03Mar Confronting racism and homophobia

There was an embarrassing synchronicity in the news that among the Chelsea supporters who bullied a black man off the Paris Metro, simply because he was black, was a former policeman from the North. Intolerance, bigotry and an embedded racism is, to our shame, part of our legacy to the wider world.

Not that Chelsea supporters needed a racist Irishman of any religious hue to define their yobbish prejudice. I once had the doubtful pleasure of standing on the terraces at Chelsea’s Stamford Bridge. It was in the early 1990s, in the pre-Jose Mourinho days, before Chelsea was being funded by a Russian plutocrat. Chelsea was playing Aston Villa. Andy Townsend, an Englishman who was playing for Ireland at the time, and who had transferred from Chelsea to Villa a few years earlier, was ritually taunted by the serried ranks of Chelsea supporters.

Over twenty years later, in 2012, the Chelsea captain, John Terry, then captain of England, was banned for four matches and fined £220,000 for directing obscene abuse at QPR defender, Anton Ferdinand. The owner and manager may have changed, the PR experts may have over-laid a sheen of respectability, but the Chelsea yobs still rule, okay?

Footage of the Paris incident, captured on a mobile phone, has shamed the Chelsea club yet again as millions of hits on YouTube reassure the world that the apple of racism still doesn’t fall far from the Chelsea tree. It’s no surprise that Chelsea had the most arrests in the Premier League in the last 13 years.

Sport is susceptible to the baser instincts, as we know. Placid, highly principled and moral citizens can find themselves in the heat of a sporting contest responding and behaving in ways that are unimaginably out of character. That’s one part of it. Another is the person, lacking self-confidence and self-belief, who needs to feel superior to someone else and to champion that superiority in racist or homophobic posturing and language.

The GAA has become infected too with the virus. Racist and homophobic comments are sometimes used to taunt players in Gaelic matches. Last year a young man, Israel Ilunga, a native of the Congo, was red carded in Westmeath’s Leinster minor semi-final win over Meath but following allegations of racial abuse the dismissal was overturned and he played in the final. A Cavan GAA club has also claimed one of its players was racially abused at a game, and to their credit, the GAA has now deemed such abuse a Red Card offence. The implementation of this deterrent should apply not just to what happens on the field of play but on the sideline too.

While racist and homophobic attitudes can find an outlet in sport, the underlying ritualistic hum of such abuse is deeply embedded in Irish society. This can be tackled, as the Paris Metro incident showed, simply by exposing the errant behaviour and thereby refusing to allow the decency of most people (and most sports-people) to be compromised by the actions and chants of the few.

The young Englishman of Irish descent, who took the footage of the Paris incident, has rendered a considerable service to football and to Chelsea FC – if they have the will and the imagination to take it on board. This isn’t ‘grassing’, as its sometimes called, but a form of whistle-blowing that has responsibility written all over it. As Hugh McIlvanney, writing in the Sunday Times, put it ‘informing on such characters should put no more strain on the conscience than reporting on a rabid dog’.

Sport can offer that option, in the knowledge that a fitting punishment may follow, as in the case of the Paris Chelsea supporters, who are expected to be banned for life from Stamford Bridge.

But how do we react when, in our company, someone ritually resorts to racist or homophobic comment? Do we take them aside and tell them it’s not acceptable? Or openly confront them?  Among those whom we regard as friends, confrontation is easiest. And so too within families. But who has the courage to object to a crazed fan, abusing a player from the sideline. Discretion, we can justifiably feel, may sometimes be the better part of valour.

Part of the problem is that we often have no idea the hurt caused or the damage done by careless and abusive words. What, I often wonder, do parents of players feel, when a son or daughter is roundly abused by a ‘supporter’ in the seats behind them? Or the newly-arrived immigrant couple, proud that their son is playing full-back on the school team, who have to endure abuse from parents on the opposing side? And what of the diminishment people feel when racist or homophobic abuse takes place in company?

