On a recent Sunday I was in a shop in a suburb of Dublin buying my newspaper, when Ryan Tubridy walked in. Two young men were ahead of me in the queue, and one turned around to tell The Late Late Show presenter that he was “only a piece of shite”.
Such is the lot of the celebrity in this small country, where it’s nigh on impossible to hide from public view. People form adverse opinions, whether you like it or not, and they feel the freedom to voice them if you happen to appear in actual flesh and blood in their path.
If you are a gay celebrity, as Brendan Courtney has reported, people who have adverse feelings about homosexuality will make you a public target for their prejudices. By your very visibility, you instantly become a whipping boy, or girl, for the overt homophobes.
Courtney (pictured) was one of the first proper gay celebrities on Irish TV, courageously out and proud from the very start of his career. I’m sure he made a conscious choice not to hide his sexuality from the limelight, but he probably didn’t fully anticipate the consequences of that choice. On the streets of Dublin and every other Irish city, town or village, where gay couples don’t hold hands for fear of being verbally abused, or worse, what chance does an unapologetic gay man who regularly graces our television screens have of escaping unscathed?
Of course it’s not you, dear Herald reader, who is out on the streets shouting ‘faggot’ at Brendan Courtney, or ‘dyke’ at Anna Nolan, or ‘queer’ at Alan Hughes. It’s not you I have to fear if I feel the urge to lean over and kiss my partner of twelve years in a communal space. The people venting their ignorance in this fashion are a tiny element, and they don’t represent the vast majority of Irish people, who do not harbour homophobic thoughts or feelings.
But think for a minute about where the permission for this minority to behave in such a way might come from.
My nephew is seven. He goes to a school on an idyllic country road that has four teachers and a headmistress. A few weeks ago he came home and said something about a boy in his class being gay. The other kids were laughing at this boy, and my nephew couldn’t understand why.
My friend’s son is 13. He’s in a large secondary school in Dublin. He’s just getting into girls, and all the regular teenage stuff. But lately another boy has started calling him a ‘faggot’. This has begun causing him sleepless nights. He doesn’t know how to respond without making things worse.
We live in a country where tacit permission is given to people to shout homophobic abuse at Brendan Courtney on the street. We live in a country where the kids who bully other kids, using the ‘gay’ word and making lives a misery, are somehow empowered and condoned.
The only way to deny that permission and empowerment is to have zero tolerance for terms of homophobic abuse, and zero tolerance for the equation of the word ‘gay’ with anything negative.
Some of the many babies born in Ireland this week might be gay. Does it seem right that they enter an educational system at the age of five that denies who they are, or quietly deems them as less deserving of respect? We have to start at the very beginning. Children in our national schools should be taught that gay and lesbian people are deserving of love and equal respect, from day one. At home, they should be told that being gay is a normal part of life, and that gay children and straight children are just the same as each other. No differentiation should be made for them between families where there are same-sex parents, or opposite-sex parents. They should be told they are loved unconditionally not despite of who they are, but because of who they are.
Only then will they grow up in a world where the likes of Brendan Courtney can walk down a street without fear of abuse. Only then will they grow up in a world where they can one day hold their partner’s hand, with love, without even thinking about it.
Published in The Herald, October 9, 2014