Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Powerlessness and Pantigate

-  Brian Carey ( @BPDCarey on Twitter )

The fiasco surrounding comments made by Rory O'Neill/Panti on RTE's Saturday Night Show, the subsequent apology on behalf of RTE and the crowing addendum offered by David Quinn of the Iona Institute have been covered and commented on at length elsewhere, at least online.

I would like to focus on one particular theme which has emerged from the coverage of these events, something which I think captures a lot of what it is that has made some people so angry (and rightly so, in my view). The theme in question, the common thread running through most of the comments which have been made, is that of powerlessness.

There are many ways that a person can be rendered powerless, and lgbt people have experienced most of these. In Ireland, until 1993, the law made it a criminal offence for consenting adults to engage in homosexual acts. The law still denies gay people the right to jointly adopt, or to enter into a civil marriage, and permits employees of religious institutions, including hospitals and schools, to be fired on the basis of their sexual orientation. Recently, the Irish government has gone to great lengths to deny transgendered people the right to have their gender identity reflected on official government documents.

Of course, the law is just one way in which lgbt people can be rendered powerless. Homophobic attitudes in general persist, even as progress is made on the legal front. Homophobic bullying is rife in schools (globally, there is an epidemic of mental illness and homelessness among LGBT youth), and there are few streets in Ireland where a same-sex couple could walk hand-in-hand or share a kiss without fear of jeers or taunts (at the very least).

Rory O'Neill's comments on the Saturday Night Show expressed sentiments which are common among every LGBT person I know. The comments were, if anything, rather mild - suggesting that homophobia has been subdued to some extent, but that we ought to be aware that homophobia manifests itself in all sorts of subtle ways, rather than describing an extreme anti-gay prejudice.

The initial response to these comments was to threaten RTE and O'Neill with legal action. The message this action sends to gay people is that people we may regard as homophobic have got the power to tell us what the term can and cannot be used to describe, and if we use it in a way that they don't approve of, they will use the power of the law against us.

In the context of the upcoming debate surrounding same-sex marriage, the message is especially chilling. Those of us who sincerely believe that most of the opposition to same-sex marriage from those who campaign against it is motivated by homophobic beliefs (as we understand the term) are being told (under threat of legal sanction) that that term is off-limits. We may engage with the debate, but only on the terms of our opponents.

This in itself would be contemptible, but then it was followed up with the apology from RTE. The Iona Institute are bad enough, but at least they are not an institution of the state. RTE capitulated to the demands of the Iona Institute, going so far as singing from the latter's hymn sheet by implying that accusations of homophobia undermine democratic debate, thus sending the message to lgbt people that the view of the Iona Institute is essentially endorsed by an institution of the state.

The final kick in the teeth comes from the general rhetoric currently being employed by the Iona Institute and its defenders, which seeks to cast those of us who use the term "homophobic" to describe opponents of same-sex marriage as being motivated by a desire to shut down the debate; in a sense, that we are trying to render them powerless. This fits with a broader narrative - one that endorses language like "the gay lobby" or sometimes "the gay agenda" as a way of implying that advocates for same-sex rights wield disproportionate power in the political arena.

It isn't enough that such people use the power of the law to render us powerless; it's got to be accompanied by the claim that it is in fact we who are trying to render our opponents powerless. This kind of dishonesty and hypocrisy is not merely the rhetorical strategy of an opponent engaged in reasonable disagreement in a democratic debate. It is disingenuous, profoundly disrespectful, and the most perfect evidence imaginable that never has the label "homophobic" been more richly deserved.

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