Words can be lethal in their effect. As children we used to chant hopefully, ‘Sticks and stones may break my bones but words can never hurt me’ but even then we knew it wasn’t true. And words that carry abuse in their slipstream can leave an indelible mark on a child’s mind.

The Catholic Church has had to learn some big lessons in this regard. It wasn’t so long ago that papal letters used the phrase ‘intrinsically disordered’ to describe homosexual people. I don’t think it will happen again. Or at least I hope not because its use didn’t just diminish homosexuals.

But the wider problem is the cultural deficit embedded in our understanding of life. Cross that with the personal deficit of a lack of self-belief and you still get a lively sub-culture where racist and homophobic abuse and bullying still makes space for itself.

If we believe we’re not worth a penny, we will always find a half-penny somewhere to feel superior to.

10 Responses

  1. Nuala O'Driscoll

    Being a parent puts things into perspective, that is the teachings of the Church. It was through my experience of marriage, and raising a large family that demonstrated to me that the Church’s teachings on contraception, homosexuality, and it’s exclusion of women are wrong. My girl was raised with her six brothers as an equal. She is now a research scientist in several universities. Watching my kids grow through childhood, puberty and on into adulthood raised a lot of issues for me regarding me being a member of the Catholic Church. I faced the question ‘what if one of my kids were homosexual?’ It became a non-question because I love my kids to infinity. I then faced the question, ‘can I remain in a church that excludes my girl or that would consider any of my kids as intrinsically disordered if they were to discover they were homosexual and live in a same sex relationship?’ The simple answer is ‘no’. I wonder how many mothers and fathers have left the Church because of the Church’s intrinsically disordered teachings?

  2. Cornelius Martin

    “papal letters used the phrase ‘intrinsically disordered’ to describe homosexual people.”

    This is not true. The phrase ‘intrinsically disordered’ refers to an inclination, not the person. A person’s sexual orientation does not define him or her. This description of an inclination is accepted by many persons of same sex attraction who seek to live within Church teaching.

  3. Paddy Ferry

    I am not so sure that you are right there, Cornelius@2 — ” A person’s sexual orientation does not define him or her”
    Now, I am not a psychologist but the late Prof. Anthony Clare, God rest him, once said that our sexuality is the primary font of our humanity. To be honest, I had never thought very deeply about the issue before — what is the primary font of our humanity– but the more I thought about what he said, the more I became convinced that he was right.

  4. Joe O'Leary

    I think samesex attraction could be called an “inclination” only for people who are primarily othersex attracted, if even then. Human sexual orientation, whether homo- or hetero-sexual, is much more than an inclination. The frequent recourse to the language of “tendencies” and “inclinations” is a defensive manoeuvre to make gay people disappear as gay.

  5. Cornelius Martin

    Some people (some = I don’t know how many) live periods of ambivalence regarding their sexual orientation. Some eventually become very clear about their reality. Some give evidence of having changed on foot of therapy. Some people of same sex attraction succeed in accepting their orientation and make decisions regarding life style. But one’s total identity cannot be collapsed into it.

    Among these is a group who avail of the Church ministry for gays – Courage. This apostolate ministers to people with same-sex attraction who want to live by the Catholic Church’s sexual teachings. Some of these have previously lived the gay life style and have found that the same-sex attraction or desire can never be acted upon consistent with their human nature and therefore has put the person at cross-purposes with the self.

    Those who stay with Courage agree that the appetite, the erotic attraction to a member of the same sex, is out of harmony with human nature, it is misdirected, objectively disordered.

    This group do not want to collapse their identity into only their sexual appetite, to a same-sex inclination.

    The most important question ever asked in human history was asked by Our Lord to the apostles, “Who do you say that I am?” It is the question of identity, because it is from an understanding of identity that we then know how to live in a way consistent with that identity.

    For the human person, the question of “Who am I?” is best answered with the understanding that we are children of God redeemed by the blood of Christ and called to be his disciples, and we are invited to grow in this life of grace and glory in the life to come. This is the foundation of the most important or essential part of our identity. It involves moral development in terms of growth in virtue, character and conscience in the midst of human weakness and concupiscence.

