A modern Garda Síochána now engages positively with the gay community and long may it continue writes Craig Dwyer.
Ireland has seen a huge transformation for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people in recent times. It is remarkable to think that this year we celebrate the 20th anniversary of decriminalisation – that up to 1993, gay men were considered criminals. There has been hugely significant legislative change, including civil partnership and equality legislation, and the government are now progressing further critically important legislative changes, including gender recognition legislation, legislation recognising and protecting lesbian and gay headed families and a constitutional amendment which would provide for marriage for lesbian and gay couples.
This progress has been matched, in fact superseded, by social change. Many LGBT people are more open about their sexual orientation or gender identity. There have been over 1,000 civil partnerships all across Ireland since they first became available in 2011, which have done much to create visibility and increase the status of lesbian and gay couples and families.
This change has also been reflected within An Garda Síochána. Responding to clear needs, the gardaí have appointed liaison officers to LGBT communities and a strong organisation – G-Force – supporting LGBT gardaí has developed.
“G-Force continues to support LGBT gardaí and management in creating a workplace where an LGBT garda can be open about their identity with the full support and respect of their colleagues.”
However, despite all this progress, there are still alarming levels of violence and harassment experienced by LGBT people, simply because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. This occurs in homes, in schools and workplaces, in streets and public spaces and in social settings. Study after study shows that more than one quarter of LGBT people are ‘punched, hit, kicked or beaten’ because they are LGBT.
Very often people are reluctant to report these crimes to An Garda Síochána. Much work is still required by the gardaí and by broader society to ensure that LGBT people feel, and are, safe. The most visible sign of success, and our ultimate aim, will be when we have an Ireland where a lesbian or gay couple can walk, hand in hand, down the main street of any town in Ireland.
The most recent research on the experiences of LGBT people, conducted by the EU Fundamental Rights Agency last year, showed significant day-to-day victimisation of LGBT people:
Almost one-third had been physically or sexually attacked or threatened with violence at home or elsewhere in the past five years;
Over half reported being personally harassed within the past 12 months.
Transgender people are often subjected to higher levels of violence and harassment with 62% reporting being personally harassed in the past five years, a quarter experiencing it ten times or more.
The vast majority of incidents were unreported, believing that the incident was not serious enough or that the gardaí could not or would not do anything about it.
LGBT people have to continually weigh the risks involved to their physical safety, particularly in public spaces, which undermines personal confidence and self esteem and restricts them from participating fully in society.
We recognise that the safety issues faced by LGBT people are societal issues. The gardaí have not created homophobia and transphobia and cannot eradicate it alone. However, An Garda Síochána is the only public authority equipped with the necessary powers to tackle homophobic and transphobic hate crimes and incidents directly and can play a very critical role in enhancing LGBT peoples’ participation in society.
Key issues are building confidence in the gardaí among LGBT people and communities and encouraging reporting. Despite external research suggesting much higher levels of reporting, the latest garda Pulse statistics from 2012 show that just 12 incidents were motivated by homophobia. This can often be related to the definition of what is a crime motivated by homophobia or transphobia, and the working definition is:
A ‘hate crime’ is any incident, which constitutes a criminal offence, perceived by the victim or any other person as being motivated by prejudice or hate.
It is therefore crucial that if an incident is perceived as having been motivated by homophobia or transphobia, the investigating officer records it on the Pulse system.
While LGBT people will frequently access services provided by An Garda Síochána with issues unrelated to their sexual orientation or gender identity, some will present with LGBT-specific issues. If the garda deals with the person involved in a way that is sensitive to the person’s needs and concerns, including confidentiality, the result will be a positive one which engenders trust and support.
The gardaí have done much work over the years to engage with LGBT people and communities. In particular, several officers have been exceptional in proactively engaging with LGBT organisations and in providing direct support to LGBT people across the country. Fifty garda ELO/LGBT liaison officers were appointed and trained over the last number of years, and the previous diversity strategy and implementation plan led to a further 300 being appointed throughout the country. These are positive indicators of the organisation’s commitment to diversity as a strategic goal. Further support and resourcing of these LGBT liaison officers is essential and further proactive engagement by liaison Oofficers with local LGBT organisations, in particular outside the main cities, is necessary to ensure the most effective support for LGBT people.
GLEN and national and regional LGBT organisations continue to support these officers, including by providing initial training and continued professional development. New resources and campaigns are forthcoming. Transgender Equality Network Ireland (TENI) is currently running the STAD campaign to encourage reporting by transgender people of hate crimes and incidents. GLEN is developing best practice guides for the liaison officers in conjunction with the gardaí and new campaigns to encourage recording and reporting of incidents. A new practical toolkit Supporting LGBT Communities: Police Toolkit was recently developed by Sergeant Paul Franey (G-Force) and Dr. Ernesto Vasquez del Aguila (UCD School of Social Justice).
For the gardaí to engage effectively with LGBT people and communities it is essential to also support LGBT officers. G-Force, the garda gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender employee resource group, has been very important in highlighting LGBT issues both within the gardaí and the wider community. Garda Commissioner Martin Callinan, opening the 2012 European Gay Police Association Conference in Dublin stated:
“I am proud to stand here today as Garda Commissioner, with members of the organisation I lead who feel confident to be open about their sexual orientation and identity in our workplace.”
G-Force continues to support LGBT gardaí and management in creating a workplace where an LGBT garda can be open about their identity with the full support and respect of their colleagues.
In conclusion, there are many things that all members of An Garda Síochána can do to ensure that the service they provide is inclusive of and responsive to the needs of LGBT people. All LGBT people should be able to attend their local garda station in the full confidence that they will find an accepting and supportive service. Be aware that any person may be identified as LGBT. Simple things, like using open language, demonstrates to service users that you are not assuming that they are heterosexual. For example, instead of asking “Are you married?” use “Do you have a partner?” Ensure that documentation and information leaflets use imagery and language which is inclusive of LGBT people and their families.
There is much to build on, and positive engagement with LGBT organisations and communities, to ensure that together we can create an Ireland safer for LGBT people.
For further information and resources log onto www.g-force.ie – the garda gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender employee resource group.