I still remember the name of that first Protestant. He was handy at football; he moved with a certain grace that was beyond me.
There was nothing extraordinary about him — he wasn’t that good — but his name and appearance have stuck with me into middle age. The first few times I was in his company, I couldn’t help staring at him. Would he betray his rogue origins? Would he, at some point, burst into tears, because he was beyond redemption, doomed outside the one, true Church? What would it be like for him, out there in the ether, while I was lying up in the hereafter?
Pretty soon, my curiosity morphed into sympathy, and pretty soon after that I forgot that he was different. We weren’t friends and I didn’t encounter him beyond the point where children disperse into their own groups.
But anytime I saw him around the town, or played football with him, I couldn’t help remembering that he had been my first Protestant.
I met my first gay person when I was 19. It was in New York, in a house in Queens, full of Paddies and soaked in booze. Ireland on tour in the 1980s.
Charlie was from Meath, a little camp guy with spiky hair. He was very funny, except when he was drunk, and then he often descended into sadness. One night, when I came home from work, he was drinking in the kitchen and told me that he had an awful time growing up. I felt sorry for Charlie, but found it difficult to take him seriously.
I had no idea what he had been talking about, because I didn’t know anybody who was really gay. Sure, there were one or two fellas in school who were described as “poofters”, because they displayed feminine traits, but nobody believed that they got off with other boys. And then there were the girls who had no interest in making themselves attractive. Dykes.
That’s the kind of country in which I grew up. It was intolerant of diversity, not as enthralled to the Church as previous generations, but enough to contaminate the minds of the children. Minds filled with muck about how those outside the one true Church were to be pitied rather than hated, and how those of a minority sexual orientation had been corrupted, were now deviants, and, consequently, were doomed. But, thankfully, like the snakes, they have largely been banished from the sacred isle.
Society as a whole, or at least most of it, bought into that warped narrative. In his book, Occasions of Sin, Sex and Society in Modern Ireland, Diarmuid Ferriter referenced the reporting of Nell McCafferty on a district court case, in September 1975, in which two men were brought to trial after a sexual encounter in a public toilet.
“What was illuminating was the manner in which the men were ‘pathologised, represented as immature, recommended for medical treatment and publicly humiliated’,” Ferriter wrote. “A priest referred one of the defendants to a psychiatrist; the other was deemed to be suffering from depression. They were bound to keep the peace for a year, the judge commenting, ‘it’s a completely unnatural performance’.”
When that’s the start you get, it takes a while for the spell to wear off. But, to the credit of this country and its citizens, the spell has lifted at an accelerating rate in recent decades. Intolerance of diversity has been driven underground.
Religious bigotry has, to a major extent in the Republic, disappeared. The Catholic Church has, to some extent, moved with the times. I don’t think that children today have the same hang-ups that most of my generation had, even though the Church still maintains its grip on primary-school education.
The influx of immigrants over the last 15 years has opened up the country in a way that never would have been dreamed possible a generation ago. Some things do persist, though.
Last Sunday, Health Minister Leo Varadkar, who is regarded as extremely able, told a radio audience that he is not an equal citizen in his own country. This is not somebody from an ostensibly marginalised community. He is one of the main lawmakers in the State. Yet, he does not enjoy the right to cement a loving union in marriage, simply because he is gay.
On Wednesday, the Government published the wording for the forthcoming referendum on same-sex marriage, and got cracking on another bill, on adoption rights. As with other referendums, the Government is playing catch-up already, and the dangers of it failing are very real.
Some people in the country disagree with the proposal, and that’s their prerogative. However, the basis on which the main plank of the no campaign is being run harks back to a time when the Catholic Church controlled the State. Most of those in the no campaign ride shotgun for the Church. I believe their objection is based on their religious beliefs.
Politically, they know that the Church, as a brand in social affairs, is pretty tarnished, despite the genuine contribution to social justice of some within the institution.
To run a campaign based on foisting religious beliefs onto a sceptical population would be as doomed as the Protestants of my youth. So, instead, they have resorted to fear and to concern for children. Their campaign is now largely built around scaremongering that a yes vote will have a negative impact on adopted children, denying them the right to a mother and to a father. This, despite the fact that one in four children in this State is currently raised outside the traditional nuclear family.
Such a campaign also fails to acknowledge that adoption dictates that the child not be raised by his or her biological parents.
All of the available evidence suggests that other matters, such as the quality of the relationship between parents, mental health, addiction, and socio-economics determine a child’s upbringing.
But, then, generating fear of the unknown, rather than producing evidence, is a well-worn tactic of those determined to resist the force of change. Back in the day, they wouldn’t have had that problem. The Church would have merely issued an edict and the population would have complied, in both letter and spirit.
Now, it is necessary to go down a different route, one that is laced with cynicism. If the changes of recent decades are to be properly acknowledged, the very least that the country deserves is an honest debate, based on genuinely held beliefs, rather than a dishonest tactic designed to spread fear, instead of persuade through argument.
Don’t hold your breath.
The no campaign is largely built around scaremongering.
The no campaign is scaremongering that a yes vote will impact adopted children