Interview with Jerry Buttimer of Fine Gael… February 23, 2013Posted by WorldbyStorm in Culture, Economy, Human Rights, Irish Politics.
…in the Mail conducted by Jason O’Toole. It’s a very interesting interview not least for the fact that Buttimer remains Fine Gael’s only openly gay TD.
O’Toole notes that:
It was a heartbreaking phone call from a distraught mother that made up Jerry Buttimer’s mind. The woman, whose gay son was being taunted over his sexuality, had heard a rumour that the Cork South Central TD was also gay and desperately wanted him to meet with her son and advise him. After talking to the young man, 46-year-old Buttimer made the brave decision to become the first ever Fine Gael TD to publicly come out as being homosexual. ‘The young man was distressed to such an extent that he was on the verge of suicide,’ Buttimer says. ‘He was feeling under pressure, he had no one to talk to. He felt alienated. I told him he was not alone, that he was not the only person to feel under such pressure. I stressed that there was great facilities to help him and that there was a superb network within the gay community to support him on his journey. ‘After being able to talk about it, he has now bounced back and is very positive.’
Buttimer himself knows all about bouncing back. As he sensationally reveals here, in his first in-depth personal interview since coming out last year, as a younger man he struggled with his sexuality to the extent that he tried to lock it away by joining the priesthood. Later he enjoyed liaisons with women — including one four-year relationship that seemed to be headed for marriage. It took a long time, and extensive sessions with a counsellor, before Buttimer could accept his sexual orientation and the pain it caused him at times.
And he doesn’t attempt to hide the negative experiences he has had:
Years later, he says, talking to his young constituent dredged up painful memories of himself being victimised by homophobic thugs. ‘I’ve been spat at. I’ve had punches thrown at me. There was another occasion where I outsprinted a number of people chasing me,’ he reveals. ‘It’s frightening when you’re walking out of a pub and being spat at, or swung at, or chased and shouted at and called “faggot”. But you resolve that you’ll never let it happen again and you’ll defend and stand up for who you are.
Though he appears to think that the situation has improved markedly:
‘Today in a modern Ireland there is an inclusiveness, there is a respect, there is a tolerance. I haven’t seen attacks happen in recent times but I know it maybe does happen. As somebody who it’s happened to, you have a duty to stand up for your sexuality and for your community — and I do that.’ Buttimer is now leading the charge for equality for the gay community by becoming the chairperson of Fine Gael’s recently-formed LGBT group. For a party notoriously conservative in its views, did he find much opposition within the ranks of Fine Gael to his public coming out? ‘I have never experienced any degree of homophobic behaviour, commentary or bullying within Fine Gael. From the very ordinary member of the party to the party leadership there has been nothing but support, encouragement and a willingness to embark on a journey to change the landscape of Ireland.’
That said there might be some division within the party… for example while:
Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore has described same-sex marriage as ‘the civil rights issue of this generation’. Yet Enda Kenny has repeatedly fudged the issue by claiming it wouldn’t be appropriate for him as head of State to air his own views prior to it being debated at the Constitutional Convention. ‘He’s right to allow the Constitutional Convention to discuss this first because as head of Government I don’t think he can be seen to pre-empt what the Constitutional Convention will decide,’ Buttimer insists.
And O’Toole notes that:
When I interviewed Enda Kenny as leader of the Opposition in 2007, he told me twice that he was not in favour of same-sex marriage. Buttimer is convinced, however, that the Taoiseach can be persuaded to back the cause. ‘He’s never told me he’s against it, he’s never told me he’s for it. I always quote the example of Barack Obama, who didn’t have a position that was pro-gay marriage at the beginning. His position evolved — Joe Biden helped him to change his position. Time changes people’s viewpoints.
Buttimer remains religious despite the approach of the Catholic Church. Indeed Buttimer himself was in a seminary for five years studying to be a priest.
A lot of gay people who are religious struggle with the model of the Church that we have, and the language used is off-putting and upsetting.
‘I would be critical of the Pope’s commentary on people who are gay. His decision to resign was a very good one — it underlines that he sees the papacy as being more important than him. ‘I hope the Church will use this time as a time of renewal and have a Third Vatican Council, where they would look at teachings about its ethics in regards to contraception, sexuality, same-sex marriage, homosexuality and divorce.’ Despite his differences with the Church, Buttimer hasn’t lost his faith. ‘To me as a person, whatever about formalised religion, prayer is very important. I have a great faith and a great belief in God and religion.’
As to when he came out his family’s response…
‘It was the classic “don’t ask, don’t tell” with my dad because he knew/ didn’t know. ‘Mam knew and, again, it was difficult for her because it was a different generation. I suppose it’s a struggle because the traditional mum and dad would want their son or daughter to get married and have kids. That’s the way they see life. ‘But my mother was the most caring, loving, generous woman you could meet and her big thing in life was that her children would be happy. ‘When I said I was coming out my dad’s biggest concern was would I be OK and what would the impact be on me as a person?’
In terms of other political or economic issues Buttimer is more reticent.
While supporting his brother through his treatment [for illness], Buttimer has had to deal with threats he has received, which he stresses have been about Government policy and not his sexuality. He has passed on to Gardaí several vile texts he received recently. ‘The text messages I got were wholly inappropriate and very inflammatory. The mobile phones were pre-paid so they couldn’t be traced.’ However, he says that he refuses to be upset by abuse received through social media sites. ‘I’ve had death threats on my Facebook page but I don’t take these people seriously, they are cowards. ‘If I was to take note of what was said to me on social media I wouldn’t get out of bed in the morning. ‘But if I was a vulnerable young person or vulnerable adult then I would really be in trouble. The level of abuse that occurs on social media is unacceptable at times. ‘As politicians we are fair game and I’ll argue the toss with anybody about policy. But let’s not personalise it to the point where you call people names and make derogatory comments and say you hope people die or get burnt, or you should have your family prepare for your funeral because you deserve to die.’
Which is fair enough. Though he points the finger in specific directions…
Buttimer believes that much of the online abuse comes from people affiliated with the other parties. ‘Political parties need to train their members on how to behave on social media across the board. There is a legitimate form of commentary that should be acceptable and there’s commentary that is unacceptable.’
And he’s very very reticent on the following:
As chairperson of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Health and Children, in January he oversaw the three days of public hearings to debate legislating for abortion in line with the X Case. ‘I’m not going to get into where I stand on anything because I’m the chairperson of the committee that is going to meet again. ‘It’s a very difficult and emotive issue and there are different viewpoints across the whole debate. I hope in the next level of engagement that the same calmness and civility and respect for the positions that people hold can take place.’
However he is clear his next political objective is to see a reworking of Section 37(1) of the Employment Equality Act which…
…allows religious-run schools to sack homosexual teachers on the grounds that employing them undermines their religious ethos. A qualified secondary school teacher himself, it’s a subject that has special resonance for Buttimer. ‘I would hope that in a gentler, caring society we will see an end to this discrimination in Section 37 and an end to homophobic bullying in our schools. I still know gay friends of mine who teach and need to have that security. It needs to be removed as a matter of urgency.’
He’s also clearly in favour of same-sex marriage and…
…admits he’s still pining to be a parent. However, it’s not permissible under Irish law for gay couples to adopt. ‘It’s up to the Government to be able to allow us to adopt and that’s the next piece of the jigsaw. Hopefully, it will come in time.’
In that he is almost certainly correct.