Sunday, January 11, 2009

Invisible Comrades

( I am NOT Bernadette Devlin-McAliskey NOR am I connected to her in any way. I discuss naming it after her in the "notes" post)


In the Winter 1991 edition of The Captive Voice, a publication by and for IRA POWs, an article was published with the title: "INVISIBLE COMRADES: GAYS AND LESBIANS IN THE STRUGGLE." It was written by a gay Volunteer who was calling on the Republican Movement to recognize the contribution made by gay and lesbian Volunteers.

Although there is homophobia in both parts of Ireland, it's not nearly as bad as most would think considering the island-wide Catholic majority, most would be surprised to learn where the greatest source is.

First, in the Republic of Ireland, the Parliament is on the verge of creating Civil Partnerships, and both Sinn Fein and the Green Party support gay marraige. In Northern Ireland, Civil Partnerships exist.

In the Republic, the President (who is associated with Fianna Fail), who is in the middle of her second 7-year term, was supportive in the 1970s of the movement to decriminalize homosexuality. I'm not too familiar with the details, but about 10 years ago an American socialist said that gay rights in the Republic were better than they were in America. In recent years all political parties have expressed support for civil partnerships and a majority of Irish people in polls have supported gay marraige.

Here's a summary of the current status of gay rights in Ireland.

In Northern Ireland, the situation is probably a bit worse for LGBT people. First, here's a summary of the current status of gay rights in the UK.

The thing that might surprise people is that the Nationalist community (which is almost the same thing as the Catholic community) is actually much less homophobic than the Unionist/Loyalist (basically Protestant) community. In a 2008 N. Ireland Life and Times survey, the answers to the question, is it wrong for two people of the same sex to have sex? broke down like this:

-----------------Catholic Protestant
Always wrong--------31%--------58%
not wrong at all----31%--------14%
Can't choose--------25%--------12%
Th rest were in between the first two options

On the Catholic side:

1. During the 1981 Irish Republican Hunger-Strike, a credible source says that there was an LBG (I doubt the T was added back then) caucus among supporters of the hunger-strikers, and this source, who was a member, said nothing about them being unwelcome. The source also says, and I don't think this is true, that Sinn Fein's pro-gay rights position dates back to that point. UPDATE 2/3/09 My source on this tells me that in 1981, SF expressed opposition to homophobia in their newspaper.

2. At the very latest, SF adopted a pro-gay rights position in 1996. Today they support gay marraige.

3. Gearóid Ó hEára was the SF Mayor of Derry in 2004 and was known at some point to have been a big supporter of the Rainbow Project.

4. At some point, I think in 1999, the SF Deputy Mayor of Belfast did something along the lines of meeting with gay rights activists.

5. In 2002, when I attended the National Conference of SF Youth (or Ogra Shinn Fein as they're known), I criticised SF for marching in the NY City St. Patrick's Day parade (there's a boycott of the parade because LBGT organizations are not allowed to march- as far as I can tell, almost all Democratic Party politicians boycott it). Afterwards 2-3 people who were senior memebers told me they agreed. Also, although this might have had more to do with something, else, I was invited to attend the private part of the conference, suggesting that most/all of them agreed with me.

6. In 2001, Gerry Adams, President of SF, gave some introductory remarks at a gay rights event in West Belfast. He was supposed to leave after his remarks, but stayed to participate fully in the panel.

7. Someone involved with the Irish Lesbian and Gay Organization in 1999 (at the time, the main/only such group in NY City) told me that there were reports of gay ex-POWs (former IRA members) being harrassed.

8. Just recently I learned of a situation in a Catholic part of Derry where two gay men were being seriously harrassed- a SF leader was speaking out against it.

9. Around 2001/2002, when a Priest in republican West Belfast came out, he announced he was retiring. Some significant chunk of his parishioners asked him to not resign.

10. A search on the web-site of SF's paper An Phoblacht found 171 pages that include the word "gay." Their archive probably goes back at least 10 years.

