By Elizabeth Doherty
“Vicky changed my life,” Independent Senator Gerald Graughwell said – about a trans-sexual who made him ditch his views on transgender and marriage equality.
Yet as he awaits his fate in the Seanad by-elections on Friday – it seems Gerard, who admits he is still very much very “conservative,” cannot give such backing to repealing the 8th.
The former Fine Gaeler, who says he left the party to be a trade unionist, because he could not “represent working people,” in FG – is pessimistic about being re-elected to the Seanad.
He believes the voting system favours party politics and he is somewhat of a lone wolf as an independent.
However, if he doesn’t make the cut, Gerard says he wants to die one day knowing “I did what was right and not what I thought was right.”
The calls from thousands to ‘Repeal the 8th,’ has increased in momentum since battle lines were drawn for gay and transgender campaigns in Ireland with two major wins for human rights this year.
In August, the Seanad passed the Gender Recognition Bill to sign in to law that a transgender person would not require a certificate from a doctor to support their identity as a man or woman.
And last month, the Seanad passed the Marriage Equality Bill – which will see Christmas weddings between gay couples taking place for the first time in history in the state.
Gerard, who was brought up a Catholic in Salthill, Co Galway, where women swam in separate bathing areas and where the bishop of the day did not approve of young people going out on a Saturday night in case they “fornicated,” has, along with the mainstay of the traditional Irish conservative political system, come a long way.
He stood in the Seanad to support both Bills – after initially disapproving the very idea of anyone getting a sex change or indulging in the very notion of a same sex marriage.
Gerard, a white, middle-class male, took steps to move away from the perceptions he had filtered throughout his life, meeting gay rights lobbyists and trans-sexual groups.
But as far as he has come, along with others like him in Irish politics – it seems that despite the calls from a huge number – to repeal the 8th amendment and decriminalise abortion – Gerard is not for turning on this issue.
And as the war cry continues from women across the country, who demand change, for bodily autonomy, it seems some of the politicians who chose to stand up for civil rights for gay and trans people, cannot do the same for the nation’s daughters, many suffering trauma that their country turned its back on them.
“I had huge issues about gender, about coming to terms with agreeing with and fighting for this issue,” Gerard said.
“I’m a traditional 62-year-old Irish male, brought up in holy Catholic Ireland, where if you were born a boy, you were a boy, and if you were born a girl, that was that. And never the twain should meet.”
The former Teachers’ Union of Ireland president, admits that to this day he would find it difficult if his own son or daughter admitted they were gay – but as he mulls it over, he accepts he would now, though, come to terms with it.
But his beliefs on abortion do not seem to have been so strongly affected by the increasingly prominent civil rights movements across Ireland.
“I changed my mind about this issue because I met some transgender people.
“When the Gender Recognition Bill was being debated, then the Marriage Equality Bill, trans-sexual and gay equality groups asked to meet me and I said yes.
“I met one man and I couldn’t have met a nicer guy. He had a great impact on me. I was so impressed and then I learnt he had been born a girl.
“I realised this man is sitting s across the table from me, challenging all my beliefs, everything I believed in my life.
“It’s not easy coming from a conservative, rural background, to confront issues you never dreamt about. And then going a step beyond that and saying not only do I believe this guy but I will actually take the step of supporting and backing him.
“Then I met another group and one particular person, who stands out in my mind always, was a lady by the name of Vicky, who was once male.
“She has two daughters, was married and decided after a huge process, I cannot begin to imagine what she went through with her wife and daughters.
“The turmoil she went through to make that decision to move the whole way and have the surgery.
“Somewhere in there Vicky found a heart and I’m not famous for that.”
After meeting Vicky, Gerard said his mind was changed and he backed gay and trans rights from there.
Without doubt he, and others in the Seanad and Dail, came a long way with such a decision and public pressure no doubt played its part in political decisions.
But when faced with what many see as a civil and human rights issue, the abortion debate cannot be greeted with the same understanding.
When asked did he view abortion as a civil rights issue, Gerard said that it “possibly” was.
“However,” he added, “given that there is another life as yet unborn, I do think that the issue must be settled by way of legislation and not by way of a constitutional amendment.”
The movement to repeal the 8th, has been growing in recent month, empowered by gay equality.
Many women felt after the Marriage Bill was approved, finally, their voices would too be heard.
Pro-choice women descended upon Dublin, Cork, Limerick and Galway last month. Women have marched in their thousands.
Irish women have used Twitter in recent days, to tweet details of their periods to Enda Kenny, as part of the campaign, to get the taoiseach, the man who has the power to give them bodily autonomy, recognise their calls.
While last month illegal abortion pills were handed out by activists looking for change, on a two-day national tour of Ireland.
The movement seems every bit as strong and expansive as the gender recognition and gay rights ones.
But for some reason, it seems that those in power in the Dail and Seanad, are not giving women the same air time.
Speaking on gay rights, Gerard said: “In the end my thinking behind it all was, who am I to lay down rules and regulations on who someone should be.”
This phrase seems like it would fit perfectly for a meeting with pro-choicers but it seems doubtful it will be applied there.
In contrast when asked about the abortion issue, Gerard said: “We cannot allow abortion to be a substitute or failure to use the contraception methods available.”
It seems that a man who understand the levels of unfairness, the gap between rich and poor, and prejudice, across Irish society, is still at odds with one of the last great fights for people power in Ireland in an age.
He stands up for single parents, saying that “No single mother wants to sit at home,” that “affordable childcare should be rolled out,” across the state and more women should be in politics and business.
Yet, the abortion debate is perhaps too much of a political hot potato to even touch.
“Politically in Ireland, abortion is a no win debate,” he said.
“Politicians have been running from this issue for decades and I cannot see the stopping as of right now.
Perhaps if the pro-choicers call Gerard up, they might change his mind too.
But for now it seems he is staying on the fence.
Although it is possible for Irish politicians to have their minds changed. We only have to refer to the Marriage Equality law to see this.
And to end the discussion, Gerard seemed willing to listen to women.
After all, he did say this: “Personally I have never taken a position on abortion. I do feel as a man, that I should be guided by women on this matter.”
And for a man, who believes Frances Fitzgerald might be the next and first female taoiseach, who knows, maybe he could become an advocate of women’s rights tomorrow.
After all, wasn’t it Frances, the Justice Minister, who helped champion the people’s movement for the Marriage Equality Bill, as a political one.
“Frances Fitzgerald will make a fine taoiseach,” he said. “I’ve seen some very strong women and Frances is one. She stood in the house and took some hammerings over the Marriage Equality Bill and she fought back. She fought all the way.”