By Jennifer O'Connell
Everybody liked Stuart. They always say that after somebody dies tragically, but this time it appears to have been true. His friends called him a ‘‘classical comedian’’, ‘‘a big softy’’, ‘‘the life and soul’’. They said that he knew everybody in the town where he lived.
The night he died began like any other. He was 28 years old. He had just started a new job, working in a bar. It was his grandmother’s 80th birthday party, but Stuart was running late after he decided to go to another party first. By all accounts, Stuart loved parties.
His friends last saw him outside a fire station at 2.30 in the morning. He never made it to his grandmother’s do.
By 5am he was dead. His body was discovered on an industrial estate in the town where he had spent most of his life, tied to a lamppost. He had been brutally beaten and burned to death.
Once reports of the gruesome, medieval manner of his killing began to circulate last week, observers wondered what had happened to bring such a happy, likeable man to such a horrific end.
Almost immediately, speculation began to focus on his sexuality. Stuart, they said, must have been murdered and burned at the stake because he was gay.
But the killing of Stuart Walker didn’t take place in Uganda, Sierra Leone or Saudi Arabia. It happened in a very ordinary town called Cumnock in Ayrshire, Scotland.
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Strathclyde police, who are investigating the murder, have not said whether they believe he was targeted because of his homosexuality, except to state that they are investigating ‘‘all aspects of the victim’s life’’.
The news of his death last weekend came on the same day that it was reported that hate crimes against gay and transgender people increased fivefold in Scotland over the past five years. There were 666 crimes against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people recorded in Scotland in 2009/10 - almost double the 365 reported in 2007/08.
In a survey conducted in 2010, one in three LGBT people in Scotland said they’d been attacked.
Observers in Britain attribute the increase to three things: better reporting of attacks, the growth in the number of religions which are intolerant of homosexuality and the higher visibility of gay and transgender people which, sadly, has contributed to making them more vulnerable to attack.
It is a particularly tragic irony that the very freedoms which they have won are now putting gay people at greater risk.
As Ireland undergoes similar kinds of social transformation, albeit at a much slower pace, there is no room for complacency here.
We have come a long way in the acceptance of gay rights. It’s hard to believe now that homosexuality was only decriminalised 18 years ago, and that it’s a mere 21 years since the WHO stopped classifying it as a ‘health problem’.
Since earlier this year, gay people can now have their relationships recognised in law. Throughout 2011, my Facebook feed has regularly turned pink with the news of the impending nuptials of another gay couple.
Progress is also being made elsewhere. Homophobic bullying in schools is being tackled through initiatives spearheaded by organisations such as BeLongTo and the Gay and Lesbian Equality Network (Glen). Earlier this year, the Department of Education issued guidelines on dealing with gay bullying, and Minister for Education Ruairi Quinn pledged to make schools ‘‘safe and supportive’’ for all students. Two years ago, the first conference of gay teachers was held in Ireland.
However, let’s not get carried away on the warm and fuzzy tide of our own compassion and acceptance. It would be wrong to give the impression that Ireland is some kind of lavender-scented utopia in which to be gay. Attacks of the kind that happened to Stuart Walker are almost unheard of - unfortunately, less serious assaults are not.
Last summer, a prominent Irish journalist was reported to have been beaten in a homophobic attack in Dublin city centre. Earlier in the year, TV presenter Brendan Courtney turned up at the Ifta awards with a black eye, after he was punched in the face while on a night out with friends, in what he categorised as a homophobic attack. In fact, many of the gay people I know have been subjected to similar, random incidents of unprovoked low-level violence.
And it starts even before they are old enough to be attacked on the streets.
It starts in the playground. Irish teachers report that children as young as seven and eight are using words like ‘gay’ and ‘queer’ as insults, without understanding what the terms mean; that almost all teenage bullying involves the invocation of the words ‘gay’ or ‘faggot’.
In the language of the playground, the word ‘gay’ has come to act as a shorthand for anything bad.
Teachers are ‘uncomfortable’ confronting the issue, a seminar held last summer on the issue was told. And it’s not just the teachers. In a study last year, 70 per cent of Irish parents said their children were under pressure ‘‘not to be gay’’.
And while equality legislation exists as a safeguard, teachers, doctors, nurses and anyone employed by a religious-owned school or hospital can still be lawfully discriminated against if their sexual orientation is deemed to create a risk of ‘‘undermining the religious ethos of the institution’’.
If it serves no other purpose, the barbaric and senseless death of Stuart Walker should remind us how far we still have to go in the pursuit of a society in which people are free to live as they choose.
Even as you read this, a child somewhere is dreading whatever awaits them in the playground tomorrow.
This article first appeared in The Sunday Business Post on October 30, 2011