11. In a disusssion on this subject on Irish Indymedia (which is far from dominated by SF members and is basically a left-wing forum), the general consensus was that, besides the NY City St. Patrick's Day Parade, SF is perhaps the best party in Ireland on gay rights.

12. In a recent gay pride parade in Belfast 2 senior SF members, I believe it was both of their MEPs, marched.

12. Although they seem to be a step or two behind SF all the time, the Social Democratic and Labour Party (the more moderate party which until 2001 was the larger of the two) is okay-good on gay rights. In 1994 their MPs refused to support lowering the age of consent for gay sex so it would be equivelent to that for straight sex. I would also be surprised if they support gay marraige. And, sometime around 1999, someone wrote a letter to the Irish News suggesting John Hume (who lead the SDLP from the 1979 until 2001) viewed gay people as having some kind of disease. On the other hand, in a recent Belfast Gay Pride parade, their youth wing carried a banner. A search of their web-site found 17 items with the word "gay," a few of which clearly supported gay rights (they probably all did, but I didn't look at all of them). They're also a member of the Socialist International, and even though they don't really belong there (I'll probably do a post on that soon), the support for gay rights in the SI has probably rubbed off on them. (UPDATE 11/17/12 in all fairness and to mark his passing, see this about a veteran NI gay rights organizer who was also in the leadership of the SDLP)

On the Unionist side:

1. In 1977 the Democratic Unionist Party (who, at the time represented about 20% of the Unionist/Loyalist community and today represents about 60% of that community) launched a compaign to unsuccessfully counter an effort to decriminalize homosexuality in N. Ireland. The campaign was titled "Save Ulster From Sodomy."

2. In 2004, Tony Blair post-poned a vote in the British Parliament on gay marraige so that the six MPs from the DUP could attend- they all planned on voting against, and really didn't want to miss the vote.

3. In June 2008, Iris Robinson, who is a DUP MP and is married to the Leader of the DUP, Peter Robinson, said that homosexuals should seek counseling and that homosexuality was more vile than child sexual abuse. (In relation to this incident, one of her critics was a leading SF member, Catriona Ruane).

4. In 2005, a DUP candidate for the Northern Ireland Assembly, Paul Berry was suspended from the party and later resigned. There was a report that he had met a male for a massage, a male he had allegedly met through a gay chatroom.

5. I'm not aware of anything specific about the Ulster Unionist party, who were the largest party and in recent years have been about 30% of the Unionist/Loyalist community. But for several decades until 1972, they had some kind of very tight relationship with the British Conservative Party, and recently they have re-established a similarily tight relationship. Odds are a majority of the the Conservative Party is homophobic, and therefore the odds are at least half of the UUP is also. There's not a single page on their web-site that mentions the word "gay" or the word "homosexual."

6. The Progressive Unionist Party who represent something like 1-2% of the Unionist/Loyalist community, have expressed opposition to homophobia, and there are two such items on their web-site (later on I'll do a post on their most interesting politics, don't send them money or anything till you read that).

Now that that's over with, I wanted to address an aspect of this that has concerned me greatly. SF, despite being offically in support of gay rights, have had senior members march in the New York City St. Patrick's Day Parade.

I should say at this point that it is not real clear to me if SF have had people marching in the parade in recent years. The last four years I have only read an average of about 50 articles from various sources a week in relation to Northern Ireland and/or SF (overall, the last 12 years it has been about 125 a week). I've done internet searches on this subject and am waiting to hear back from an NYC group called Irish Queers. If I find out for sure, I'll post it as an update at the top of this article.

Even if SF has stopped marching, I am still going to address this, partly because a small part of it has nothing to do with SF and partly because something could change that would see SF to go back to marching in the parade- and if they have stopped marching, is it just a scheduling issue (or is it a boycott?); have they issued a statement in support of the boycott? Are they attending the alternative, inclusive (and progressive) Queens parade? After doing some searching it seems like they have issued no statement, nor are they attending the Queens parade.

