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Defining homophobia February 9, 2014

Posted by Tomboktu in Inequality, LGBT.

Last Sunday, in a comment, I posted the video of Panti’s Noble Call made the previous evening at the Abbey Theatre. (See @pantibliss on Twitter.) At the time, WorldbyStorm suggested it should be made a full post in its own right. In that week, it has attracted a lot of attention: Channel 4 News and BBC News reported on it, Madonna sent a message to Panti about it, and Stephen Fry tweeted about it. The attention still grows: today, Labi Siffre commented about it on twitter. It has, as I write, been viewed 418,867 times on Rory O’Neill’s YouTube page*.

As suggested, I post it, on the front page and not buried in a comment, but I also take the opportunity to offer a view on its context.

I watched it again a few times over the last week. As I did that, I was struck with two similarities between what Panti says and the work of feminists in the 1960s and 1970s.

A key element of feminism in the 1970s was consciousness raising. In apartments or in rooms over pubs, women would meet to discuss their experiences of oppression as a woman. “Would everybody please give me an example from their own life on how they experienced oppression as a woman? I need to hear it to raise my own consciousness.” Panti’s speech did that, although not in somebody’s sitting room with a small group of fellow gay people. Like the feminists four decades ago, Panti talks about experiences — as a gay man in his case — and seeks to identify what about them is oppressive. He wasn’t the only one this week to do so. In the Dáil on Thursday evening John Lyons spoke about being verbally abused a few weeks ago when he went to the corner shop, and Jerry Buttimer told the Dáil that he has been beaten, spat on, chased and mocked because he is gay.

But what distinguished Panti’s contribution from those of John Lyons and Jerry Buttimer was that Panti named the small, social, intimate, personal effect of the homophobia that he has lived through.

Have you ever been on a crowded train with your gay friend and a small part of you is cringing because he is being so gay and you find yourself trying to compensate by butching up or nudging the conversation onto “straighter” territory? This is you who have spent 35 years trying to be the best gay possible and yet still a small part of you is embarrassed by his gayness.

And I hate myself for that.

Those two paragraphs combine that consciousness raising with a second key achievement of the feminist movement: redefining our understanding of the world. In feminism, this has been most obvious in the legal field. Rape was re-defined because of the work of feminists. Feminists’ work led to ‘sex discrimination’ being redefined to include sexual harassment.

Similarly to feminists of the 1970s, Rory O’Neill has asserted what homophobia means, based on his lived experience. That does not fit with the Iona Institute’s insistence on using a dictionary. For them, the key question is not the experience of the victim but the mind of the perpetrator: they do not hate gay people; therefore they are not homophobic. But Rory O’Neill’s understanding does fit with the experience of gay people.

The legal concept of sexual harassment has been taken up in EU and Irish law. In Ireland and the rest of the European Union, it is defined as action that “has the purpose or effect of violating a person’s dignity and creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for the person”.** Those words “or effect” are an important principle that need to be claimed and applied to homophobia.

Rory O’Neill claimed them and applied them. If the Iona case or the Waters case go to court, I hope his Rory’s lawyers can use that legal principle to defend Rory.

Let me tell you a story about me. In December, I took my ten-year-old niece Christmas shopping. It’s an annual ritual. After hours of wandering from shop to shop, we went for food. She asked if she could ask me a question, and I said yes. And then she said, nah, it was ok. I said, no, don’t be embarrassed, go ahead and ask. If it’s too nosey, I’ll tell you.

So she asked: When I was in school, had people said bad things to me because I was gay? Here, in this post, you could see that coming, but on that Sunday in December I didn’t — our focus doing the shopping was whether it was Granny or Nana who would like a new scarf. And I fluffed it.

In school, I wasn’t out, so there never was a specific homophobic incident directed at me. That did not occur until later, when I was a postgraduate student and out. But I did feel the homophobia in school — you couldn’t be openly gay then; how it was seen as so weird that any of us who were gay thought we were the only ones. And I didn’t explain that to my niece. Nor did I tell her about the two attacks that did occurr years later after I had left school (like Rory O’Neill’s milk carton, both minor incidents physically).

And I hate myself for that.

[*In the two hours and eighteen minutes I spent typing this and chasing down the links, that has gone up to 420,822.]

[**To prevent any misunderstanding, I am not saying that that law applies to public debate on policy issues. However, it does apply in employment and for students in our schools, among other areas, in relation to sexual orientation and other grounds.]


1. Tawdy - February 9, 2014

I came home late one evening after a long day at work. My daughters godmother was visiting my very sick wife. My wife said to me, Mary ( not her real name ) has something to tell you. I took in the atmosphere as well as any man could ( totally baffled )

So I said, ok, what is it Mary?

She said, Tawdy, I`m gay, I am a lesbian.

My response was immediate, I said, well Mary, give us a hug, I have never been hugged by a gay person in my life!

I don`t ever hate myself for that, ever!


WorldbyStorm - February 9, 2014

That’s a very caring and solidaristic response.

I guess on the general point much would depend on her sense of how it was in relation to others who weren’t as human and welcoming and of course her sense as to whether she should or felt she could be open about it to various people or where she felt she had to downplay it because of fear of homophobic responses.


2. Michael Carley - February 9, 2014

And when anyone needs to know what homophobia (or any other prejudice) is like for people on the receiving end, I will be sending them a link to this, and not for the video.

Spectacularly good. Thank you.


WorldbyStorm - February 9, 2014



3. ivorthorne - February 9, 2014

Nice post and thanks for sharing your personal experiences.

I would have some reservations about the moves within legal system with regard to discrimination. I had some training in the area a couple of months ago. The following are two examples provided by the trainer of discrimination in the workplace where the employer had to pay out in the UK:

1. A married lady was not asked out on a Friday evening by 3 of the other girls in the office. This was deemed to be an example of discrimination based on marital status.

2. A man was teased about being gay because he didn’t have a girlfriend. By the trainers account, the person who made the remark didn’t believe this to be the case and the claimant didn’t believe they believe it either. This was deemed to be an example of discrimination based on perceived membership of a protected group.

These seem like pretty silly situations. Do we really want to live in a world where you cannot go out with your friends from work without inviting the whole office/shop/factory/site along?

Even where the ideological motive is desirable, and eliminating homophobia is entirely desirable, I don’t think that we should use the legal system as a means to forwarding an ideology. It wasn’t right when the right-wing Catholics of Dev’s time did it and it isn’t right now.
Inserting subjectivity (e.g. people’s experiences of hostility where it was clearly not the purpose of the action that caused the perception) into the law where it isn’t required seems like a bad idea.


WorldbyStorm - February 9, 2014

I wonder about example 2 (well, I wonder about example 1 too, more detail would be useful, even if I agree in principle and in much practice that in work it’s not a case where everyone must be invited to every social event, but 2 seems even more problematic). Doesn’t it depend on the assumptions freighted into the claimants being gay in regard to the nature of ‘teasing’, ie were these negative or neutral or positive ie were they directly obviously and unequivocally homophobic ? If it’s teasing what was the level of teasing, very gentle, or what. And what of the effect on others who might be in earshot and were lgbt and might feel this was not a space they could feel welcome in. Got to be honest, knowing people as I do (Jesus, having experience of being both single and in relationships) taking the piss out of them because they don’t have a girlfriend/boyfriend/partner seems to me to be dodgy enough territory to begin with that would if not offensive, necessarily, certainly be potentially pretty hurtful and display at least a degree of insensivity on the part of those saying it.

A lot depends too on the nature of the pre-existing relationships. If it came to some sort of legal process then hard to believe they were the sort of relationships where gentle or pointed ‘teasing’ would be appropriate to begin with.


ivorthorne - February 10, 2014

I’ve tried to find some more details on the case but haven’t managed to do so. In general, I’m skeptical when it comes to anecdotes, but I would hope that a professional working in the area of discrimination would represent the findings accurately.

For example 1, we asked her questions to clarify the situation and she said that it would still be discrimination even if other people were not invited. That surprised me. Perhaps the case findings she highlighted are atypical.

