It is approaching a year since Ireland became the first country to legalise marriage between people of the same gender via referendum. Speaking in Dublin Castle after the result was announced, Enda Kenny declared, “All people will now have an equal future to look forward to”, while congratulating Ireland for its “pioneering leadership.” Earlier in the campaign, he had predicted that a Yes vote would “obliterate the remaining barriers of prejudice” in this country.
Undoubtedly, the Yes vote was a victory for the LGBTQ community in Ireland and a major blow to the rightwing Catholic establishment that has oppressed so many since the foundation of the state. However, the narrative being peddled by the establishment parties, typified by Kenny’s words, is a dangerous one. It reduces the entirety of LGBTQ oppression to a simple ballot paper and promises an end to it with the stroke of a pen. The reality is a much more stubborn, deep-rooted division in society in which the political establishment is complicit.
The point of this article is not to diminish the significance of the Yes vote, or to be churlish about any step forward that is short of full liberation. Rather it is to argue that we should not do a disservice to people who still suffer from oppression and marginalisation on the basis of their sexuality or gender identity by talking about Ireland as a pioneer of queer rights and liberal values. Nor should we allow establishment parties and politicians with no history of standing with queers to politick their way into being perceived as champions of LGBTQ people.
The narrative about liberal Ireland constructed around the Yes vote is classic “pinkwashing” – the use of LGBTQ rights to paper over and hide uncomfortable realities.
Pinkwashing is a criticism most commonly applied to Israel in the way it very consciously and publicly uses its position on LGBTQ rights to present itself as a modern, inclusive, democratic society. This is in spite of, and indeed purposely to combat, its perception as an apartheid state in the eyes of many who consider themselves as supporters of the Palestinian people, who are systematically oppressed and excluded by the Israeli state.
Pinkwashing obscures the reality of a society and writes the experience of oppressed people out of public discourse. Ireland may not be an apartheid state but there were elements of pinkwashing clearly identifiable during the referendum campaign.
During the month of May 2015, Ireland’s streets were covered with posters bearing slogans uch as “Let’s Make Everybody Equal” and “Equality for Everybody”. We have to question the constitution of this “everybody” when asylum seekers remain trapped in the nightmare of direct provision and Ireland’s homelessness crisis continues to spiral out of control.
The referendum campaign was an opportunity for Ireland’s centrist and right wing parties to lay claim to a hollow, formal equality which extended only to certain groups insofar as it was politically convenient for them.
The outgoing government, and the parties likely to constitute the next one, have no track record of treating all civilians equally. Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil presided over decades of homophobic and misogynistic legislation. These parties spent years in coalition with the Catholic Church constructing a deeply repressive ideological and state apparatus. It is insulting, therefore, to credit the establishment parties with advancing the cause of equality when they have ruled a homophobic, racist and misogynistic state for decades.
The political establishment’s newfound concern for equality is clearly framed by whose equality is politically advantageous for them to champion. Only last week, actor and member of the Traveller community John Connors appeared on the Late Late Show and eviscerated Ryan Tubridy for his denial of the racism that exists against Travellers in Ireland. As recently as last December Fine Gael councillor Josepha Madigan published a leaflet in which she argued that building Traveller accommodation in south Dublin would be “a waste of valuable resources”. In 2013 Fianna Fáil Councillor Seán McEniff said that Travellers should leave in isolation from settled people. He was supported by his Fine Gael colleague Eugene Dolan who went on record as saying, “They can be sent to Spike Island for all I care.”
Anti Traveller racism runs deep in Ireland, and for years the establishment parties have exploited it and pandered to it in local areas. In addition, the policies pursued by successive governments have done nothing to ensure that Travellers have access to decent accommodation and Travellers remain among the most marginalised communities in the state. It is risible for the liberal political and media establishment to speak of progress and equality in Ireland while we systematically exclude and oppress swathes of our people.
Claims of major progress in the sphere of LGBTQ equality are particularly grating to members of that community who still face oppression and exclusion on a daily basis.
Much has been made of the Transgender Recognition Bill enacted into law last year, which grants legal recognition to gender identity based on self-declaration. The new law, for example, excludes nonbinary people, intersex people and any trans people under the age of 18 from the right to selfdeclare their gender identity. 16 and 17 year olds can only have their trans identity legally recognised with a court order and testimony from a qualified medical practitioner. There are still no provisions at all to recognise the identities of any trans people under the age of 16 in any form.
The most obvious reply to this line of criticism is that it does a disservice to the cause for LGBTQ liberation if progress is simply met with cynicism. It goes without saying that any step forward in legal rights for the queer community is welcome. But we must be wary of self-congratulatory narratives about progress when many queer people are still being left behind.
While there are still queers abused in the streets, while there are still trans people forced to live with an incorrect legal identity, while we still send women overseas to access abortion, this is not a country to be proud of. While we allow our establishment to claim equality as part of their political legacy, we reproduce a narrative that papers over and obscures the appalling realities of inequality and oppression in Ireland.
We can only build a movement that challenges and defeats oppression when we recognise the full extent of it and how deep it runs.