So here goes.

First, I have supported the boycott four times and three of those times I criticsed SF for marching in the parade. The first time, in 1999 I had a letter published in the Irish News (the largest paper read by the Nationalist community), in which I criticised SF. Then there was that thing in 2002 at the National Conference of OSF. In 2003, the group I had going at CU-Boulder, Students for Justice in N. Ireland, adopted a statement supporting the boycott. That statement is at the bottom of this. We also put out, along with copies of the statement, some gay rights buttons I had left-over from something else. In 2004, I also criticised SF on this on Irish Indymedia.

I should say that, with three exceptions, I have little trouble with SF ditching their left-wing politics when they interact with Americans (which they sometimes do). The first exception was in 1997 when I made an ass of myself by over-reacting to SF being less than socialist in one incident. The other two I don't appologize for criticizing them, and one of those is this parade issue. It's about civil rights (if the organizers say they're a private organization, I would point to the effort to desegregate restaurants in the American South), it's about bigotry, it's about whether or not you can be Irish and gay at the same time.

To those who say (and although I didn't have much of a response at the time, I have heard this) that the parade is about conservative Catholicism, and therefore it makes sense to exclude gays, I'd say this. First, I'm not sure I believe that the parade organizers, the Ancient Order of Hibernians, actually do define it in those terms, I think it's just an excuse to exclude Irish people they don't like. Also, if it is defined by religion, it has to be the ONLY St. Pat's Parade like that in the whole world. Lastly, if it is defined by conservative Catholicism, what is SF doing in the parade? SF isn't defined by religion and it certainly isn't conservative. It supports gay rights, includes Protestants, and is overwhelmingly secular.

Having said that, I feel like stepping up my criticism of SF on this. As I've said, I've looked into this, and the odds that I've missed something and SF are doing the right thing is pretty low, and even if they currently are, I want to make sure that doesn't change. Recently I became, if possible, even more passionate about opposing bigotry. (I should also mention that I've done a ton of work to support SF (and even more that was about supporting the Nationalist community in general), some evidence for that is on two (old) web-sites you can find via my profile on this blog))

Some SF supporters in America are gay- for example, as far as I can tell, the Irish LGBT groups in NYC are overwhelmingly Irish republican, probably for the most part in support SF. When SF marches in that parade, they send a signal to their American supporters, including people who aren't familiar with SF's actual position on gay rights. Conversely, boycotting the parade would send a much better signal. The thing is, some of those SF supporters (and I'm looking well beyond the activists, to poeple who just vaguely supprt SF), and this could number somewhere around 1,000 (looking at the last 15 years and the next 15 years), are going to do something at some point, like discriminating or using violence (probably thousands will vote the wrong way based on their homophobia). Even if SF continues to march, they could call for the the inclusion of LGBT groups and/or attend the inclusive Queens parade.

Lastly let me explain that SF can't really claim to want to stay out of it. First, in practice if not on paper, they're an internationalist party. Second, they've already involved themselves by marching in the parade in years past and have done damage that needs to be made up for. UPDATE: I'll skip the details since I think most SFers will agree, but It's better for SF if there are more Democrats elected to the federal level, and as far as the homophobia SF is, to a small degree, fueling, that contributes to people voting Republican.

UPDATE 3/25/09 As far as SF and internationalism, I want to say something now that I was going to save for discussion. When SF allows their internationalism to stop at the shores of America, as they do some of the time (perhaps about 1/2 of the time), they probably think that all Americans are spoiled brats, so that's okay. Well, that's not true. To offer a sort of extreme but relevant example, there are working-class gay people of color, who are not spoiled. Those Irish-Americans, and especially I-A supporters of SF who are homophobic and might abandon that homophobia in connection with the parade being organized inclusively and/or SF sending the right signals on this, it's not like they never interact with these working-class gay people of color, and that interaction often doesn't work out so well for the gay working-class people of color.

