Last night (8 November) at the Marine Hotel in Sutton, Minister of State at the Dept of Justice & Equality, Aodhán Ó Riordáin, hosted a meeting about what was needed to ensure that the recent legislation on LGBT discrimination, equal marriage, and section 37.1, was fully implemented. This would ensure that the lived experience for LGBT people and youth was improved permanently.
The meeting was entitled: After The Yes: What Next for LGBT Rights in Ireland?
Aodhán introduced two speakers, Brian Sheehan, Executive Director of GLEN (Gay & Lesbian Network) and Anne-Marie Lillis, Chairperson INTO (Irish National Teachers’ Organisation) LGBT.
Brian Sheehan began by referring to the recent marriage referendum, and said “we live in a transformed Ireland” where things had been gradually improving for the LGBT community since decriminalisation, after which people became more open.
He also said that when all the political parties supported Civil Partnerships, this sent a signal, even to activists in other countries, that to continue trying would eventually yield results. He hoped that “this would be the last generation that has to struggle for our rights”.
Brian then gave the audience a fews facts to make clear why there was a need for a strategy or roadmap, to see that any improvements in legislation would lead to real change in society.
For instance, whereas the most common age for people to self-identify as gay was 12 years, the most common age for them to come out to others was 15 years, a gap of three years.
He also felt that parents need to know how to support their LGBT child, as should schools and colleges. From there, the next area is the workplace, which should also ensure that there is no discrimination or harassment toward the LGBT person. Further, that this should not be done in a negative way as in stopping discrimination, but in a positive way, that is, to promote the fostering of a school or workplace that is welcoming and supportive.
He saw a need for HIV information to be readily available to those who need it, as there has been a rise in HIV rates among younger men over the last number of years.
Brian also commented on the fact that in the health services, there appears to be lack of education among medical staff as to their responsibilities towards the LGBT community, and when it comes to elderly LGBT looking for a place in care homes, they often feel that they have to go back into the closet for fear of not getting a place.
He pointed to the diversity among LGBT people in regard to age, class etc, and to the fact that in the recent marriage referendum, 80-90% in working class areas voted ‘Yes’.
Also mentioned was that, although Aodhán Ó Riordáin was the Equality Minister, no-one in government had any title with ‘LGBT’ in it. Brian said that the ‘strategy’ was for equality to be achieved, and the ‘roadmap’ was how to achieve it. For this to come about, he reckoned that it would take about five years.
He concluded that although this progress appears to have happened very suddenly in Ireland, it has actually taken approximately 25 years to get to this point, and we’re not fully there yet.
Aodhán next introduced Anne-Marie Lillis, chairperson of the INTO LGBT, and she opened by paying tribute to Sheila Crowley. Sheila was the first chairperson of INTO LGBT, and gave the first ever INTO LGBT address to the INTO conference in Kilkenny in 2008, received a standing ovation, and is now living with her partner in Kerry.
Anne-Marie also spoke of the recent legislation to remove section 37.1, which had allowed religious-run schools to discriminate against LGBT teachers on the basis of their sexual orientation, which could be construed as undermining the ethos of the school, leading to dismissal.
Anne-Marie told how Sheila Crowley was also the first person to coin the phrase ‘the chill factor’ about section 37.1, something which was not tangible, but was like walking into a cold room. It had the effect of silencing LGBT people, and prevented other teachers from speaking about homophobia etc. It was Sheila Crowley speaking at the INTO conference that put section 37.1 on the political and educational agendas.
Anne-Marie stated that section 37.1 was part of the structure of homophobia in schools, although it is now illegal to discriminate against teachers on the basis of sexual orientation. Her way forward involved continuing to work with the trade unions, which would have a knock-on effect on the rest of society.
She felt that it was crucial that the Department of Education send out a circular to all schools to outline their responsibilities in regard to the changed legislation, including their responsibility to monitor homophobia for both students and teachers.
Anne-Marie also felt that visibility was very important, and that books should be on the curriculum which included LGBT stories, also posters, and library books. It was important to have anti-bullying procedures in place, as it is now compulsory for schools to tackle homophobia and transphobia. However, there is a need for guidance and resources for teachers. She referred to the recent ‘Different Families – Same Love’ posters, which were to be seen by children between 4 and 12, and included guidelines for teachers. She ended by saying that children love stories, and would learn about LGBT people through stories. However, there was a lack of such storybooks out there.
There was a question and answer session afterwards, at which Aodhán mentioned how some people are still not comfortable coming out, citing the occasion when some LGBT people moved out of a photo with the President of Ireland, rather than be seen by family or friends who did not know they were gay. He felt interpretation was important.
Brian answered a question about mental health issues with drugs and alcohol among some LGBT. He said they may be regarded as mad, sad and bad if they go for help, and systemic change is needed. He also said any service is ineffective if it does not include LGBTI. He said there were challenges like transition issues, legacy issues and core issues, which may lead to drink, drugs and homelessness. Many homeless are LGBT young people. He commented on the finding that when mental health strategies are changed, suicide rates go up. It is therefore necessary that gays don’t feel marginalised. It is different to something like racism, as in racism, the whole family may experience it and so understand, while with homophobia, none of the rest of the family are experiencing it.
Aodhán explained the need to include these strategies in a manifesto, as if not in the manifesto, it cannot be in the programme for government, and therefore there can be no argument to bring it forward.
Anne-Marie mentioned that there can still be homophobia in other organisations like sports clubs, and so there should be someone who is in charge of LGBT issues in the club personnel, to ensure that there is no dressing-room homophobia, for instance.
Someone asked about the role of religion in regard to getting these strategies implemented, as he still wants to be part of a religion, yet feels rejected by it, and realised at a recent heterosexual wedding that all of the priest’s pronouncements were to emphasise that he still felt that marriage was between a man and a woman.
Brian Sheehan said the LGBT community had been well-served by politicians and programmes for government, acknowledging Labour’s special contribution to progress.
He said Irish people want to see this equality in, and “want it for their children”. However, funding for various groups who had been active in the campaign had all but run out, and so may need a budget for NGOs to be provided by the government.
Anne-Marie again mentioned that as soon as possible, a circular, which would only cost the price of the paper, should be sent to schools, outlining the implications of the new legislation, to rid the schools of homophobia and discrimination.
M. Butler asked if there should also be a designated LGBT-trained teacher on the school staff, so that children experiencing homophobic bullying had someone to go to for help or to report it, as many school staff, either principals or teachers, may not see the seriousness of homophobic bullying. Some staff may also be anti-LGBT, in spite of new legislation.
The meeting then concluded, and Aodhán Ó Riordáin thanked the speakers and the audience.