Friday, February 21, 2014

Check your privilege

We can’t merely accept Franno’s apology and continue to ignore the underlying problems, writes Kate McEvoy

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A recent “Google doodle” as Sochi 2014 got underway

I'm a big believer in apologies.

When you mess up, acknowledge it quickly and sincerely and learn from it. Worst case scenario, if you've honestly hurt someone else through a mistake or ignorance, the least you can do is offer a heart-felt mea culpa. Similarly I believe if someone offers you an honest apology, within reason it's important to accept it and move on, as much for your sake as anything else.

To recap on #Frannogate for anyone who has successfully avoided it so far: Neil Francis, the noted rugby columnist made a few comments on Sunday's edition of Off The Ball on Newstalk that were, to put in mildly, problematic. The one that has garnered the most attention in the understandable furore that followed was purporting that gay men, and gay people in general, had very little interest in sport.

As is the case with the majority of sweeping generalizations, most people were quick to call foul on this, either due to personal experience, which conflicts with that of Francis, of knowing gay people who do indeed have an interest in sport but more importantly, the knowledge that gay people, much like heterosexuals, are not a hive mind or a monolith. Some people have no interest in sport. Some people do. Some are very interested. Some play, at various levels with varying amounts of skill. But that's people across the board, regardless of gender.

Unfortunately the view expressed by Francis has wider repercussions because it does feed into a stereotypical perception of gay people, in particular gay men. If you are a media figure who publicly expresses a view that can be considered harmful, saying it's based on your own experience isn't good enough. As the inimitable Nigel Owens pointed out on the subsequent edition of The Last Word :

“When you have people of Neil’s stature coming out and saying what he did yesterday I don’t think people realize the influence they have. There are a lot of young people out there who are finding it difficult to deal with issues, are finding it hard to come to terms with who they are. It has a huge influence.”

In short, these statements very much matter. They matter to a teenager who loves the sport they play but feel like they're hiding a part of who they are, who are too scared to be be themselves, even while doing something that makes them happy. And that's not right.

Personally, I found two other remarks Francis made even more troubling and they haven't garnered the same level of scrutiny. Firstly, when discussing the coming out of NFL draft prospect Michael Sam, he quoted Jimmy Hendrix's comment on Janis Joplin's death as “a great career move” and implied Sam was being open about his sexuality was financially motivated. Given many in NFL, who, unlike Francis, are expert enough to know that the draft hasn't actually occurred yet, are speculating that the announcement will negatively affect his prospects and his future earnings, and there's already been a backlash against the talented college player, attracting quotes such as “It'd chemically imbalance an NFL locker room and meeting room.”

It's hard to believe that Michael Sam made the courageous step of being the first (potential) NFL player to publicly come out based on financial motivations and to suggest otherwise is both factually inaccurate and extremely mean-spirited. Frankly, if you don't consider Sam a brave man as well as one hell of a player, I don't know what to say to you. Other than I believe you're very wrong.

However, for me the nadir of the interview for me was Francis's dismissal for the appalling situation currently facing gay men and women in Russia.

“To be honest I’m sick and tired of picking up angles on whether the Russians have an anti-gay policy or not. It’s about the Olympics. And the side issue has just put me off watching the Winter Olympics.”

I am deeply sorry that Neil has been prevented from enjoying some curling by people having issues with LGTB people being beaten in the streets. No, wait, I'm not. Not even a little bit.

This attitude has started to creep into various parts of Irish society, particularly given the current debate raging on homophobia and marriage equality. Commenters bemoan the air time it's given, the articles devoted to it. If you are lucky enough that the biggest inconvenience in your life is that you're fed up hearing about the problems gay people face then I encourage you to, as the saying goes, check your privilege. For me, the best definition of privilege is thinking something is not a problem because it's not a problem for you. What's happening in Russia is, to put it mildly, a problem. And if gay men and women say Francis's remarks are problematic, then they are. If you've grown tired of listening, the least you can do is not begrudge them their space to speak. You have the luxury of tuning out from the debate. Other people have to live it.

Before moving onto looking at Part II of Frannogate, I'd like to acknowledge that Joe Molloy, who hosted the discussion on Newstalk, handled Francis's input extremely well, pointing out his generalizations and how problematic they were, while continuing to facilitate discussion. Matt Cooper took up the gauntlet on The Last Word. Before putting the ball back in Francis's court he strongly condemned the original comments and also took the opportunity to play Dale Hansen's wonderful piece on Michael Sam, which I encourage you to check out here if you haven't already.

As I mentioned, I'm a believer in apologies. Neil Francis apologized “profusely and unreservedly” for his previous comments. Fair play to him. Along with Nigel Owens I also hope it was “genuine and are from the heart and not something that he’s been pressurized into with all the outpouring that has come from all walks of life”. However an apology is not an automatic free pass and there were a few aspects of what he said that are worth looking at before moving on.

Claiming “it didn’t sound at all like me” and blaming clumsy analogies distances yourself from your own words and the harm they can do. Authenticating your apology by saying “I mean people know who I am, I say what I mean. I wouldn’t say this unless I meant it” leads me to ask, if you say what you mean, did you not mean your original comments? Stating “it was a poor interview” is untrue and is an attempt to pass the buck. The attack on social media allegedly taking license with what he had said and hasn't said is similarly problematic, particularly given every online source I read on the subject featured either transcripted direct quotes or a link to the audio piece so readers could hear for themselves.

Nigel Owens neatly brings things to a close by saying:

“Apologizing afterwards is fine but it puts a lot of people in a very tough situation when they hear these negative comments.”

What Francis said was unacceptable. It is both right and important that there was a backlash and that he apologized, even if the apology in itself was not without issues. Moving forward, hopefully Francis has learned a genuine lesson, but either way will think twice about saying such potentially hurtful things in a public forum again.

On a wider note, I think it continues to be important to challenge problematic comments like these, even in the face of fatigue from some. This needs to come both from public figures like Joe Molloy, Matt Cooper and Nigel Owens but also from individuals. I want to be part of a society that acknowledges the diversity of people regardless of sexuality, that facilitates participation for all in sport and other activities and provides a space for LGBT people to be themselves and have their voices heard. This doesn't happen a vacuum. Bigotry doesn't go away if we ignore it. I hope this vocal calling out continues until equality means we've nothing to talk about anymore. Can't wait.

Kate McEvoy : Munster fan in a sea of Leinster blue. Raised on a strict diet of Bective Rangers. Earliest childhood memory is stud marks in the muck. Former hooker for a father & a mother with an eye for a forward pass bordering on freakish . Best rugby memory, Toulouse main square, May 24, 2008. Epitaph will read “Knew a lot about rugby for a girl.” Can be found tweeting optimistically at @ImKateMc

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