‘My good name has been demolished’

Breda O’Brien reflects on the ‘homophobia’ affair

The last few weeks have been, quite frankly, surreal. On the Saturday Night Show, a drag artist named Rory O’Neill, aka Panti Bliss, responded to a request by host Brendan O’Connor to name people who are mean and nasty to gays. He named John Waters and me, and then highlighted the entire Iona Institute.

In a debate on same sex marriage, to name people as homophobic, that is, guilty of fear and hatred of homosexuals, is to disqualify them from taking part in debate at all. Those of us who had been defamed were in an impossible situation. If we let the slur go, it would be repeated constantly. If we sought an apology, we would risk the controversy escalating.

We had hoped that RTÉ would see the obvious defamation, and apologise quickly. When a completely inadequate apology was offered, our solicitor advised us to seek compensation, simply to emphasise to RTÉ the seriousness of the damage.

After the apology, things deteriorated very rapidly. Initially, Rory O’Neill claimed that we were only a little bit homophobic, and that everyone, including himself was guilty of it.

He was invited on to the stage of the Abbey Theatre to speak about how difficult it is to be gay. When he was invited back to RTÉ radio for a very soft interview on his own, his position had changed markedly.

On Sunday with Miriam he made a direct comparison between people who think black people are inferior to white people, and people who campaign against gay marriage.

He called on the editors of The Irish Times and the Irish Independent, and the producers of Sunday with Miriam, and Prime Time, to treat people who oppose gay marriage as you would treat overt racists.

He also called on the Taoiseach to legislate immediately for gay marriage. In other words, he suggested shutting down both debate and the right to vote.

In the meantime, there had been a protest involving 2,000 people. There were debates on RTÉ about the apology being offered in the first place. I cannot recall another time that RTÉ issued an apology and then had intense debate on programmes about the merits of doing so.

For example, on Saturday with Claire Byrne, blogger Simon McGarr who had been advising people how to lodge BAI complaints against the apology, appeared alone without any balancing voice.

Panti Bliss’s moving Abbey Theatre performance managed to demolish what was left of my good name. Why check out what the ‘nice woman writing in a paper’ has to say, when she is patently causing that nice Rory O’Neill such pain?

Rory said that if he were in a café, and saw someone reading a column about gay marriage, that he would feel uneasy and worried.

The irony is, that I don’t know how many times I have experienced the same thing when I spot someone reading a piece with my byline. I have never written anything designed to hurt or harm anyone, but I feel fear that the reader will respond as the online commenters on my column do – with personalised dislike and contempt.

Social media went insane for weeks. Profoundly unpleasant material was coming in to The Iona Institute offices. At one point, my 15-year-old daughter asked me whether we were in danger because of this. It nearly broke my heart.

The focus was entirely whether the ‘accused’ were homophobic, with virtually no focus on the fact that one of the main reasons that gay people want marriage rights is so that they can be registered as parents of children, either by adopting a partner’s children or by commissioning children through surrogacy, and/or egg or sperm donation.

No gay couple can bring children into their relationship without the assistance of at least one person of the opposite gender. This fundamental difference, with all the profound implications for children of being raised either without their mother, or their father, is supposed to be politely ignored so that adults can receive their ‘rights.’

Do we ever learn? We have adoptees desperately looking for their identity, and being denied it. We promote ‘The Gathering’, based on a shared sense of kinship and identity. We rightly condemn the fact that Philomena Lee had her baby taken away from her.

The internet already has many online groups where children conceived through gamete donation (mostly commissioned by straight people) are desperately seeking their parents and also their siblings.

There are cases where the only fair option for children is to formalise guardianship rights for same sex couples, for example, where the only parents a child has known are a lesbian or gay couple, and the biological parent in that couple dies.

That is entirely different to dissolving a child-centred institution like marriage which is designed to bond parents with biological children, and replacing it with an adult centred institution designed primarily to act as a state-sanctioned approval of romantic sexual relationships.