VICTORIA WHITE: We are not the same. That’s why the ideal is acceptance of sexual diversity

DRAG artist Panti Bliss’s speech on homophobia, in the Abbey Theatre on February 2, is one of the greats of Irish politics, up there with Robert Emmet’s parting words. For anyone who has followed Bliss’s (real name Rory O’Neill) career, this is not surprising.

I have been a fan of this acclaimed artiste, campaigner and businessman for years — but if there is footage of me dressed as ABBA’s Agnetha at Panti Bar’s annual Eurovision event, I want it canned.

Although the forthcoming referendum on same-sex marriage is the context of this debate, it will not get rid of homophobia. I, for one, am a little worried by the implicit idea that gay people will be alright if they are ‘the same as us.’

I will vote enthusiastically for same-sex marriage. The passing of the amendment to allow same-sex marriage will probably be a marker on the road to equality for gay people. We don’t know for sure, because it is too early for comprehensive research on attitudes to gays in the 17 countries in which same-sex marriage has been allowed.

I believe a State marriage should be an option for a same-sex couple. And, yes, I have a right to an opinion on this, although I am straight, because I am being asked to vote on it.

However, just as many, many straight people do not get married, and a third of births are now registered outside marriage, many gay people don’t want to get married, either.

There’s nothing wrong with that. Marriage will mean different things to different people. To some, including myself, it has been enriching and stabilising. Myself and my husband were commitment-phobic 30-somethings when we married, and we both sensed that the public avowal would settle us down.

But I only felt happy marrying in a country in which not getting married was acceptable. What we need, more than same-sex marriage, is a true acceptance of diversity.

Though same-sex marriage should be an option, I don’t think that presenting gay relationships as ‘the same’ as my own, dear home life — as if this were the new gold standard — is liberal at all.

Men and women are different, for a start, though, perversely, the official liberal view is to present us as the same. In my experience with gay friends, two male partners have a different dynamic than two female partners. Apart from a keen, shared awareness of discrimination, both types of partnerships can have more in common with straight couples than with each other. They may not, of course, because gay couples are as immune to categorisation as all other couples.

I’m not sure that presenting same-sex unions like wedding-cake figurines is helping anyone. It may be a strategy to gain support among conservatives for same-sex union. But I wouldn’t want to have the first gay divorce in this country.

Could this ultra-conservative presentation of gay relationships betray a little of that latent homophobia in the campaigners themselves, of which O’Neill spoke so movingly at the Abbey?

Homophobia is still a scourge. Gay people are seven times more likely than straight people to commit suicide in Ireland. This gives young gays here serious odds, because Ireland’s suicide rate for young people is the fourth highest in the EU. It’s a statistic that should shame us all, but should surprise no-one. It spirits me, in my imagination, to a classroom in rural Ireland, trying to suppress my feelings towards another teenager, “checking myself”, as O’Neill so brilliantly put it in his Abbey speech.

How hellish and how completely unnecessary. As the European Parliament Joint Resolution of 2012 put it, homophobia is “an irrational fear of, and aversion to, male and female homosexuality and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people based on prejudice and is similar to racism, xenophobia, anti-semitism and sexism.”

Men loving men and women loving women enrich society, and pose no threat to anyone. The roots of homophobia are probably no deeper than the fear of anyone different, though there may also have been pronatalist fears that gay activity would mean fewer warriors for a given community. In a society focused on contraception, and on a planet groaning with people, disapproving of sex that can’t make babies is just daft.

Violent homophobia is a serious and growing threat, and is much closer to home than notorious Uganda. Russia, host to the world at the Winter Olympics, passed laws in the Duma last year banning what it calls the propagation of homosexuality. Groups such as Occupy Gerontophilia and Occupy Paedophilia harass gays, and there have been reports of youngsters being lured into violence. In one Siberian province, consideration was given to public flogging of gays by Cossacks.

In the Ukraine, the parliament has considered laws that would allow for a five-year prison sentence for “spreading homosexuality”; in Moldova, some cities have banned what they call the “aggressive propaganda of non-traditional sexual orientations.” There have been calls for similar moves in Lithuania, Latvia and Hungary.

This is horrific, and not only for gays, because homophobia poisons a whole society. I do not believe that everyone who is against same-sex marriage can be called a homophobe.

True, homophobes are distinguished by hatred. They hate all but the most crudely drawn stereotypes of sexual roles. Gay or straight, this makes us all less than we can be.

The European Commission must expand its Framework Decision on Racism and Xenophobia to include homophobia, and do so as a matter of urgency. It would be wonderful if old Christendom could be newly defined as the place where homophobia is banned. But I don’t believe same-sex marriage is the quick-fix for gay equality. Neither do I believe marriage is any qualification for having a child, whether you’re gay or straight.

Back in the day when people were more innocent, one woman complained on RTÉ radio that she wanted her daughter married, because “she should have her piece of paper before she gets into bed with a man.” Someone rang back saying, “You need a lot of things getting into bed, but a piece of paper isn’t one of them.”

That piece of paper won’t make you a good parent, either, and though statistics say married couples are more likely to stay together than unmarried ones, who can judge whether the marriage has been the superglue or the couples’ pre-existing commitment?

Marriage didn’t make good parents in the days of Philomena and it won’t make them now, gay or straight. Potential adoptive parents should be assessed on a case-by-case basis to best serve the needs of individual children who have suffered the apocalypse of the loss of their birth parents.

Tackling homophobia may well be the defining civil-rights issue of our generation, but I disagree with Eamon Gilmore on this one: same-sex marriage isn’t.


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