Free Speech, Homophobia and the Role of the State Broadcaster: Motion

February 18th, 2014

I welcome the Minister to the House. I thank Senator Zappone for taking the initiative on this debate. Instead of focusing on a single definition of homophobia, we need to acknowledge that homophobia presents itself in a wide spectrum, ranging from violent hate crimes to far more subtle forms of discrimination.

I, too, commend Panti’s address at the Abbey Theatre on 1 February, and my colleague, Senator Mac Conghail, on using our national theatre in the way it was so rightly used for a noble call. She articulated so succinctly the impact of subtle discrimination and homophobia on a person’s psychic and mental well-being, causing them, in her words, to check themselves at the pedestrian crossing. The number of views, and the number of languages in which that video has gone around the world, shows the power that words can have.

It is very important, however, that we do not have debates about important social issues in isolation from each other. Social issues are invariably interrelated – homophobia, self-harm, suicide and suicidal ideation – and, tomorrow, we will have a debate on mental health and well-being. This is particularly true for young people and, in this context, LGBT youths. A report in 2008 was published jointly by BeLonG To, GLEN and the HSE, called Supporting LGBT Lives. That report found that 50% of LGBT youths have thought about suicide and 20% attempted suicide. LGBT young people are seven times more likely than their heterosexual counterparts to experience mental health distress. It has also been established that young people identify their sexuality at age 12, on average, and the average age of coming out is 17. This five year period in which young people come to terms with their sexuality is vital. Living in a society where anti-gay bias exists can lead to many difficulties in this critical adolescent period.

All this demonstrates the extent to which homophobia presents in society and impacts on the individual. The survey found that 80% of LGBT people have been verbally abused because of their identity. This is simply unacceptable. LGBT people must be treated as equal citizens and we must actively work to eradicate homophobia and any type of discrimination from our society. I believe we live in a society that is obsessed by labels. We need to celebrate difference, and this can only be done through robust, open and constructive debate. I was involved in a campaign a few years ago for which the slogan was: “We need to keep labels for jars, not people”.

I, like many of my colleagues, am concerned by the speed and, indeed, indecent haste with which RTE responded to Rory O’Neill’s comments on “The Saturday Night Show”. The decision to issue compensation, an apology and a right to reply to some of those perceived to have been injured may well have been disproportionate in the absence of a legal finding of harm done, especially given that compensation was paid out of taxpayers’ money. I am also uncomfortable about the absence of commentary around the fact the presenter of the show in question prompted Rory O’Neill to identify individuals by name. I think RTE’s decision is worrying on a number of levels. I feel it has negative implications for freedom of expression and also the manner in which debates around marriage equality will be conducted in the future. We all need to accept that robust and sometimes volatile discussion will take place around sensitive issues, and we should embrace this, not censor it.

It is evident, in the aftermath of the comments debacle, that people on panels were tripping over themselves trying not to say the wrong thing. That does not bode well for healthy and open debate. The upcoming referendum on marriage equality will see many different views. We need to ensure freedom of expression remains intact at all times. We need to send a message to young people that discrimination will not be tolerated. Homophobia does exist. There are real consequences for the targets of this abuse.

It is of the utmost importance that our national broadcaster ensures open and fair debate where both sides can communicate their argument in a fair and sensible manner.