The trouble with being first
David Norris ended his campaign for president with dignity yesterday, a decision which is understandable at a personal level after the weekend. I did think it was the right thing for him to do, but I did feel for him as he found himself in that position.
Presidential campaigns are not easy for any candidate, as Brian Lenihan and Adi Roche found because of how their past actions were interpreted, or as Mary Robinson, Mary McAleese and Mary Banotti found simply because of who they were. A candidate should be prepared, however unreasonable and unjust it may seem, to have their actions during their public career scrutinized, if not those of their entire working life.
But was David Norris subject to extraordinary scrutiny because he was gay? He certainly encountered homophobia, from a councillor in my home town who said that he wouldn’t support David Norris because a man should have a wife, to the caller the Pat Kenny show felt worthy to entertain saying he had a problem with the idea that Norris might bring a man into the Áras as his partner. So yes, part of the extra questioning he went through was plain bigotry, and because something relating to those not close to the mean citizen form a good tabloid headline.
But just because he was under more scrutiny because he was gay, it doesn’t mean it was homophobic. It was inevitable because of his attempt to become the first openly gay elected head of state in modern times. We are still in a place in society where young gay people look for role models, where gay people are conscious how few others there are in public positions, so someone seeking such a position of prominence will receive extraordinary attention.
There was extraordinary euphoria about Norris’s candidacy in part because of the symbolism his election would evoke, as visualised by Jason O’Mahony in his mock-up Time cover. That was bound to evoke corresponding extraordinary skepticism, as people would seek to be sure that he was fully a good candidate in his own right, apart from the headline that would make it worthy of a Time cover, that he wasn’t being let away with something because it was too good a headline to miss. We had to be sure that the aim didn’t become electing a gay president whatever the cost.
With any of the candidates remaining, the only international coverage Ireland will get is possibly in the short snippets of The World this Week at the start of The Economist. They could have said anything during their political careers, and no one outside the country would care. Had David Norris been elected, with the increased global focus came a concern, if subconscious, of what would be in paragraph three of such a story (“His campaign, however, did not avoid controversy …”).
Is this fair. Probably not. A candidate should be judged on their own merits as a candidate, but when he had become the story of the campaign, this was never going to happen. In any case, even it the controversy would not have emerged without a vast right-wing Zionist homophobic conspiracy, we still had to deal with the facts of the case after they emerged.
I very much do not believe that the events of his campaign demonstrate that Irish politics is still a cold place for gay people. Perhaps the reverse, as he himself acknowledged yesterday. The new Dáil began with two openly gay TDs, Dominic Hannigan and John Lyons, as Maman Poulet alluded to this morning. This is a good sign. This got barely half a day’s coverage. This is also a good sign. Bigotry is not dead in Ireland, as Muireann O’Dwyer laid out excellently writing for Tea and Toast, but neither should we believe to think it is truly inhibiting.