    There are other things that make up our identity. Our human family, and where we are from geographically. And it would be foolish to in any way minimize the strength, the intensity, the duration or the frequency of the feelings of sex attraction and how important these feelings are to someone’s self-understanding. But one’s total identity cannot be collapsed into it.

  6. Joe

    Homosexuality is disorder, do you like it or not. God condemned a sin, but loves a sinner. As a catholics we have to love homosexual people but we cannot accept homosexual activity and homosexual lifestyle. And don’t tell me it is an “alternative model of love”. This is disorder and behaviour against nature.
    Love sinner, hate sin.

  7. Paddy Ferry

    Cornelius@5, I don’t think the idea of “therapy” to change our sexual orientation is taken very seriously anymore if, indeed, it ever was. You mentioned ” Some give evidence of change on foot of therapy” I don’t think so, Cornelius. I speak as a heterosexual and, sadly, I can imagine homosexual men and women finding your reasoning @ 5 above hurtful and offensive.

  8. Joe O'Leary

    Courage has links with the discredited ex-gay movement.

    Samesex attraction or desire is acted on whenever it boosts the warmth of a friendship. There are perfectly chaste ways of living one’s sexuality. Since the Courage ethos presents the homosexual orientation as a disease that one “has” rather than one’s constitutive sexual identity it cannot think in these positive terms.

    As to the dreaded “genital acts” I think a pharisaic obsession with them has poisoned “Christian” discourse on gays. Indeed it appears to be the major turn-off depleting church membership today.

    And please be careful about taking the Lord’s name in vain.

  9. Cornelius Martin

    Paddy and Joe O Leary

    The issue at hand was the notion of identity.

    The first 4 paragraphs at #5 are factual borne out by empirical evidence, including testimonies of people who regard themselves as of same sex attraction. Many such testimonies exist. These people do not believe that their identities collapse into their sexual orientation. I presume the same applies to people of same sex attraction. This was the issue.

    There are different philosophies of identity. I addressed it from a Catholic perspective.

    Paddy, does your assertion re hurtfulness reside in a belief that one groups’ experiences have to be hurtful to groups with different patterns of experience? Therapy is not fashionable in some secular circles, but if a person says his same sex attraction was changed to the extent of being able to enjoy heterosexual activity, and that this correlated with therapy, who is one to judge?

    Like it or seek to discredit it, the Courage ministry is expanding. Those who avail of it do not claim any change in sexual orientation. Some seek to live an ex-gay lifestyle by availing of Courage to help them live a chaste life, to have what they regard as a better sense of self on foot accepting Church teaching. That’s their story.

    Joe, I agree with you; it is our duty always and everywhere not to take the name of the Lord in vain.

    The statement: “Samesex attraction or desire is acted on whenever it boosts the warmth of a friendship” is informative. It shows one way in which samesex attraction differs from its heterosexual counterpart.

  10. Joe O'Leary

    I hasten to correct a misunderstanding. I did not mean to say that gayness that boosts a friendship is acted on in the sense of sexual acts. What I wanted to say is that, as with othersex attraction, it can boost warmth of friendship and expressions of it (the chaste indicia benevolentiae Augustine talks of). Homophobes always think of homosexual orientation in terms of sexual acts, which they then demonise. But sexual orientation affects every part of one’s life and is particularly important in many of one’s relationships even when no sexual act is envisaged or desired. Often gay or lesbian affection is directed to a person who is not themselves gay or lesbian and within that relationship it can boost genuine friendship. There is also the wide and under-explored range of bisexuality, wherein basically heterosexual men and women can be happy to entertain a samesex friendship tinged with sexual warmth, acted out in camaraderie or intimacy or skinship but not necessarily in “genital” acts. All of this is part of the rich, delightful, multi-layered human comedy. Maybe Courage are more clued in to this than their propaganda and iffy connections suggest and maybe, as with the case of Opus Dei, we will see them in a less unfavourable light as they develop.


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