EILE’s Scott De Buitléir takes a moment to reflect on a historic moment that, in some ways, shows how far we have come
Late last week, a former Irish government minister criticised his own political party for lacking “energy and urgency” in their campaign to support Ireland’s upcoming referendum on marriage equality.
For a former senior politican such as Pat Carey (who served as Minister for Community, Equality and Gaeltacht Affairs from 2010 to 2011) to criticise his own political party, Fianna Fáil, on the issue is constructive, and supports the marriage equality cause in Ireland.
There’s an added strength to Carey’s statement, however, as he has also come out publicly as a gay man – something he never did while he was a government minister. In fact, there is something quite bittersweet about it when he tells the Irish Times’ Mary Minihan that his “only regret is that [he] didn’t have the courage or confidence” to come out during his career as Minister, just as Health Minister, Leo Varadkar, did on live radio earlier this year.
There’s also a sadness about this piece of news. Actually, no – there’s nothing sad about the news itself, but rather the lost years that many older LGBT people have had to contend with. It may be that this wasn’t perceived as ‘big’ a news story as Leo Varadkar coming out. In some ways, that’s understandable; Pat Carey is no longer directly involved in the political sphere, while Leo Varadkar is a current government minister. That part is fine. Despite that, however, Pat Carey’s coming out might have been slightly more subtle than Varadkar’s, but it was by no means less important and valuable.
While there are now quite a few politicians in the current Oireachtas who are openly gay, Pat Carey waited until he was in his mid-60s before he decided to come out to his family and friends. That was four years before he decided to come out publicly last week.
It could be argued that Carey’s coming out is more of a milestone than Varadkar’s in some ways, because Carey belongs to an older Irish generation. This may, or may not, have been something that the former minister considered himself, but nevertheless Carey did say to the media that he had been nervous about coming out.
“I was coming out of Mass this morning”, he explained to the Irish Examiner’s Caroline O’Doherty, “when a woman […] in her older years touched me on the elbow and whispered to me that what you said made an awful difference to a lot of people.”
Mr Carey also provided another anecdote of proof that his words, however arguably late in his years, made a positive difference to society:
“I was in my local supermarket yesterday — kind of tentatively going around because you’re never quite sure what the reaction is going to be — and another came up to me and said, it’s really good what you said, I have a gay son and we had an uncle who would probably be categorised as being gay but nobody knew how to talk about it”.
In all our columns, reports, interviews and other formats across the Irish media on the topic of marriage equality – and wider equality for LGBT people – we often forget older people in the conversation. Interpret the ‘we’ however you like; it can apply to those working in the media, or in society in general, but the point still applies. Pat Carey, a man in his sixties, is of more relevance to his own generation – whether LGBT or not – than an openly-gay politician or public figure in his or her twenties or thirties. A younger public figure wouldn’t know first-hand of the internalised homophobia that many of the older generation live with every day, because the younger ones, thankfully, have never experienced it in the same way.
Sure, homophobia and negative attitudes still exist today, but they are massively different in today’s Ireland than in the starkly conservative and über-Catholic Ireland of the forties or fifties. Even now as I, entering my late twenties, write this piece, I’m painfully aware that I’ve experienced nothing like the hardship and horror that LGBT people would have faced in a pre-decriminalisation Ireland.
Still, it is for that reason that neither Varadkar’s words on air, nor mine here, may be enough to make an impact and touch older LGBT people, who have suppressed their sexuality over the years, often for their own safety.
Pat Carey’s coming out, in that case, should have received a much larger public fanfare and celebration, because his actions of late show that these conversations, these topics, are not just a young person’s game. Our society, whether straight or gay, young or old, has many different levels to it.
If we are to be a tolerant society, we cannot think for a moment that one group, one minority, or one generation is less deserving of our time and attention than another.