A Contribution to ‘Sisters’

Fintan O'Toole invited us to contribute to The Irish Times Supplement to celebrate 40 years of change in the lives of Irish women.  
Ann Louise Gilligan and Katherine Zappone – May 2010

To reflect on what has and has not changed for lesbians in Ireland, as we celebrate the fortieth anniversary of the women’s movement, is a complex and challenging task. Although aware that this movement has not always been attentive to advancing freedom for lesbians and also that not all lesbians are feminists, we are equally attentive to the fact that there is a rich hue and diversity of views among those who do name themselves lesbian feminists. Reflecting from our own experience as lesbian feminists, active in the deconstruction of patriarchal systems, philosophies and laws, confirms that the intellectual and political dynamism of the movement has created change for lesbians in Ireland, though it is not enough to set us free.

Marking forty years of any social movement raises some key questions: how do we adjudicate its successes and failures? How do we ascertain if all the myriad forms of cultural, political, educational and mobilising activities have enabled social change with substantive impact, that is, change with a cascading effect throughout the lives of many, many diverse individuals?

We suggest that for this to happen change must occur at three levels, simultaneously - there must be a shift in a country’s laws, its policies and in the attitudes and behaviours of its people. If this doesn’t happen the protections of the law will not be heeded, or the resources needed to implement policies will not flow, or people at an individual level will continue to meet prejudice and discrimination in their everyday lives from those living out of a stuck consciousness.

While a comprehensive analysis of such three-pronged changes is not possible within the scope of this article, we can sketch some of the key dynamics that continue to call for our attention. We do so now with the awareness of and appreciation for the many courageous lesbians in the earlier years of the women’s movement who lived their belief that if all women are not free, then no woman is free. We do so also, informed by the knowledge of our own experience of coming out publically about our sexual identity and life-long partnership in 2003, when we requested the Courts to recognise our marriage. Even in the third millennium, with all the social changes Ireland had gone through, it was an enormous challenge for us both. What is the root of that fear?

Martha Nussbaum who teaches law and ethics in Chicago, offers a deeply insightful answer to that question in her recent writings. Her latest book From Disgust to Humanity: Sexual Orientation and Constitutional Law expands on a theme from her earlier work on the ‘politics of disgust’ and clearly argues that opposition to lesbian and gay equality is not rooted in rational legal arguments but rather in a failure of imagination and empathy, in an ability to reflect about and act for a ‘politics of humanity’ for those who are different to oneself. Where personal aversion even disgust informs how public policy is decided the well-being of civic society is diminished. The challenge not to pamper to prejudice for political gain is indeed an ethical issue for all politicians who wish to promote a ‘politics of humanity’.

Some of the ‘politics of disgust’ shifted in this country when the law changed in 1993 to decriminalise homosexuality, and when new equality legislation was enacted in 1998 and 2000 to outlaw discrimination based on sexual orientation in employment and in the provision of goods and services. Several lesbians and feminists mobilised, advocated, wrote poetry and plays and published political and philosophical theory to lead this change, along with women’s studies departments, NGO’s, unions and community groups. These legislative changes further informed and influenced policy shifts to disseminate anti-discriminatory guidelines in education, health and justice and to support the establishment of funding lines for community development and national organisations that were supporting lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered people.

Attention to language is integral to the analysis of change in any social movement because language doesn’t simply describe reality, it shapes reality. The word lesbian was often silenced in both public and private discourse, it was the word that dared not speak its name, even when the word ‘gay’ breached the gap and attempted to describe generically all homosexuals, both men and women. Today lesbian women have less difficulty in describing themselves as lesbian, as ‘women identified women’. Girls, as was evidenced in the recent TV programme on young lesbians lives, make it plain ‘We prefer girls’. As language is a powerful tool in the construction of identities these public expressions of self-identity are evidence of a new era. This freeing of language further represents a radical act in a society built on the presumption of patriarchal complementarity – where women and men are supposed to represent half of their being and be complemented by their ‘better’ half in sexual intimacy or life-long relationships.

This leads us right to the heart of the ethics of marriage for same-sex couples, and to the resistance of opening this institution to lesbians and gay men. If society believes that marriage is a good and contributes to its stability, why then would some be included and others excluded? To date, the response of the Oireachtas is to put forward a version of the separate and discriminatory institution of civil partnership for lesbians and gays. Research surveys carried out for Marriage Equality show that there has been a steady increase with 62% of Irish people in 2009 supporting marriage for same-sex couples and the same percentage would vote in favour of it if a referendum were held. The attitudes and social consciousness of Irish people appear to be ahead of the lawmakers.

But what about the other 38%? Are they perhaps being influenced by the Roman Catholic teachings about sexuality? Over the past forty years while the Church/State marriage in Ireland has somewhat dissolved, the fact that the Catholic Church continues to control the majority of our schools at primary and post-primary level remains a persistent problem, and a key barrier to the freedom of lesbians and gay people. This September a young woman decided that she would like to do her transition year project on ‘Equal Marriage for Lesbian and Gays’. She submitted her outline and to her amazement and that of her entire class the teacher returned her proposal saying that to do research on this topic would be against the ethos of their Catholic school. To copper fasten her position the teacher could have gone on to quote Pope Benedict, who states, “Those who would move from tolerance to the legitimisation of specific rights for cohabiting homosexual persons need to be reminded that the approval or legalisation of evil is something far different from the toleration of evil.”

The Church’s teaching on homosexuality acts as a mind clamp on the consciousness and subconsciousness of those who remain under its influence. How can Catholic schools who presumably agree with the current Pope in his letter on Unions Between Homosexual Persons that ‘homosexual inclination’ is ‘objectively disordered’ and homosexual practices are ‘sins gravely contrary to chastity’, enable the young lesbian and gay youth to grow up with a positive, modern sense of their identity? While the Department of Education may counsel schools to be proactive in dealing with homosexual bullying, these are lame words as long as the Catholic Church controls these schools.

These are some of the things, then, that have changed and have not changed for lesbians in Ireland today. Freedom is still on the horizon. When social consciouness meets law and policy, that horizon will lean forward and freedom will dawn.