When I spoke in the Dáil on the debate on RTÉ’s decision to pay €85,000 in settlement over comments made on The Saturday Night Show, I did so not just as a gay person, but also as a member of society who wants to be treated equally.
The sequence of events arising from that show on January 11 give rise to serious concerns about how public discourse is conducted, the language we use, the labels we apply to others, and the role of a public service broadcaster in facilitating discussion and debate.
As our national public service broadcaster, RTÉ bears a responsibility to facilitate fair and balanced debate on issues of public importance. Central to this obligation must be an entitlement of those participating in RTÉ broadcasts to voice honestly held opinions and make fair comment. RTÉ must act as a fair arbitrator and stand by the right of people on its platforms to voice honestly held opinions. When RTÉ edits its broadcasts and apologises based on advice “that the legal position was far from clear” — that is quoting from a letter I received this week from the head of broadcast compliance — it acts to undermine its public service remit.
Media organisations have an important role in making sure that these positions are challenged. Readily yielding to claims of defamation undermines this role.
The wider debate about marriage equality and equal treatment and recognition of people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender (LGBT) is about recognising the reality of life today for many people, many families. Earlier this week in the Seanad, that quest for equality was referred to as a “matter of social re-engineering” by the “gay ideological movement”.
Such statements are offensive and a gross misunderstanding of the right to equality of all people in our society. The wider debate is not about social re-engineering. It is about not discriminating on grounds of sexual orientation. Itis about equality.
I have been a schoolteacher. I spent five years in a seminary. I have struggled with my sexuality. It has been a long journey for me, part of which I spent trying to fit into societal norms. Conforming to the expectations of others can make you unhappy and, for me, coming out broke the chain of that unhappiness.
My experience of coming out has been overwhelmingly positive, supportive and affirming, particularly when I am at home among the people of Cork. I have had fantastic support from the GAA, from the people involved in my own club, Bishopstown, and the wider GAA community.
I have been overwhelmed by the number of emails, letters, and approaches I have had from people.
However, earlier in my life, I experienced discrimination and hatred. I was beaten, spat at, chased, harassed, and mocked because of who I am.
I am not alone. People are still being accosted in the vicinity of a gay bar. There is still fear associated with being gay or coming out. We must eliminate that fear. And we must not allow people who spout hatred and intolerance to be left unchecked.
A recent study by the Gay and Lesbian Equality Network shows that four out of five gay people in Ireland have been harassed in the last five years. A quarter of them were kicked, punched, or beaten. Almost one in five LGBT people have attempted suicide. One third of gay people under 25 have contemplated taking their own lives.
A TD or a well-known sportsman should not have to come out and declare their sexuality, but I feel I have a duty to try and be a voice for those who, for one reason or another, cannot find their own voice.
I am a democrat and a citizen of a republic. I respect the rights of other people to express opinions different to my own and welcome debating with them. But that debate must take place in a context of mutual respect and equality.
We have made huge strides in the 20 years since homosexuality was decriminalised, but we still have some way to go.
The reality is that there are gay people in every location and every corner of the country. It would be great if being gay was normalised to such an extent that none of us would feel compelled to express our sexuality. I hope that that will happen one day soon and I hope that my coming out will be consigned to a footnote in history.
When we are debating issues of equality, we must make sure that it is full and robust but conducted in a respectful and tolerant manner. The debate has to be about the core issues that will be put to the people in referendum in 2015.
My contribution in the Dáil on Thursday was about standing up for those in our society who do not enjoy full equality. The debate is not about homophobia and it is not about religion. It is about equality.
* Jerry Buttimer is a Fine Gael TD for Cork South Central
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved