This week members of the controversial Catholic lobby group the Iona Institute may have afforded themselves a little chuckle as they announced via their homepage they had successfully secured an apology from Ireland's national broadcaster RTE.
According to a statement on the conservative group's website, the Irish network will pay them unspecified damages for allowing Panti, Ireland's most famous drag queen, to claim that some of their members were ‘really horrible and mean about gays’ on a broadcast chat show.
Nothing says we're not ‘really horrible and mean’ like launching multiple legal challenges to silence the gay person making the claim, apparently.
Panti (the drag character created by 45-year-old Mayo man Rory O'Neill) reportedly received legal correspondence from each of the Iona members she named as ‘horrible and mean’ on the Saturday Night Show, after host Brendan O'Connor pointedly asked her to. RTE also reportedly received correspondence from prominent Irish journalists Breda O'Brien and John Waters, who had also been named by O'Neill.
Each of the offended parties is well known in Ireland, where they could certainly have written hard-hitting columns in their own defense through their usual outlets, but instead of countering Panti's claims in print they decided to pursue their legal options.
There's probably a very rich vein of Behan-esque comedy to be mined in this affair, if only the Irish media were responding with mocking laughter and ribald sing-songs rather than what some have called complicit silence.
According to a statement by Iona, RTE 'has agreed to pay damages to the injured parties' – Breda O’Brien, the Iona Institute and John Waters – for allowing Panti to criticize them the way she did on air.
In an email yesterday the Institute added, 'It should be noted that no-one can ever point to a quote from The Iona Institute that can… by any stretch be called genuinely abusive or ‘homophobic.'
It should also be noted that Panti did not call them homophobic. But let’s pull out the dictionary and discover what the word means. It's a cause for some wonder that in a nation so famous for its literary achievements, so few have taken the trouble to do this. Either the word fits or it doesn't.
George Weinberg, a heterosexual American psychologist, coined the word 'homophobia' in his 1972 book Society and the Healthy Homosexual. 'The problem, the term implies, is not with homosexuals or homosexuality,' he said, 'but with those who hold negative attitudes toward homosexuals and homosexuality.' Weinberg created the term to make just that distinction.
As definitions go, it's clear cut. Homophobia, the dictionary tells us, encompasses a range of negative attitudes and feelings toward LGBT people that can be expressed as discrimination, antipathy, contempt, prejudice, aversion, negativity, hatred, or irrational fear, and is sometimes related to religious beliefs.
So David Quinn, Iona's religious and social affairs commentator, may be discomfited to find that Weinberg’s definition of the word certainly applies to some of Iona’s rather fundamentalist statements. Recall that Panti did not bluntly call these individuals homophobes, she called them ‘horrible and mean’ and later discussed how subtle homophobia can be in a wider social context.
I thought she demonstrated commendable restraint. If seeing LGBT people as a suspect or inferior class solely because of their orientation is not homophobia then Weinberg's definition has no meaning.
If seeking to block LGBT couples from achieving legal equality (including the right to marry) because of their sexual orientation is not discrimination then the word discrimination has no meaning.
If you speak out against marriage equality for LGBT's without convincingly demonstrating how exactly their unions impact on your own then you open yourself to charges of personal animus.
And if you are part of a fundamentalist lobby group that negates or contradicts decades of social science research to justify discriminating against homosexual marriages and families you must expect to be challenged. Because the problem is not homosexuals, as Weinberg insists, the problem is actually your attitude toward them.
By serving papers on Panti, Iona removed her agency and privileged their own. By sending legal correspondence to silence her they copper-fastened the impression that most Irish LGBT people already carry of the group, that it's larger aim is actually to silence them all, and that its ambition is to legislate marriage equality out of existence.
In support of their longstanding anti-gay marriage stance Iona have claimed that children do best when a mother and father raise them, bluntly contradicting the findings of the American Sociological Association who, after decades of social science research, have found that 'children fare just as well when they are raised by same-sex parents when compared to children raised by opposite-sex parents.'
So what can be the justification for contradicting these exhaustive findings if you're not at some level motivated by anti-gay sentiment? We are wearily familiar with evolution deniers and climate change deniers, must we add to that confederacy of dunces social science and psychology deniers?
It's fine to say that a child has a right to a mother and father, but it's problematic to insist that a child does best when raised by a mother and father who are married to each other. The research simply does not support that contention.
In conclusion, since Iona members apparently spend more time critiquing gay people than befriending them, I'd like to offer them some advice. The first rule of gay life is never piss off a drag queen. If you don't learn that on your first night out in a gay club you'll find out the hard way later on. You will lose.
Gay history teaches that short term victories can later become enduring defeats. Recall how the most reactionary forces in England hooted the legal pursuit of another famous Irish homosexual named Oscar Wilde. At the time they thought they had destroyed Wilde's reputation, but in fact they added to his legend and secured his immortality.
That's why I think that any celebrations over the silencing of RTE and Panti may be a little premature. Iona may believe they've just played whack-a-mole with a prominent LGBT figurehead and by extension progressive Ireland, but I wouldn't want to take that bet.
Socially conservative Ireland may believe that it's just making its latest stand, but the self-satirizing elements of this eye-popping Panti-mine suggest that it could actually be one day closer to its last.
Moving to Ireland
After living in Ireland for almost one year, this is what I’ve learned