Why you should care
Ireland’s Tiernan Brady is marshaling LGBT groups for a Vatican synod.
Tiernan Brady was director of the referendum campaigns that brought gay marriage to Ireland and Australia, defying entrenched resistance to deliver solid majorities for seismic social change. Now he is bringing the quest for gay rights to a Vatican synod on young people, to be held in Rome next month, in a direct challenge to Catholic teaching against homosexuality.
Brady’s ability to rally voters has drawn comparisons with Lynton Crosby, the Australian electoral guru who has advised Theresa May and Boris Johnson. But can he win over the holy men of Rome? Sipping coffee in his back garden in Dublin, a smiling Brady insists he is undaunted. “The upper management [of the church] is totally out of step [with] where the flock are. And I think part of the whole purpose of the campaign is to demonstrate that so that people can see what’s going on now is damaging to people.”
Brady, 44, laughs at the mention of Crosby. “I don’t get paid that much,” he says. Still, he is a fount of ideas on what can appeal to voters in the shrill era of social media and Donald Trump’s tweets. An obsession with beating up the other side won’t win anything, he argues. In social campaigning, particularly, rising above the fray is crucial.
“How do you show leadership on your own side?” he asks. “The tone we have to set is the tone we have to live with and we can’t allow those clarion voices who are more interested in the war than the peace [to dominate].
“That’s probably the hardest part of the discipline that all campaigns face now,” he adds. All the more so in the no-holds-barred era of Trump. Still, Brady remains convinced that the key to social change is to talk to people instead of at them. “I think so much of winning these campaigns is understanding where people are already,” he says. “Because that’s where you have to meet them — and if you don’t meet them where they are, then you’re standing in a different room wondering why they’re not there.”
We can talk about rights all we want, but it’s human stories that people understand.
Although Brady’s Australian mission was accomplished last November, he did not return to Dublin until the summer. In Sydney, he had a one-bedroom apartment with a balcony in the trendy district of Darlinghurst. “If you wanted to have anything that resembled a garden you’d have to be so far outside the town or else a multimillionaire,” he says. He is glad to have returned to his house in Dublin, a 1930s former council property in Kilmainham, minutes from the city center. Down the road is the prison where the leaders of the 1916 Easter Rising against British rule were executed. Also nearby are the memorial gardens commemorating thousands of Irishmen killed in World War I.
Moving into the house nine years ago, Brady was delighted to find potatoes growing in the garden. He points proudly to an expanse of gooseberry bushes, blackberries, red currants, chives, mint and rocket. “It was the garden I bought it for,” he says.
The kitchen, extended after he moved in, is the main living space. By the door is a stove heater but Brady hardly ever fires it up. He expects it might be used more when his partner, Wieyin Shen, arrives next year from Sydney. Shen, who works for a business research firm, grew up in the Chinese city of Suzhou. “He’s been here, he loves the people, loves the atmosphere,” says Brady. Still, there may be a “trade-off” for his partner with Ireland’s notoriously damp climate.
On the wall hangs a copy, in Chinese, of the proclamation of Irish independence. It was around Brady’s kitchen table that he spoke with Leo Varadkar before Ireland’s premier, then a minister, declared publicly that he was gay in 2015. “It’s easy to think about it now,” Brady says. “It was a real jump into the dark.… He came over and we talked and plotted and schemed about how he’d do that.”
By the front door, a wall-mounted phone is a reminder of the years Brady spent as a country shopkeeper. He salvaged the black dial-up phone from his gift store and newsagent in the seaside town of Bundoran, where he grew up on the rugged northwestern coast of Donegal. “There’s an interesting thing about tourist towns,” he says. “It’s not that you become more cosmopolitan. I think it’s that you become more aware of people who are different because they flow through your town all the time.”
His time behind the counter was unplanned. Having gone to university in Dublin, he returned home to recuperate after treatment for leukemia. He was made mayor of Bundoran at 25 — and held the post for three years — with Fianna Fáil, the party that dominated Irish politics before the crash of 2008, and was director of elections for the Donegal politician who was once Ireland’s deputy premier.
Later, Brady became involved with the Gay and Lesbian Equality Network in Dublin. The group was campaigning for civil partnership rights for gay couples, an initiative followed by Ireland’s 2015 marriage referendum. This led to an invitation to Sydney. “I didn’t think twice about it,” he says. “You couldn’t be sitting at home a year afterward with your feet on the table watching the result going, ‘I said no to that.…’ I moved to Australia with two suitcases — and moved back with two suitcases.”
Soon he will be on the road again, traveling to Rome for next month’s synod. As head of the Equal Future 2018 campaign, Brady is marshaling LGBT groups from more than 60 countries to contact the bishops and other participants, guided by the principles he deployed in the Irish and Australian votes. “I think one of the things we’ve found in all these campaigns is we can talk about rights all we want, but it’s human stories that people understand and that appeal to people’s humanity,” he says.
“The idea is your story is the most powerful thing you can tell the delegates to this synod, and if you go to the campaign [website] you can log on, type in whatever country you’re from and can send a message directly to them about you and about what your experiences have been,” he explains.
Brady sees this event as a once-in-a-generation opportunity to influence church teaching. But the question of gay rights remains contentious in the Catholic world. The Vatican is riven by conflict between the liberalizing Pope Francis and conservative clerics opposed to his progressive agenda. When the pope visited Ireland last month, LGBT groups were excluded from a church congress on families. Moreover, pictures of same-sex-headed families were expunged from congress brochure.
None of this seems to bode well for Brady’s campaign. Yet he sees it differently. “Suddenly everybody focused on the fact [that the pictures] were removed. What I thought was interesting was someone put them in. Someone in the Vatican put those pictures in. So there’s something going on there.
“You can’t be a church that campaigns against the sons and daughters of the men and women who are in your pews, because they won’t understand it,” he says. “I think the church just hasn’t caught up with them — and it’s going to have to.”
He is also quick to note that Pope Francis has urged parents of gay children not to condemn them. On his return flight to Rome from Dublin, the pontiff said such parents should talk to their children and seek to understand.
“So he’s acknowledging the damage,” says Brady. “That’s a big step. Now, what do you want to do about it?”
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