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Opinion: The Taoiseach visiting Pantibar shows we will no longer be hidden away

The image of the head of government in a gay bar – once an utterly unimaginable event – sends a powerful signal to all of society about the status of LGBT people in our society.

Tiernan Brady

THIS WEEK, THE Taoiseach Enda Kenny turned up in Pantibar in Dublin.

Having the Taoiseach attend a LGBT event in a well known gay bar is more than a simple photo op at a political event. It is important for several reasons. He did not merely pop in to one of Dublin’s most popular LGBT bars to say hi or have a quick pint. He turned up deliberately to attend an LGBT event being held by his own party’s LGBT group. In doing so he made clear to that group that they had his support, and the support of his party, in a very public way. He could have indicated this support behind closed doors, or at a private function, but he chose to do so in public. He chose, instead, to head over to Pantibar. And he did so in the full knowledge that there would be no way he would get in and out of there without photos being taken.

The image of the head of government in a gay bar at a Christmas meeting of a LGBT group and with Brian Sheehan of GLEN, the Gay and Lesbian Equality Network, sends a profoundly positive message to LGBT people and to their families. It also sends a powerful signal to all of society about the status of LGBT people in our society. Gone are the days when we were hidden away and ostracised. Instead we live in an Ireland where the Taoiseach attends LGBT events in LGBT venues.

A conscious message about marriage rights

His attendance is also important given the upcoming referendum on equal access to civil marriage. The image will not be lost on his party voters as we face into 2015. The Taoiseach’s presence is a conscious message that he believes that the Constitution should protect and cherish all equally in advance of a vote on precisely that question. Those signals build on huge social, cultural and political change in Ireland over many years, and within his own party, builds on the formation two years ago of the Fine Gael LGBT group by Jerry Buttimer TD, and the overwhelming support for marriage equality at the Fine Gael Ard Fheis earlier this year

And his attendance is a clear symbol of how much our society has changed for the better. It is not too long ago where a politician would have considered it to be political unacceptable to be seen in a gay bar. Indeed, it is not too long ago either that is was considered just as politically risky to be publicly supportive in any way towards lesbian and gay people.

Ireland has been on a remarkable journey towards equality. It is only 21 years ago that the Bill which decriminalised homosexuality was passed. Since that time we have seen the introduction of anti-discrimination laws and in 2010 Civil Partnership was introduced which was the first time that any legal status and protection was given to lesbian and gay relationships. Since then, over 1,500 couples have entered civil partnerships across every county in Ireland. The visibility of their love and commitment has played huge part in helping Irish people understand that lesbian and gay couples should have the same protections and status for their relationships as others.

Making our country a fairer more generous place

The move towards equality has been a great Irish success story. Ireland has gone from being a cold and unwelcoming place for lesbian and gay people to being one of the more accepting and inclusive countries in the world. Each step of the way we have all seen how making our country a fairer more generous place for people was not just of benefit to specific groups but to all of our society. The extension of rights, protections and status to lesbian and gay people has not diminished the rights of anyone it else. It has taken from no-one but only added to the richness and common good in Irish society.

While we still have further to go, we are at a crucial juncture now. We can continue to build upon this success story and create an Ireland where a young LGBT person can grow up with the same aspirations as their peers – to be able to build a life for themselves, meet a partner, fall in love, get married. We now stand at the beginning of a referendum to decide whether all of us continue on that journey towards equality.

For many younger people it is almost incomprehensible to believe that as recently as 21 years ago many of the people we know and love would have grown up in a place where they had to live with the terrible stigma of being criminalised simply because of who they fell in love with; when the idea of a Taoiseach visiting a gay venue was utterly unimaginable. Maybe it is a sign of the scale of Ireland’s success that some might be tempted to shrug their shoulders and think, when the Taoiseach does make such a visit, “So what?”

But it does matter and we should celebrate it.

Tiernan Brady is a campaigner for LGBT rights. Yes Equality is a joint campaign of the Gay and Lesbian Equality Network (GLEN); the Irish Council for Civil Liberties (ICCL); and Marriage Equality, to encourage people to register to vote this November, ahead of next year’s referendum on civil marriage equality. The campaign will be run in collaboration with local equality organisations across the country as well as the Union of Students in Ireland (USI), students’ unions and trade unions.

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