Maybe we are not as tolerant as we think

From Russia to Ireland, gay rights activists are asserting themselves as never before, writes Dan Buckley

GAY rights activists across the world yesterday held protests against the Russian government in advance of the Winter Olympics in of Sochi.

Just days before, at Dublin’s iconic Abbey Theatre, Panti Bliss — Ireland’s most celebrated drag queen and the creation of Rory O’Neill — made an impassioned speech about the oppression of homophobia.

At the same time, nearly 5,000km away, the Ancient Order of Hibernians were taken to task by the mayor of New York over their anti-gay stance.

All over the world, gay rights activists are barnstorming their way into the public’s consciousness.

In Brussels, MEPs have passed a resolution (394 in favour, 176 against) calling on the European Commission to draw up a roadmap on protecting the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender (LGBT), and intersex people in the EU. “Homophobia must not be tolerated in Europe any more,” said Green deputy Ulrike Lunacek.

Justice Minister Alan Shatter would agree, as he is setting about changing laws that prevent Irish couples in civil partnerships from adopting a child.

At a conference organised by the Marriage Equality organisation, he acknowledged joint adoptions were currently limited to married couples.

“It makes no logical sense, in circumstances in which an individual who is gay can individually adopt, and that a couple in a civil partnership should not be able to adopt,” he said.

LGBT activists are fighting a civil rights battle on a number of fronts, winning in the west but losing in the east.

Of immediate concern is the decision by Russian authorities to increase pressure on gay citizens. Last year, the Russian parliament banned the promotion of “non-traditional” sexuality — widely seen as an attack on gay rights.

Yesterday’s global protests sought to persuade sponsors to think again about supporting the event.

Activists in London, Paris, New York, Melbourne, and St Petersburg urged Olympic sponsors such as Coca-Cola, Samsung, and Visa to speak against Russia’s new laws on homosexuality.

They may have left it too late, as the Olympic torch has arrived in Sochi, having visited 135 cities in the 122 days since leaving Moscow.

The bucolic mayor of Sochi has issued a statement worthy of Little Britain, declaring that there are no homosexuals in his town.

Anatoly Pakhomov said homosexuals were welcome at the Games — as long as they “respect Russian law” and “don’t impose their habits on others”.

But if the barrage of protesters expected to descend on Sochi have their way, he may end up the “only straight in the village”.

Meanwhile, in the supposedly liberal heartland of America, New York mayor Bill de Blasio has confirmed he will boycott the city’s St Patrick’s Day parade due to the effective exclusion of the LGBT community from the event. He is the first mayor in more than 20 years to do so.

Those organisers are the Ancient Order of Hibernians, the oldest and largest Irish Catholic fraternal organisation in the US. Founded in New York in 1836, among its members was the late President John F Kennedy. In recent years, it has courted controversy by banning openly gay marchers from taking part in the annual parade.

Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore chided the AOH in New York in 2011 for failing “to celebrate Ireland as it is, not as people imagine it”.

That sounds like a fair sentiment, yet the reality in Ireland is that homophobia is an everyday occurrence. While most Irish people express revulsion for such homophobia, the homeland battle for LGBT equality is far from over.

As Panti Bliss put it in a speech that has drawn praise from the likes of Madonna and Graham Norton, we are not the liberal, tolerant people we might think we are.

But there may be hope for us yet. A video of Panti’s speech has gone global, with 200,000 online views in just two days. That’s far more than the number of supporters the AOH will muster in New York on Paddy’s Day.

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