The saddest thing about watching the David Norris interview released by RTÉ Archives this week is that while it was broadcast before I was born, it took until I became an adult for what he was campaigning for to become a reality. The simple acknowledgement that two people may love and live with each other, regardless of gender was a criminal act until 1993. I look to those generations before me and wonder how and why they were so complicit. Why did no-one say stop?
Of course even Norris acknowedged in that interview that the actual punishments for homosexual activity were rarely handed out. The paternalistic State didn’t mind if you were gay and broke the law; once you did so quietly. Stay in the shadows. Don’t ask, and don’t tell. Be grateful that you are not being locked up in asylums with several thousand volts to hand.
A similar logic is used by those who argue that Section 37 of the Employment Equality Act should remain a law of this State. Section 37 is particularly insidious, as it expresses the act of discrimination in the form of religious freedom. Consider the following extract:
A religious, educational or medical institution which is under the direction or control of a body established for religious purposes… shall not be taken to discriminate against a person… if it gives more favourable treatment, on the religion ground, to an employee or a prospective employee over that person where it is reasonable to do so in order to maintain the religious ethos of the institution… [Statute Book]
The fact that the legislature of our Republic includes the possibility for discrimination against any citizen on any grounds is a stain on our society. More than twenty years after the decriminalisation of homosexuality, the State still refuses to acknowledge the equality of all of its citizens. And this generation – our generation – is complicit in accepting it.
One might argue, much like the illegality of homosexuality in the 1980s, we don’t really mean it. The Iona Institute considers this to be the case:
Currently, religious organisations including schools do in fact employ many individuals who are gay or lesbian, divorced or remarried as well as those who are cohabiting. These organisations have little difficult accommodating such individuals because they respect the private lives of their employees and the employees respect the ethos of their employer.
The Iona Institute considers that keeping the offending clause in the Act is not discrimination:
Would this be discrimination? It would certainly not be unjust discrimination because employers are permitted to take into account characteristics of their employees or prospective employees that are relevant to their employment.
The key aspect here is relevance to employment. Quite how the private life of any teacher is relevant to their employment is unclear. The primary consideration in employing a teacher, one would assume, is their knowledge of their discipline as determined by academic qualifications and their ability to teach, as measured by previous references or scores from teacher training.
The repercussions are both local and societal. At a local level, schools are like microcosms with complex and intense relationships within class groups and between class groups and their teachers. Breda O’Brien became quite emotional during her interview with Hugh Linehan on the Irish Times podcast this week when she spoke of how her pupils had lost confidence in her. How must teachers feel when they come back every Monday after a weekend of being free and open with family and friends, and suddenly have to lock up those emotions for fear of threat to their employment and career. I have seen teachers writing about how they “change the gender” when they are talking about their partners in staff rooms. How can these teachers enjoy the confidence of their students when they can’t risk the confidence of their colleagues? This lack of acknowledgement of the very existence of gay people in the profession in turn means there is an absence of role models to demonstrate that homosexual people exist and can lead full or dull lives like any other person. I honestly can’t understand how a teacher like O’Brien cannot emphatise with these very real experiences some of her colleagues must endure.
On a societal level, we haven’t come much further from that Norris interview of 1975. The direct power of the Church over the state may be gone, but like a teenager moving away from strict parents, the state lacks the confidence to take control of its own destiny. It has never developed its own moral compass, and is forever looking back for its moral guidance. Therefore we are subjected to national “debates” where we decide where we want to go as a society. But as we look at the Archive video with embarrassment at the length of time needed to decriminalise homosexuality, how can we justify to ourselves that it is still okay to discriminate in any way against any of our citizens in this year, 2014. The oppressed are becoming the oppressors, O’Brien said this week. I disagree. The oppressed want to not be oppressed, and seek only equality.