Ireland’s Minister for Education Ruairí Quinn has been a longstanding champion of human rights and equality. He spoke last month at a European Conference on Homophobic and Transphobic bullying in schools.
Several issues have recently sparked debate in the country, including a provision currently in Irish law which threatens discrimination against teachers “undermining the religious ethos” of a school.
Also, earlier this month transgender woman Lydia Foy announced that she will file a lawsuit against the Irish State (government) as she remains unable to obtain a birth certificate stating that she is a female.
429Magazine discussed with the Minister his plans to combat LGBT bullying and this overall problem in the context of wider issues.
429Magazine: Having spoken at the EU Conference on Homophobic and Transphobic bullying in schools, what are your thoughts on how successful campaigns have been to date on this issue and what more can be done?
Minister Ruairí Quinn: This year marks the 20th anniversary of the decriminalisation of homosexuality in Ireland. This was a landmark decision and I think it’s fair to say that Ireland has progressed enormously in the last 20 years in terms of understanding, recognition and respect for LGBT people.
Having said that, there is still room for improvement. Preventing and tackling incidences of bullying in schools is a high priority for this Government. In fact, there is a specific commitment in the Programme for Government to encourage schools to develop anti-bullying policies, particularly strategies to combat homophobic bullying.
I have delivered on that commitment through the Action Plan on Bullying, which I recently launched. This specifically outlines actions to address all forms of bullying including homophobic bullying and includes concrete proposals to tackle students’ experiences of isolation, fear, marginalisation and lack of acceptance from their peers.
429Mag: What is at the heart of your own personal drive to tackle this problem?
Quinn: Fundamentally, I believe that everyone is equal. No matter what their race, age, gender, religion or sexual orientation is. Teenage years can be difficult, as we try to find our place in a more grown-up world. Young people discovering their sexuality can have increased obstacles due to prejudices they encounter.
Research has clearly shown that, unfortunately, LGBT learners can experience isolation, fear, marginalisation and lack of acceptance from their peers and others as a result of their sexuality or perceived sexuality.
We know that education can play a key role in supporting these students, and in tackling the underlying prejudices which can lead to homophobic and transphobic bullying. As Minister for Education and Skills, I’m determined to do that.
429Mag: More young people “coming out” in schools can be seen as a starting point. However, it’s reported that LGBT helplines are well beyond capacity – is the State in a position to support these vital services through funding?
Quinn: I think it’s important that any young person questioning their sexuality has someone that they can talk to. In some cases, they may feel more comfortable talking anonymously and that is a value of helplines. At the same time, it’s equally important that a large range of supports is in place.
In January, I launched the national Action Plan on Bullying which tackles all forms of bullying. Most importantly, this is backed up with €500,000. This money will be used to implement the Plan’s recommendations, which will help all LGBT students.
Under the Plan, the Department of Education and Skills will be supporting Stand Up! Awareness Week Against Homophobic Bullying, organised by BeLonG To Youth Services. This will raise awareness of this form of bullying and help to change attitudes. Doing this takes time, but we are working on it and I am confident that this will help young people who feel that they need help coming out.
429Mag: For LGBT young people in our schools, having teachers as role models who can be open about their sexual orientation is a powerful way of mitigating bullying. Your own determination to safeguard teachers in this position is well documented but is the Government committed to legislating for this and if so, when?
Quinn: The Government is committed to ensuring that LGBT people should not be deterred from training or taking up employment as teachers in this State. That is in the Programme for Government.
Many LGBT teachers feel constrained in what they can disclose about their personal lives to their colleagues fearing that this will affect their career or even their daily working experience in the school. They may also fear the prejudices of parents and students. In essence, it forces many into a denial of who they are.
I am working closely with my colleague, Alan Shatter T.D., the Minister for Justice, Equality and Defence, to address this issue. Minister Shatter will be asking the new Irish Human Rights and Equality Commissioners to examine the issue as a priority and to report back to both of us with their views and recommendations.
429Mag: Would you agree that for transgender young people having visibility in society is crucial to bring about greater acceptance of their community, particularly in schools. To that end, do you believe that news of Dr Lydia Foy’s legal proceedings against the State over her right to a birth certificate is damaging to this cause?
Quinn: Transgender people have every right to be treated with equality in this state. Dr Lydia Foy has shown great courage and determination in campaigning for transgender people, and her case has been regularly highlighted by colleagues of mine, and by the LGBT section of the Labour Party.
My colleague Joan Burton, Minister for Social Protection, has committed to closely examining the issue of gender recognition for transgender people. Since the publication of the Report of the Gender Recognition Advisory Group (GRAG), the Department of Social Protection has been working on developing draft Heads of a Gender Recognition Bill.
I know that Minister Burton is determined to advance this matter over the coming months, to deliver legal recognition and to extend the protections of equality leglislation to transgender people.