Gay rights and reform in Ireland: A personal history

Senator David Norris

Posted: 10 May, 2017

Senator David Norris has been a member of Seanad Éireann since 1987 and was the first openly gay person to be elected to public office in Ireland. A Joycean scholar and former Senior Lecturer of English at Trinity College, Dublin, he was a founder of the Campaign for Homosexual Law Reform in the early 1970s. To launch our theme for the month of May, “Pride in our Research,”Senator Norris has shared his own experience of the fight for legal reform to establish and project gay rights in Ireland. Note that this fascinating piece is a little longer than our usual posts. 

I had the unusual experience of having made the transition from being a criminal as a result of being gay to the situation in Ireland where I could now marry another man (if I could find one)! I spent so much time pushing the boat out that I forgot to jump on myself and the next thing I saw was the boat rounding the harbour and little figures waving back to me standing alone on the beach.

History of criminalisation of homosexuality

Homosexuality was actually provided for under the ancient Irish Brehon Laws. Criminalisation was only achieved in the early 16th century when Henry the VIII grabbed the monasteries and coincidentally took over control of the church courts.

Until then homosexual behaviour had been a sin but not a crime. For technical reasons this did not extend to Ireland, and a Church of Ireland Bishop of Waterford, John Atherton, spotted this gap.

For his own political ends, Atherton decided to mount a kind of pre-Ian Paisley Save Ireland from Sodomy Campaign. In this he was successful and, in the early to mid-17th century, the legislation was extended to Ireland. However, unhappily for Bishop Atherton, he was gay himself and was the first person arrested under his own law, tried, convicted and hanged by the neck until dead.

In 1969, nearly 50 years ago, I spotted a notice on the back page of the Observer Newspaper. It said Homosexual? Curious? Send Stamped Addressed Envelope and a Postal Order for Ten Shillings to 28A Kennedy Street, Manchester. That was my first tentative step into the world of gay politics.

Then in 1970 I was a founding member of the Southern Ireland Civil Rights Association. This was founded in order to provide solidarity with Nationalists and Roman Catholics in the North of Ireland.

The first meeting was very smug and self-congratulatory, stating there was no discrimination in the Republic. This annoyed me.  Furthermore, I spotted a very handsome young Dutch man on the other side of the room. I decided to hoist a flag and let him know that I was gay, so I stood up and attacked the platform party having a good argument and finally convincing them to include reform of the law as part of the platform. I did get to meet the young Dutch man, he was a devout Roman Catholic and totally heterosexual, but I am still friendly with him today.

Political movements for change

In 1973, there was a meeting of Student Counsellors and this led to a meeting in Trinity, the subject of which was homosexuality. From this, the Union for Sexual Freedoms in Ireland and the Sexual Liberation Movement were started.

The Sexual Liberation Movement consisted of 11 people, 10 of them gay and one of them a question mark. We spent our whole time writing letters to The Irish Times looking for contraceptives which, in the pre-Aids days, was complete nonsense for a collection of gay men.

I led the first of many splits saying that we were Irish, we were gay, we were looking for our rights and we were a political movement. This led to the formation of the Irish Gay Rights Movement. This again split over the question of my emphasis on law reform and human rights legislation, and those who just wanted the social scene.

I then started the Campaign for Homosexual Law Reform which, among other things, continued with the legal action that we had taken. All we had was a half a drawer in a filing cabinet in my office in Trinity and headed notepaper.

I persuaded friends like playwright Hugh Leonard, Dean Victor Griffin of St. Patrick’s Cathedral and Noel Browne, former Minister for Health, to lend their names as patrons. The result of our notepaper was instantaneous and wonderful. We were denounced by fundamentalist Catholic groups as an international conspiracy funded by Jewish money from New York.

Legal case

In the law case, we got opinion first from Donal Barrington who said we were right but we had a difficult path. He then became a judge and had to leave the case. We introduced Paul Carney Senior Counsel, Mary Robinson Junior Counsel and Garret Cooney S.C.

In one odd moment, I was questioned about the history of anti-gay prejudice, with the barrister for the Government pointing out that the Emperor Justinian had passed laws against homosexual behaviour among men. To this I answered that the Emperor Justinian was perfectly justified but one had to take into account the question of historicity. Justinian had been advised by his soothsayers that there was a direct casual relationship between acts of buggery and earthquakes but our understanding of climatology had significantly increased since then. The headline in the newspaper the next day was ‘No earthquakes in Ireland says Norris’.

