Peter Kelly a former Cork Councillor who now lives in New Zealand tells the us how being gay has affected his political life, and why he feels his visibility as a gay man is important.
By the age of 12 I had decided that when I finished school I was going into politics. As a naive teenager no one was going to rain on my parade – I was going to leave school and become a politician.
As I began to discover that there was a little bit more to this politics thing, I also began to be aware that I was different. It took me a few years to put a name on it or for that matter to even have cause to worry or be concerned about it, but by the time I was getting around to doing my Leaving Certificate I knew very firmly that I was gay.
It’s often said that being gay in 80s Ireland is very different than being gay as a teenager today. I suspect that all that is relative. It’s very hard to explain what goes on in your head, but society breeds you to be straight and when you realise you’re not, your whole world is turned upside down.
In many ways, I have been lucky in life. Despite feeling the oppression of a straight society, I have never been attacked or beaten because of who I am. Much has happened in the last 11 years. The European Court finally forced Ireland to decriminalise homosexuality in 1993. I was 25 and had met my now husband two years previously. Since that time, reforms of our Domestic Violence Legislation and the Equal Status Act have strengthened the equality structure within our society.
But it is still legal to discriminate against gays and lesbians in Ireland. Our relationships are not recognised by this state. If I was dying tomorrow – aside from the tax burden that would be faced by my partner – he has no rights under the law. He is not entitled to be with me in the hospital. He has no say over my funeral arrangements and my family could contest any of my will provisions in court and be expected to win.
Discrimination is a fact of daily life for many gay people. Despite legislative support, getting compensation for being fired or discriminated against because you are gay is not the same as being protected and cherished as an equal under the law. Equality is not some noble ideal for other people to worry about. The very fabric of our democracy is defined by its level of tolerance, its support for diversity and its acknowledgement and celebration of difference.
Equality is not about special rights for certain groups. Equality is about the same basic human rights for everyone, whether you’re gay, or straight, male or female, black or white, able or disabled, married or single. Diversity is part of the strength of our community and it needs to be encouraged and nurtured. Compromise is something to consider when you are managing a budget or planning a road, but not when it comes to fundamental human rights.
If you fall in love with somebody who happens to be the same sex, the reality in Ireland today is that you have many fewer rights. Gay people are the last group of people against whom it is legal to discriminate. I believe that all people are created equal. Therefore they should be equal in the eyes of the law. That’s why I continue to highlight inequity and to campaign for equality. This is not just about gay issues – it’s my commitment as a politician to human rights. In my book every single person should have the same right to equality and justice under the law as everyone else.
Whether we like it or not one of the most important roles of any politician is to provide leadership. I believe that we deserve leadership that will appeal to the best in our natures, rather than pandering to the worst in us. I am tired of our country being divided by race, by economic status, by gender and by sexual orientation. This is not the Ireland I was taught to believe in. There is so much that we can accomplish if we are united as one national community. I am tired of a society that blames the problems of Ireland on one group or another, be it low-income people, minorities, gays and lesbians, disabled people, women, immigrants or any other easily scapegoated “them”. I want to see an Ireland where there is no them, only us.
I have no idea what it’s like to grow up in Ireland as a woman, as a non-national, as a disabled person or as a member of the Travelling community. But being gay I can understand the struggles and intolerance experienced by all these groups.
I’ve been through the frustration of a society that instructs you to be something you’re not. Instead of yielding to it, I have embraced that struggle and brought from it the tolerance and understanding that I bring to my work as a politician.
My visibility is a powerful weapon against those who would rather that gay people remain silent and invisible. In a post decriminalisation era, I often wonder how many people really appreciate the symbolism of this visibility. Because many of us can be invisible if we choose, standing up for equality offers gay people a unique opportunity to display our diversity, to show the public, and each other who we are.
The establishment of the Equality Authority was an important landmark change in the equality agenda in Ireland. I was privileged to serve on its advisory committee on Gay, Lesbian & Bi-Sexual Equality. Our report, Implementing equality for Lesbians, Gays & Bi-Sexuals in Ireland is a blueprint for the many areas in which discrimination in Ireland needs to be tackled. The Government signed up to implementing this report as part of the Programme for Prosperity & Fairness, which has come and gone and our blueprint for equality remains on the shelf.
For me, fighting for equality as a politician has been all about who I am. Instead of choosing between being gay or being a politician I have embraced both. It has given me experience and understanding that I don’t think I would ever have learned if I had grown up straight.
In March, 1991, I met and fell in love with the most amazing man in the world. His Hot Press personal ad, followed by my reply, lead to an awkward telephone call at half time during an Arsenal match and a first meeting two nights later.
A Supreme Court case in Ontario, Canada in 2003 ruled that marriage should be available to everyone regardless of gender. British Colombia moved quickly to update its laws to reflect this supreme court ruling and On December 30th 2003, we married in a small private ceremony on a farm in Mission, British Columbia. As one of only two out gay politicians in Ireland, many ordinary things I do in my life are seen as breaking new ground for equality and for society.
True equality will someday mean that I can marry my husband without anyone in the media or in the general public batting an eye lid and I intend to live to see that day.
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