is a chance to talk about this and amplify the fact that this issue has not been resolved for many families. Many people thought the referendum would resolve all these issues but the situation is very complex.
“A special rapporteur for child protection was appointed by the last government to review the legal gaps and make recommendations in terms of the law reforms needed in this area.
“From the LGBT Ireland point of view, we will be asking the next government to urgently progress this review. The marriage equality referendum was an amazing achievement for the whole country”, she says, adding however that there is a risk that people underestimate not only the amount of work that remains to be done but also the level of stigma and discrimination that LGBTI people still experience.
“Yes, so much has been done but we have a lot of work to do still in terms of changing our systems”, she says, adding that a good example of this is the need to ensure that healthcare professionals are trained to be inclusive of LGBTI patients.
“If you are a young, gay person and you go to see the GP and the GP practice does not have posters saying ‘we are LGBT-friendly,’ the young person may be reluctant to come out to the doctor, or the doctor may not have the knowledge he or she needs about the sexual orientations or activity that a doctor should have.
“People in Ireland are supportive in their hearts in how they treat people but the next level is to more deeply understand the issues and how to be more inclusive, for example, in terms of public awareness around the issues faced by many same-sex parents.
“Our fundamental ask as an organisation is that we continue to build on the progress we have made, so that we don’t get complacent," said Paula.
“The referendum was an amazing achievement but we must not become complacent and we must recognise and complete the work that remains to be done in order to ensure equality. Rights can be quickly eroded and education really helps to ensure this does not happen, because if you truly understand why something is important you’ll respect it and be more likely to support it and sustain it.”