My contribution to the case was the insistence on the introduction and selection of international witnesses in order to blow away the veils of silence that had covered the question of homosexuality for hundreds of years.

The judge gave a ruling which accepted our evidence. It was almost like a manifesto of gay rights until he came to the last paragraph where he said, nevertheless, because of the Christian and democratic nature of the Constitution he had to find against us.

It was appealed in the Supreme Court, where there was an extremely bad and legally faulty judgement by the Chief Justice, supported by two other cowardly judges who signed their names to the Chief Justice’s decision without comment. There were, however, two very good dissenting judgements.

We won eventually in Strasbourg by one vote, the Irish judge voting against us.

There was then a hiatus of five years, as Albert Reynolds did not regard it as a priority. However, this was fortunate in that, by the time it came around, Maire Geoghegan Quinn was Minister and, as a woman, she was less subject to taunts from her male colleagues and had also spoken to Phil Moore, a political activist who had a gay son. She gave the golden rule judgement when, in reply to nasty and discriminatory amendments, she said that as a Minister in an Irish Government she would need clear, cogent and factual reasons to introduce a measure of discrimination, and as none had been produced she would not accept the amendment.

The Hirschfeld Centre

By that stage I had been elected to the Senate and was the first ever publicly elected representative to be openly gay. Meantime the Irish Gay Rights Movement had collapsed due to inefficiency and amateurishness and I was appealed to to get another discotheque going. This led to the foundation of the Hirschfeld Centre in Fownes Street, which was responsible for the revival of the Temple Bar area.

Our discotheque was not entirely popular however, and on one occasion I was working in the office upstairs when there were sparks on the roof. I went up and found a large bomb on the roof and the roof blazing with petrol. I managed to get the bomb out but some six or seven years later the premises were destroyed by fire.

As a key holder, I received a call at 2.30 in the morning and came down to the Centre. When I ascertained that nobody had been injured, the insurance was in place and the archive was safe, I relaxed.

Somebody from the disco came to me and asked how I could possibly stand there with a smile on my face and our lovely disco burning. To this, I re-joined that I could only direct his attention to the example of the late and great Dr. Samuel Johnson who, when his house in London went on fire, got his man servant to put a table, a chair, a bottle of port and a glass out in the street. Boswell happened along and reprimanded Johnson who replied: “Why Sir, can a man not warm his hands at his own fire?”

As a subscriber to the Advocate newspaper in America, I noticed a constellation of diseases occurring among gay men. This was first of all described as gay-related immune deficiency syndrome, subsequently Aids. I brought two doctors over from San Francisco and authorised the publication of 250,000 leaflets on safe sex and sexual hygiene.

I sent a copy of this with a letter to the Minister for Health Barry Desmond pointing out that what I was doing was illegal under the Indecent Advertisement Act. I got a letter back saying: well done, congratulations, I am glad somebody is doing something.

Recognition of same-sex relationships

The political agenda included moves towards the recognition of relationships.

In the 1970s, I had been attacked by a woman who said “I know you and the homosexual agenda, you won’t be satisfied with law reform, the next thing you will be after is homosexual marriage.” I replied, “Thank you so much Madam, what an excellent idea. If you have any further suggestions do let me know”.

I introduced the first Civil Partnership Bill in Ireland in 2004. Although it didn’t go anywhere, we got a good debate and it did encourage the Government to introduce Civil Partnership legislation. There were 169 differences between marriage and this new arrangement and I denounced it as a dog licence. I strongly believe that it is the responsibility of an independent human rights campaigner to hold the Government to the gold standard rather than sucking up to them for any little relaxation.

With regard to marriage equality and the referendum, a great deal of credit must go to Brian Sheehan and Grainne Healy. Also, one must remember that none of this would have been possible without the intervention of Eamon Gilmore, the leader of the Labour Party.

There are a few anomalies to be cleared up, such as a certain discrimination with regard to pensions, but we have come a long way.

The last Dublin Gay Pride March involved about 75,000 people. The first Gay Pride March in which I took part in 1974 had 7 or 8. I had a poster for our picket of the Department of Justice which read, ‘Homosexuals are Revolting’. The 46A bus nearly went into the railings of Stephen’s Green when the driver saw the placard.

And the reward for the fifty years of activism? The great joy is to see young people happy. In the last week, I was struck by two handsome, confident young men walking across O’Connell Bridge hand in hand. Seeing young people happy together without the guilt and shame that my generation suffered is the reward.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in our guest blogs are the author’s own, and do not reflect the opinions of the Irish Research Council or any employee thereof.

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