I don’t think it’s ever a good idea to tease somebody about being gay – even if it’s gentle. Even if the man had not been teased for being gay, it seems that he would have had a case for being teased for being single. Most insults included in banter among colleagues could probably get somebody into trouble. It’s stupid and careless, but is it a serious case of discrimination? In most cases, probably not.

Perhaps the consultant was exaggerating to make a point that even when you are or think you are friends with someone and slag them off without an ounce of malice, your behaviour can constitute discrimination if it makes somebody uncomfortable. From what I gather, pre-existing relationships are not a factor that is included in making judgments of harassment or discrimination.

One of the advantages of being in a workplace is that it allows for the creation of friendships between co-workers. Employers would probably prefer we kept everything strictly professional for fear that they get hit with a case of harassment in the workplace, but I don’t think that’s a good idea. These kind of laws are a barrier to the creation of friendships. Employers would prefer that there was no banter, no relationships and no sense of community. It’s a risk as far as they’re concerned.

Going back to Tomboktu’s comments regarding sexual harassment, I think it’s useful to look on the stats for the number of couples who meet at work – often in situations where one is the other’s boss. Almost any of the situations where one of those people flirted with the other, hit on them or asked the other out could have counted as harassment if it made the other feel uncomfortable. It doesn’t work out that way for the vast majority of people, but it seems that the only thing that in some cases the only difference between the beginning of a relationship and sexual harassment is the reaction of one party to an advance from the other. Two people can do exactly the same thing under similar circumstances but only one of them is deemed to have harassed somebody, That doesn’t really seem right.


WorldbyStorm - February 10, 2014

I think that’s fair enough ivorthorne, there should be some degree of latitude. Just as you say, it’s never a good idea to tease someone about being gay (or single), except in a completely trusted relationship. And when you know it’s not something that the other person will take offence to. I do agree 100% as well that it is important that relationships in workplaces do generate community. And that can included what may seem to outsiders as interactions that are a quite sharp but may not be intended or received at all that way.


Michael Carley - February 10, 2014

(Union hat on.) The only case I can see being made in example 1 is that the evening out was some kind of work-related activity, where not going put you at a disadvantage (the classic example is nights out for the office involving visits to lapdancing clubs where women might not want to go, or would feel very uncomfortable) because some kind of business was going on, or it affected your relationship with the boss. I can’t see how an employer could be held liable on the bare facts as presented.


4. BB - February 10, 2014

I read with interest today a Journal.ie article following the interview of Rory O’Neill with Miriam O’Callaghan on RTE Radio One this morning.

“Asked for his own definition of homophobia, O’Neill drew a distinction between people who hold passive views and people who actively campaign against equal rights for gay people, the latter of which he said was the kind of homophobia that can be publicly criticised.”

That struck a chord with me. Passive views can be teased out and challenged informally. But in my view those that get organised to fight against gay rights should be challenged by direct actions to stop them.

I wouldn’t discount legal redress, but I would prioritise the need to consult with those affected to get their call on what is best done. O’Neill is now seeking an apology from RTE. And rightly so.


5. CL - February 10, 2014

“-O’Neill said the debate on whether gay people should be treated equally in every way was now redundant and that this argument had been won.

“Hearts and minds is another matter . . . but the law should treat us [GAY PEOPLE]in every way equally.”-

And the law treating gay people equally can change hearts and minds.


6. Eamonncork - February 10, 2014

Well done Tombuktu.


7. Tomboktu - February 10, 2014

A pal posted this in the early hours of the morning

Spoke to my dad on the phone this evening. He brought up the issue of Panti and he started giving out about her. I agree with 90% of what the Iona Institute says, sez he.

In that case, Fuck off, sez I, and hung up. First time I ever told my auld fella to F off.

Granted, it wasn’t my most eloquent moment. I didn’t take pleasure in it. I was upset. But I was so fed up. I’m his son! He knows I’m LGBT. Why should I have to listen to this shit from my own dad?

The Iona Institute are getting through to people and they are turning people against us, or at least lending respectability to people’s prejudices. They are a dangerous bunch.

But you know what? Those bastards are doomed. They will be remembered in the same breath as the priests who covered up child abuse and the people who opposed the criminalisation of rape within marriage and all those other evil pricks. Shame that my Dad is now a fan. But you can’t choose your parents.


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