Defining defamation and the reality of homophobia
For the last few years, it’s been known that we will have a referendum on whether gay and lesbian couples can marry in this country. I’ve generally been cautiously optimistic, believed that with a good campaign, we will win this. I trust in the fundamental decency of the Irish people, when asked to consider this, will think of those they know, and give us the same chance to marry as others have.
Till this week. This was never going to be an easy campaign. Now we see it’s not going to be a fair campaign. Rory O’Neill spoke honestly on the Saturday Night Show about how media commentary is still one of the few areas he regularly witnesses speaking in a discriminatory way towards gay people. Let’s not forget that in the article about gay priests by Breda O’Brien which he referred, she claimed Roman Catholic doctrine on gay people (that we are intrinsically disordered towards an objective moral evil) is fair enough because they view gay relations in the same way as lying or gluttony, while not hating those who lie or overeat.
Someone who groups gay relations with these other traits should expect their motives questioned when they proceed to argue that we should be denied the chance to marry or raise children. Or similarly John Waters, who assumes we are engaged in a massive plot to bring down marriage because of envy, should not expect anyone to think that he thinks of gay people in the same way as the rest of the population. To question our motives, to think the time someone like myself has spent on this cause is about anything other than a hope that I might marry, and that any two who find that happiness in each other can do the same. And I will wonder about an institute which is reckless as to the relevancy of a study it cites in a proposal (which was otherwise poorly-referenced) to the constitutional convention to argue against our equality.
Rory O’Neill’s analysis was sophisticated. It was O’Connor who raised the word homophobia, and O’Neill then considered how prejudice can exist within us, to a greater to a lesser extent, and that it is something that we need to be aware of within ourselves. Someone who is “spending so much of [their] life, devoting energies to writing things, arguing things, coming on TV to do anything to try and stop people achieving what they think they need for happiness” does need to take the time to consider if what they are promoting is properly something they can stand by.
All of the material that Rory O’Neill challenged is in the public sphere. Anyone can read the articles Breda O’Brien, John Waters or David Quinn write week on week in the two bestselling daily newspapers and make their assessment. They can each respond in these columns if they wish. I fail to see how the comments on the Saturday Night Show could “injure their reputation in the eyes of reasonable members of society”. All they tell us is the assessment by a prominent gay activist of the journalistic and lobbying work of individuals mentioned. Someone might read their work in a differently in light of O’Neill’s assessment, but it could not be his comments that cause any injury to their reputation. To my mind, this is before we consider the defence of honest opinion, provided in section 20 of the Defamation Act 2009. (Again, ultimately I’ll defer to those with more legal knowledge; perhaps Brian Barrington, whose open letter was widely distributed yesterday.)
What followed was a shameful sequence from RTÉ, which bear repeating: action was taken against RTÉ and Rory O’Neill by members of the Iona Institute and by John Waters; the section of the interview was removed, with an odd reference in the explanation of it to the unfortunate death of one of their colleagues, despite the fact that he was not named and that the death occurred after the interview; Brendan O’Connor read an obsequious apology, which sounded as if was drafted by the staff of Iona; and RTÉ paid damages to the Iona Institute.
The term Orwellian may be overused, but as the use of political language to describe exactly the opposite of what it means, the line in the apology “It is an important part of democratic debate that people must be able to hold dissenting views on controversial issues” in explaining why they censored a guest and paid damages to those who didn’t like his comments fits the description perfectly. Iona also talk without any sense of irony of O’Neill attempting to bring the debate to an end, while they are the ones who have spent the past 12 months sending solicitors’ letters to their harsher critics.
While I’m sure Iona are delighted to have some more money for their campaign against equality, I don’t think this was mainly about cash. This will have a chilling effect on RTÉ scheduling over the next year and a half. They will be much more cautious about when and how they have outspoken lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender guests on air. This will lead to our lives being discussed only from the perspective of a live, controversial debate. Instead of treating the fullness of our lives. This is why I am now much more concerned for the result, if it will take place with terms of debate set by the Iona Institute.
It’s trivial to say it, but most of our lives are just plain ordinary, including our romantic lives. But homophobia is unfortunately still part of our lives. Far much less so than it was, and to a rapidly decreasing degree. But it exists. I’m lucky to have experienced relatively little, but I have in my time heard homophobic comments, even from people I’ve been friends with, and not always had the guts to call them up on it. I know people have experienced much worse. There is still homophobic violence or verbal abuse. This is one of the aspects of why next year’s referendum result matters. Even for those who may not wish to marry, or for young people who are many years from even considering marriage, it matters. For as long as the state continues to treat us differently, others will take the opportunity, consciously or subconsciously, to do the same. Conversely, a strong vote in favour of equality will surely quicken the pace of the decline of homophobia as an acceptable prejudice.
So yes, our focus ahead of the referendum will be on the happiness we hope for from marriage, to do so just as our parents could, for the same reasons as anyone else would. But we can’t ignore or sideline the context of a legacy of prejudice against us and the problem with homophobia, however softly spoken.