Floodgates Opened by Pantigate

If you live outside Ireland, you may not have heard of a national scandal referred to as “Pantigate”. If you do live in Ireland, it’s a near-certainty that you have heard and/or read about it.
For those unfamiliar with the story, a performer and pub-owner named Rory O’Neill (aka Panti Bliss, hence the gate) was being interviewed on The Saturday Night Show (a popular light-entertainment chat-show) when he was asked for examples of contemporary prejudices facing members of the gay community (which includes O’Neill). After naming certain journalists (specifically John Waters and Breda O’Brien) and a conservative Catholic lobby group (namely, the Iona Institute), things kicked off.

O’Neill pointed out that “the problem is with the word ‘homophobic’, people imagine that if you say “Oh he’s a homophobe” that he’s a horrible monster who goes around beating up gays you know that’s not the way it is. Homophobia can be very subtle. I mean it’s like the way you know racism is very subtle. I would say that every single person in the world is racist to some extent because that’s how we order the world in our minds. We group people. You know it’s just how our minds work so that’s okay but you need to be aware of your tendency towards racism and work against it. And I don’t mind, I don’t care how you dress it up if you are arguing for whatever good reasons or you know whatever your impulses…”

The journalists in question and members of the Iona Institute disagree with the characterisation of their efforts as homophobic and threatened legal action, which led to a section of the interview being removed from RTÉ’s website (Raidió Teilifís Éireann or RTÉ is the national broadcaster of Ireland), though a transcript can be found here. Furthermore, RTÉ has paid out a large sum of money to the offended parties (id est, not Rory O’Neill/Panti Bliss). As might be expected, this has occasioned two separate but closely related debates on A: Freedom of speech and opinion in the mass media, and B: prejudice facing people of gender, sexual and romantic minorities (GRSM) in Ireland and abroad.

There has been an enormous amount of coverage in the Irish news-media and blogosphere (which I’m adding to) but I’d like to suggest this article on The Global Echo for a look at some of the fallout in the GRSM community  especially as it contains Panti’s excellent speech from the Abbey Theatre (by the way, I’m following The Global Echo’s convention with regard to this acronym, rather than going for LGBT et cetera).

I didn’t originally intend on writing anything about this myself, because it’s been so well-covered elsewhere but I found myself reading an article on An Tuairisceoir which questioned the use of the term homophobia in this case. I think that it’s a question worth answering, so I commented with my take on the issue, which, while essentially semantic, has had and continues to have a major effect on many people in Ireland and around the world.
Obviously, my comment is in the Irish language but I’ve translated it below, underneath the original wording as Gaeilge.

“An príomh-fhadhb atá ar phlé, dar liom, ná cé chomh láidir is a bhfuil an téarma “homafóibe”. Dar le Iona, Waters agus a leithéid, is dócha, tá an téarma ceangailte le iompar thar a bheith frith-homaighnéasach, foréigean oscailte nó mar sin, an taobh is antoiscí don speictream.

Ar an taobh eile, tá an téarma ceangailte le iompar ionsaíoch, nó iompar a dhéanann éascú ar ionsaithe i gcoinne siúd le gnéaschlaonadh homaighnéasach.
Níl sainmhíniú dlíthiúil ar homaifóibe agus mar sin de, tá ceist an chlúmhilleadh spleách ar léirmhíniú aonair.
Ní raibh RTÉ sách cróga an cheist a thógáil chun cúirte agus sainmhíniú dlíthiúil a chur air.
Tá’n nós agam féin aontú leis an comhluadar faoi ionsaí ó thaobh cén saghas iompar atá ionsaíoch.”

“The prime-problem being discussed, in my opinion, is just how strong is the term “homophobia”. According to Iona, Waters and and the like, presumably, the term is tied to behaviour that is overtly anti-homosexual, open violence or so forth, the most extreme side of the spectrum.
On the other side, the term is tied to attack-like behaviour, or behaviour that eases attacks against  those with homosexual orientation.
There is no legal definition on homophobia and therefore, the question of defamation is dependent on individual interpretation.
RTÉ was not sufficiently courageous to take the question to court and put a legal definition on it.
I have the tendency myself to agree with the community under attack with regard to what kind of behaviour is attack-like.”

A note on the translation here: I haven’t quite translated word for word but I’ve gone a little closer than is conventional. The word “ionsaíoch” which I rendered as “attack-like” comes from the root ionsaí (attack) but would be more usually translated as hostile or aggressive. I don’t think either term is really strong enough in the context which is why I used attack-like (though it’s more than being just like an attack).

Homophobia’s not necessarily a great term from an etymological point of view (literally, it would mean something like “fear of sameness”, where xenophobia might be a better descriptor of what’s going on) but it is widely used and now we have a huge debate over what it means when it is used.
Here’s the thing, this argument over a word opens the floodgates for any number of other issues like journalistic freedom, freedom of speech, freedom of response, freedom of religious expression, and the limits on each of these. Beyond words however, this is about the freedom of people of gender, romantic and sexual minorities to exist safely in a world where many hate (misos) and fear (phobia) them.

Comments are welcome.


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