Homophobia in Ireland has made headlines and the garda organisation needs to address this too, writes a recently retired member
“Watch your arses lads!’. Standing outside the (gay) pub on a busy Saturday night queuing to get in. A yob shouts homophobic abuse to his mates as they walk by the line of gay people. Nobody in the queue reacts. Everybody just ignores it. I’m a garda, I don’t have to take this, I yell back, “what are you shouting about?”
The last person I know who shouted back was seriously assaulted. I guess that’s why everybody else in the queue tolerated it. I’ve heard it a million times walking in and out of gay bars. Just an hour earlier, my flatmate had got called a ‘faggot’ by a gang of lads as he walked in the door of the very same pub. It’s 2014; have we not moved on? It’s just what happens.
“Make sure your belt is tight and keep your back to the wall!” The words used when allocating a young garda to a position outside the very same bar mentioned above. The young garda, who is gay, is not bold enough to answer back. He just goes to his post.
Most would argue that a guy who shouts homophobic abuse at people queuing to get into a gay bar is a ‘homophobe’ … and a yob. If the same language is used in a garda station, by a professional police officer, is the member any less of one?
“Lesbian, gay and bisexual people are not asking for much, just a workplace where they are free from having to listen to homophobic language, where they don’t feel the need to constantly ‘check’ themselves…”
In 2007 a research project was conducted which recorded the workplace experiences of gay and lesbian gardaí. The stories of homophobia they told were appalling. They indicated a workplace where homophobia was not just acceptable and commonplace amongst gardaí, it was also engaged in by supervisors and managers.
Five years later, two academics from Dublin City University conducted a more in-depth study of the experiences of gay and lesbian gardaí. Unfortunately, the results weren’t much better. In order not to identify participants, the worst examples of abuse had to be removed from the final report. Not that they were actually needed to establish that homophobia was still a problem in An Garda Síochána. The report spoke for itself.
Am I arguing that all gardaí are homophobic? Of course not. First of all, many gardaí would find the above remarks greatly offensive. There are many gardaí who never engage in the homophobic ‘banter’ that is prevalent in some of our stations and offices.
Increasingly too, we have openly lesbian and gay gardaí in our station parties and on our units. In such cases, language is very quickly tempered. Indeed, given the close-knit relationships of policing units, colleagues become very defensive in order to protect those around them from abuse.
This is where the garda workplace is at it’s best. When you’re part of the unit, you’re one of the team. Unit members are the people who will race, blue lights and sirens, to back each other up when arresting the violent prisoner, moving the gang of aggressive youths, disarming the thug with the knife or broken bottle.
However, not all units and stations have openly gay members. The number of units with members who have not yet felt comfortable disclosing this fundamental part of themselves to their colleagues is in all likelihood far greater than the number with openly gay gardaí. It is these gardaí who most have to listen to and put up with the ongoing use of homophobic language in work.
Gardaí aren’t ‘created’ in Templemore. They are normal people who come from the general population. Nurtured and formed by their families, communities, schools and sports clubs, their behaviours and attitudes have taken shape long before they ever put a uniform on. Given that homosexuality was only relatively recently decriminalised, it is a fact that many gardaí trained when gay male sexuality was a criminal offence.
Yes, our society has moved on from then, but the prevalence of homophobic language in our schools and sports clubs, on our streets and in the Garda Síochána itself shows there is still work to be done. “gay”, “queer” and “faggot” are standard terms in the discourse of many people across Ireland.
It is to be expected that such homophobic attitudes and behaviours would be brought from the communities into the garda organisation. It is equally to be expected, however, that once these people enter the garda workplace, that there would be training, policies and management-led work practices all to ensure all such homophobic language and behaviour was eradicated from organisational culture and discourse.
It costs a ‘straight’ garda nothing not to use words like ‘queer’, ‘faggot’ or ‘gay’ in a derogatory manner. It won’t stop them being able to pay their mortgage or put food on the table. It won’t reduce their chances of promotion.
Great offence is regularly caused to the garda parents of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) children, gardaí who have gay and lesbian brothers and sisters, friends and relatives. A huge sub-group of the organisation.
The cost to a gay garda of hearing this oppressive and insulting language, is massive. It damages their self-esteem, it makes them nervous of being ‘outed’, of being rejected by their colleagues and it damages their pride in belonging to the garda organisation.
It’s quitte simple: gardaí don’t ever need to use these words in the workplace, so why do gay and lesbian gardaí regularly have to listen to them?
A few weeks ago, a powerful speech on homophobia was delivered from the historic stage of the Abbey Theatre. Rory O’Neill, AKA artist Panti Bliss, a LGBT community entertainer, businessman and activist, spoke of LGBT people having to constantly ‘check’ their behaviour to not ‘give the gay away’.
He also spoke of hating the fact that he ‘checks himself’ in order not to ‘give the gay away’, of the feeling being ‘oppressive’ and of hating those who have made him feel that way. Every day lesbian, gay and bisexual gardaí go into work and ‘check’ themselves so that they don’t ‘give the gay away’. Even if they are openly gay, many still ‘check’ themselves to ensure they conform. For the many more who are not openly gay, this ‘checking’ will involve a silent endurance of the homophobic ‘banter’ of their colleagues, or even worse, the compulsion to go along with it.
It must be said that things have improved in recent years. The G-Force group has given significant visibility to a large but previously hidden group of gardaí. Many Garda managers have come out in support of equality and dealt with homophobia when reported. The four garda staff associations have strongly supported this very important change project. An Garda Síochána is making considerable progress.
Lesbian, gay and bisexual people are not asking for much, just a workplace where they are free from having to listen to homophobic language, where they don’t feel the need to constantly ‘check’ themselves. It’s a small ask. Gardaí are decent people, good people doing a tough job in increasingly difficult circumstances, but some need to think hard about the language they use.
Lastly, the organisation needs to think hard about the culture it wishes to foster as we look forward to a new batch of recruits starting in Templemore later this year. Hopefully the gay, lesbian or bisexual entrants won’t feel they have to constantly check themselves in work. It’s a small ask. Just think about what you say.