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Senator David Norris Eamonn Farrell/Photocall Ireland

Column I know how David Norris feels - I was smeared too

Accusations of ‘targeting children’ and ‘encouraging suicide’? Welcome to life as a gay figure in the media, writes BeLonG To founder Michael Barron.

I’VE BEEN ASKED to be the Grand Marshal of the LGBTQ Dublin Pride Parade this year. I am following in the footsteps of some genuine heroes of mine – including Dr Lydia Foy, Ailbhe Smyth and Senator David Norris.

It is a great testament the dignity of the man himself and to the decency of the Irish people that despite a deplorable smear campaign against him, Senator Norris tops the latest Irish Independent/Millward Browne Landsdowne poll surveying voters’ intentions in this year’s presidential election.

I’d like to take the opportunity that being Grand Marshal of Pride presents to talk about how important David Norris has been in our work, and to perhaps offer some insight into how the kind of homophobia that has been espoused in the press over the past month works.

David Norris is the patron of my organisation BeLonG To and we are really proud of that fact. We are also really proud of our child protection policies, procedures and track record. From the outset we ensured that young people’s safety was our primary concern. As well as this being right and appropriate we knew that because we are an LGBT youth service we were going to be put under the spotlight more. And we were.

Our rigorous approach to child protection applies to how we work with young people who come into our services and also to our advocacy and public statements. That is why I feel it’s important to say something right now.

Our young people continue to be at great risk in Ireland, but this risk is not coming from the LGBT community or our leaders. It comes from the bullying and violence they experience in their day-to-day lives; in their schools, communities and in their families. It comes from the lack of acceptance and isolation that many still endure. For anyone who is concerned about the safety of young people, this is what they should be talking about, rather than pillorying an honourable man for an academic discussion of Ancient Greece.

We’ve made some really great progress in combating homophobic bullying and in suicide prevention in Ireland. Actions and commitments from government in both areas, include state support for BeLonG To’s national network of LGBT youth groups, a new mental health promotion campaign for LGBT young people and support for Stand Up! LGBT Awareness Week going into every school in the country. In many ways we have leap-frogged other countries and become world leaders in promoting safety and equality for our LGBT young people.

But it hasn’t always been this way. In the early days of BeLonG To it was really difficult to get people to listen. There was widespread denial of the existence of homophobia and even of LGBT young people themselves. There was hostility towards us for saying that LGBT young people were vulnerable to suicide because of homophobia. By sticking our oar in we were undermining the accepted narrative, that young people were committing suicide because they were losing their religion.

‘Children Being Targeted’

It’s been our approach to present a positive ‘Yes We Can’ image, but behind the scenes it’s been quite a battle. We have made headlines in national Sunday newspapers (“Church Anger as Gay Campaign Targets Schools”), been the cover story on at least two Christian newspapers (including the headline “Children Being Targeted” beside a photo of myself), and an editorial in a regional newspaper that said that our work “could even lead to depression and increase the tendency towards suicide” because we were confusing young people about their sexuality.

The headline “Church Anger as Gay Campaign Targets Schools” came about from a casual chat with someone I had previously worked with, I hadn’t even realised that I was being formally interviewed. Also the church wasn’t in any way angry until the journalist rang up an outspoken bishop – and made him angry.

With the headline “Children Being Targeted” the implication was that because we are an LGBT youth service, we were abusing young people.

The ‘editorial’ in the regional paper saying that our work could cause suicide was written in support of The National Men’s Council of Ireland. (“The National Men’s Council of Ireland, in keeping with the Irish Constitution, extols the virtue and value of the two-parent, marriage-based family as the foundation of society. We hold that marriage can only be the union of one man and one woman and is intended to be life-long” – you get the picture!)

The reason for telling you all this is because the attacks we endured share a lot in common with what has been said about Senator Norris. The message is – children and young people are not safe around gay people. This is the oldest trick in the homophobe’s handbook.

David Norris has been a tireless advocate for the rights of the disenfranchised and, in his work with us, for LGBT young people.

One of the things I so admire about him is that he does not ask for gratitude for his work – something that causes young people to immediately listen to him and admire him.

In his interview with Joe Jackson back in 2002, he said: “Though some people say ‘Young people don’t realise what you did, there’s no gratitude’ – that’s the whole point! I don’t want to impose a burden of gratitude on anyone. The reward is to see these young people are able – much more so than in my day – to come to terms with themselves, make relationships, be fulfilled, be happy.”

My concern for our young people comes from seeing first-hand how damaging their experiences of homophobia, violence and isolation are. These experiences are caused by the kind of bigotry being espoused in parts of the media over the past weeks – the same kind that has objected to us providing vital supports to young people. I for one will be standing by David Norris, a man who has spent his life standing up for our community and our young people. He has already helped change the face of Ireland for the better and can do so again by becoming our next President.
Happy Pride!

Michael Barron is the co-founder and Chief Executive of BeLonG To Youth Services – Ireland’s national support service for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender young people. He will be Grand Marshal of the Dublin Pride Parade tomorrow. A version of this article originally appeared in GCN.

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