In Dublin and Mayo we saw just how much of a threat extremists are to gender rights

In Dublin and Mayo we saw just how much of a threat extremists are to gender rights

Pride month and the time surrounding it should be when the LGBTQIA+ community can celebrate its existence and be celebrated. In spite of centuries of repression it persevered and along the way has dedicated itself to building a more tolerant society, not just for itself, but for everyone. That is something to be proud of. But — and there’s always a but — there’s more to be done. And the last month, even though it should’ve been a celebration, has really driven home that point. With the mainstream press platforming transphobes, a far-right mob protesting outside a bookshop which dared to put on a Drag Queen Story Hour as part of its Pride celebrations, and bigots physically attacking LGBTQIA+ people on the streets, it’s clear we’ve got a serious problem.

From platforming to protesting

It’s been nearly a month since RTÉ’s Liveline show, long hosted by the irritable Joe Duffy, dedicated three days of broadcast time to The Countess. An anti-trans group, its members had phoned in to the show to tell Duffy that they had been barred from entering the AGM of the National Women’s Council of Ireland (NWCI). Listeners heard how members of The Countess were censored by the dictatorial NWCI. This version of the story ran more or less unopposed. The problem is that it was untrue. As Izzy Kamikaze revealed, The Countess published a press release the day before the AGM announcing its intention to disrupt the event, specifically the re-election of Sara Philips, the now former chair of the Transgender Equality Network Ireland (TENI). None of this was mentioned by RTÉ or by the majority of the mainstream press in its reporting of the controversy.

It’s indicative of something sinister that’s been slowly emerging across the media landscape in Ireland over the last few years: A conscious decision to attack the rights of LGBTQIA+ people and the mainstreaming of far-right views. 

Instead of reporting on what Liveline got wrong, the Sunday Independent gave an entire page to an assortment of anti-trans agitators to “debate” the rights of trans people. This so-called discussion always entails reproduction of the same gay panic tropes that were supposedly left in the past. Only now they’re applied to trans people. Of course some anti-trans activists deny their transphobia but the only thing that’s different between the homophobia of the past and the transphobia of today is the substitution of one marginalised group for another in the sights of bigots.

The latest target was Tertulia Books in Westport, Co. Mayo. An independent book store, the owners had organised a Drag Queen Story Hour for Mayo Pride. They were met with a campaign of intimidation and defamatory remarks coming from far-right extremists. As is often the case Telegram, the go-to communication tool for the far right, played a large part in the crusade. The event organisers were accused of everything from sexualising children to grooming them “before abusing them”. Mike Connell, aka Satirical Soldier, said the event was solely to “excite the man in the dress”. Connell, a former soldier in the Defence Forces, has recently come to the attention of authorities because of his videos targeting activists, politicians, and public figures which end with the sound of a gunshot.

On Saturday, the day the Story Hour took place, a small mob whipped into a frenzy by the likes of Connell showed up outside the bookshop although it was greatly outnumbered by a large counter-protest. Of the extremists present, Dara O’Flaherty was probably the most noteworthy. He demanded to know if those taking part in the event had garda vetting to speak to children. Panti Bliss, aka Rory O’Neill, could be heard telling him “I’ve got garda clearance to tell you to go f**k yourself”. Ironically, the Galway man likely wouldn’t pass the garda vetting process. Highly active in conspiracy theorist and far-right circles, O’Flaherty has an extensive history of confrontations with gardaí having even been arrested after breaching security at the Dáil. Last year he warned politicians and those in the public eye “There’s no hiding from us” and that “We will go to your wife’s place of business. We’ll go to your husband’s place of business. When you think that they can hide from us I’ll go to your parents’ house”. In spite of the presence of O’Flaherty and the mob outside holding up placards accusing the bookshop owners and drag queens of sexualising children, the event was a success.