Also, whatever support SF loses as a result of a boycott would probably be made up for by new support from gay people, liberals, and leftists. UPDATE 2/21/09 Odds are that a lot of the homophobes will stay around because of the national liberation struggle/Peace Process, so SF will probably come out ahead.

For more on SF's support, see the related post here.

UPDATE 5/18/09 I was just told by Irish Queers, one of the NYC Irish LGBT groups, that SF has not marched since the late 1990s (apparently because of preassure from LGBT activists in Ireland) (I know they marched in '99). The thing is, when I assumed they were still marching when I was at the 2002 Nat'l Conference of OSF and I raised this issue, no one said they had stopped. Same thing in 2004 when this was an issue on indymedia.ie. I feel a little stupid for part of this post and a related one that talks about the parade, but I can sort of blame that on how the OSFers responded, and how the Indymedia discussion went. Also, I feel more confident at this point that they have not called for inclusion and marched in the Queens event. If they haven't marched since 1999, I'm almost tempted to say otherwise, but I have a theory that when you do damage you need to make up for it, by, in this case, calling for inclusion and marching in the Queens event (I could easily say that about the statements I made in 2002 and 2004, which more or less also referred to those two actions, and between late 2001 and 2005 I was following events involving SF so much (an average of 150 articles a week) that it was fairly safe for me to assume that if SF WERE taking those two actions I would have heard- based on what people said at that conference and on Indy and some recent research I have done, I almost certain that they are not taking those two actions, but would appreciate being corrected if I'm wrong). (another part of this is that I had assumed that if SF decided that marching in the parade was wrong, they would make up for the damage they had done by doing the right things on calling for inclusion and attending the Queens event- and I would have heard about that, at the very least in 2002 or 2004)

I think that's it. Below is the SJNI statement (at the time, I think there were two Irish LGBT groups, but I must not have been aware of the second one (Irish Queers) when I wrote this). (I'm not real sure, but I think the statement at one point leaves out a term that I probably should have included- transgendered)

Statement on the NY City St. Patrick's Day Parade and Homophobia
Students for Justice in N. Ireland

For more than a decade now the Irish Lesbian and Gay Organization (ILGO) has been barred from participating in the New York City St. Patrick's Day Parade. This has been the policy of the parade organizers, the Ancient Order of Hibernians, an American Catholic fraternal order which is exclusively Irish-American and male.

We believe this is based exclusively on homophobia and as such we reject it. Even worse, the AOH is essentially saying that you cannot be Irish and non-heterosexual, they are effectively stripping many Irish and Irish-Americans of their national, ethnic, and cultural identities. St. Patrick's Day is supposed to be a celebration of Irish heritage. It is not and should not be defined by Catholicism. Many different groups and prominent individuals are invited to participate, some of whom are neither Catholic nor Irish. Certainly an organization representing a part of the Irish community as ILGO does should be included. In Ireland itself, there is visible participation by the LGBT community in St. Patrick's Day celebrations.

As a group that works to promote human and civil rights in N. Ireland we admire the spirit and work of Bernadette Devlin-McAliskey in her past leadership of the N. Ireland Civil Rights Movement. We also admire her willingness to stand up to those Irish-Americans who supported civil rights for Catholics in N. Ireland but not for African-Americans. We cannot be silent in the face of homophobia which attempts to strip Irish and Irish-American gays, lesbians, bi-sexuals and transexuals of their national, ethnic, and cultural identities.

We would also support the City of New York taking over the organization of the parade. Considering the broad appeal the parade has, it's extensive use of City resources (streets, police, street clean-up, etc.) and the exclusive nature of the AOH, this would make sense and would almost certainly resolve this issue in favor of inclusion.

The AOH should organize the New York City St. Patrick's Day parade in an inclusive way that values all Irish people, in the spirit of the 1916 Proclamation of the Irish Republic. Until this issue is resolved in favor of inclusiveness and equality, we support the calls for a boycott of the parade.

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