Whether or not the media want to acknowledge it, the part it’s played in whipping up anti-trans hysteria has emboldened the likes of O’Flaherty. Importing culture wars from the UK and US and then platforming these views is mainstreaming extremism and putting lives at risk. In a statement it published in the aftermath of the far right’s attempted interference with the Story Hour Mayo Pride pointed out that “protestors behaved abusively towards LGBTQ+ teenagers, some of whom were left in tears”. The playbook has been lifted from the US and adapted to the Irish context. On Saturday 11 June members of the far-right Proud Boys in the US disrupted a similar Drag Queen Story Hour event in a California library. According to a report in the Los Angles Times, the local sheriff’s office said the extremists shouted “homophobic and transphobic slurs”. As a result, authorities are investigating it as a “potential hate crime and as harassment and annoyance of children”. It’s one incident in a noticeable increase in extremists’ targeting of drag queens. The Irish far right is once again aping its cousins across the Atlantic.

The intersection of ideology

It’s fitting that the March for Life rally took place on same day as the Drag Queen Story Hour, albeit on the other end of the country. As one mob of far-right extremists gathered outside Tertulia Books a few thousand extremists marched through the streets of Dublin demanding that the rights of pregnant people be rolled back and their agency handed over to the will of God. It’s an annual event that’s taken on more meaning as the far right has become more prominent in Irish society. Unsurprisingly then, a number of prominent far-right extremists were present. One of them, Niall McConnell of Síol na hÉireann, even managed to interview Archbishop Eamon Martin although the Primate of Ireland appeared to disappoint McConnell. It may have been a misstep on the part of Martin but the intersection between Catholic extremism and the far right is well known at this stage. 

Andy Heasman, another regular in anti-lockdown and far-right circles was also present at the Rally for Life and acted as a steward. Heasman, like O’Flaherty, is known to gardaí. In December 2020 a judge sentenced him to two months in prison for refusing to wear a mask on public transport and breach of public order. He’s also protested with O’Flaherty outside the home of Tánaiste Leo Varadkar. A Catholic extremist Heasman is also linked to an antisemitic Catholic splinter group known as the Society of St Pius X Resistance (SSPX Resistance), as is McConnell. Its headquarters is in West Cork but the group regularly holds services around the country with Heasman, Justin Barrett, and James Reynolds, the latter two of the National Party, all attending their respective local branches. Reynolds and other representatives of his party were likewise at the Rally for Life. SSPX Resistance, although based in Ireland, is not an Irish creation. It’s in fact the result of a split within a split founded by English Bishop Richard Williamson. But it’s indicative of the international networking that takes place in extremist circles and the ways in which they converge on shared interests. 

One of these shared interests happens to be attacking the rights of women to choose what to do with their own bodies. As further proof of this the Irish branch of Human Life International (HLI Ireland) was at the rally too. Fr. Paul Benno Marx founded the group in the US in 1971 and over the last few decades it’s expanded into dozens of countries around the world. HLI is now a major player in the funding of anti-gender rights initiatives in Europe. The Irish branch alone has income of close to €1m per year and also runs the rogue crisis pregnancy agency Ask Majella. Precious Life, another Christian anti-abortion group, was present with its leader Bernadette Smyth speaking at the rally. Smyth has strong connections to Scottish far-right loyalist Jim Dowson with the latter heading up the Scottish wing of her organisation.

Along with Youth Defence, The Life Institute, and their online propaganda outlet Gript, the rally provided a wide umbrella under which deniers of both women’s and LGBTQIA+ rights can amass. The recent decision of the US Supreme Court to overturn Roe v Wade is seen as a win for these same individuals and groups. An ultra-conservative court ruling on the rights of pregnant people is the ideal for them. And this way of meting out what they believe is justice is how they think Ireland’s own abortion laws should be dealt with. Their placards on Saturday demonstrated as much.

As for the mainstream media, it’s done its utmost to platform these views along with anti-trans voices in the name of “balance” and “debate”. That David Quinn can write in the Sunday Times that the US Supreme Court throwing out abortion rights “is a win for democracy” is abhorrent. Yet, it’s acceptable copy for a major broadsheet. The gap between this and the attack on Tertulia Books is negligible. The LGBTQIA+ community is under attack and all the press can do is offer up a platform for bigots and hysteria. And it looks like nothing is going to change.

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Featured image via Facebook – Mayo Pride

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