As we enter the final stretch of a decade of centenaries, Caomhan Keane wonders why there isn’t a specific day set aside to remember the travails of the LGBT community
LGBT History Month is an annual observance of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender history. In the United States, it is celebrated in October to coincide with National Coming Out Day. In the United Kingdom, it is observed during February, to mark the 2003 abolition of Section 28.
Other progressive countries mark it with shorter celebrations. In Ireland… we don’t celebrate it at all.
May 23, the date we became the first country in the world to legalise marriage equality by popular vote, has been mooted as a possible date to honour gays gone by.
“Later this year we will mark the 25th anniversary of the decriminalisation of same-sex relationships,” says Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, the first openly gay leader of the State. “I’m looking forward to marking the occasion.”
Should June 24, then, become a fixed point in our calendar year to remember how far we have come?
But, having had their day at the ballot box, many wonder why LGBT people need such a day in the first place. “I think that this argument has been trotted out by many people in an attempt to forget about the past, and perhaps to forget about the injustices that were perpetrated against our LGBT citizens,” says Micheál Martin, leader of Fianna Fáil.
Historian Diarmaid Ferriter says: “It doesn’t stack up for me. To understand and appreciate the significance of what’s happened in Ireland in recent years, and what needs to be done to tackle the homophobia still embedded in our society, there needs to be a recognition of how it evolved and thrived in the first place.”
By excavating the lives of men and women who were persecuted, prosecuted and, in certain cases subjugated to barbaric medical practices, we can use that information to resist attempts to revisit prejudice in the future.
“We have a tendency to assume that the enlightened legislation or progressive politics of the day will ever be,” says Labour senator Aodhán Ó Ríordáin, “but just look at what’s happening in Russia, or Chechnya or the United States. It doesn’t mean someone can’t come along and row them back in a couple of years.”
LGBT history helps us contextualise the inequality others still face.
“There is an absolute correlation between the discriminations faced by LGBT people and those faced by the Travelling or African-Irish communities. The tactics and language used, the legislation that was put in place, looking at how that was fought and overcome will prepare young activists for whatever battles they find themselves in.”
It is only by remembering and highlighting these injustices that we can bring them to an end.
“Recognising that leading figures in every aspect of life were LGBT is not only accurately recording our past, but it gives future generations figures to honour as role models and heroes,” says Katherine Zappone, the minister for children and state affairs.
“By remembering the past we remember members of our community who were subjected to abuse, hate and even death, something which continues in many parts of our world.”
But the violence of silence means that celebrating the extraordinary national and international contributions made by Ireland’s LGBT community is easier said than done. Living under a cloud of fear, most couldn’t be open about who they were.
“I personally believe there should be a general apology to gays of my vintage, who lost our entire young manhood,” says Senator David Norris, founder of the Campaign for Homosexual Law Reform, for many years, referred to as the “only gay in Ireland”. “We never had the opportunity to experience romance. It was stolen from us.”
Even in death, they were robbed of their identities. “Personal papers were all destroyed by families,” says Marie Mulholland, author of The Politics and Relationships of Kathleen Lynne. “Diaries and letters reflecting how lesbian and gay people lived in the past… a hidden treasure trove, lost forever.
“But there are criteria you can apply,” she says about retrospectively releasing people from their closets.
An official LGBT history month will also allow us to unstitch, or at least question, the official LGBT narrative.
“We need to remind ourselves that — as important as David Norris’ campaigns for legislative proposals were — the stories of individuals busy living, in small towns around Ireland are equally important,” says Tonie Walsh, founder of the Queer Archive.
“The Irish queer Diasporas must be remembered,” says Mulholland. “The impact society had on them and how they were impacted by the places they moved to, must be investigated.
“And the role of lesbians which has been suppressed and underrepresented. Lesbians are there for every cause, every struggle. Yet when it comes to our turn, you look behind you and there is nobody there.”
Walsh has long argued for the need for an official Aids memorial.
“I would like to shame the government for their willful neglect. But we also need to acknowledge how people survived and give a voice, not only to those bright faces who died miserable shabby deaths, but those who looked after them.”
For Norris, a proper investigation into the rate of prosecutions under criminal law is crucial.
“I remember representing them down in the district court, respectable professional men, caught with their trousers down in the Phoenix Park or in a public lavatory. I witnessed judges making outrageous, degrading comments in order to get a laugh in the court. We need to look at how they were tried, what sentences were handed out and find out what happened to these people.”
Varadkar says: “I’d be very interested in going right back in Irish history. The references to same-sex relationships in Irish mythology are fascinating.”
It’s important, also, to look at the impact of marriage equality on the community, good and bad.
“There were strategic reasons for the way gay people’s desire and intimacy were whitewashed,” says Walsh. “But we need to assuage ourselves of that practice now that marriage equality has been achieved. We should not ignore the fact that not everyone fits the hetronormative equation, nor do they desire to.”
Micheál Martin believes the LGBT community should be the ones taking the lead in deciding how best to commemorate the shared experiences of their community, a view shared by filmmaker Edmund Lynch (A Different Country), who has expressed displeasure that, 10 years after being donated to the National Library, nothing has been done with the Irish Queer Archive.
“Having been closely preserved within the LGBT community, saved from fire, dampness and other problems, only a fraction of the material has been catalogued and is accessible to the public. Most of this collection remains off-site, unfilled, inaccessible to anyone.
“It’s important to know whose shoulders we are standing on,” concludes Mulholland, “Who created your democracy, who sacrificed and struggled to make the social change we all enjoy? Nothing was ever given in terms of rights. Who are the people who made it possible for us to enjoy the freedom we enjoy today.”
Jeff Dudgeon, a civil servant who beat the Northern Irish administration in the EU Court of Human Rights in the early 1980s has never really gotten his due for unlocking the door that Norris pushed open. According to Ferriter, “we owe him a massive debt, for facing down Paisley and his campaign to save Ulster from sodomy. He fought to have legislation that decriminalised homosexuality in the rest of the UK introduced in Northern Ireland.”
Norris believes a dedicated LGBT history month would allow names like Seán Connelly, the first general secretary of the Irish Gay Rights Movement, and Bernard Keogh, secretary of the Campaign for Homosexual Law Reform, to be widely validated for the work they did in the background on behalf of the community.
While Katherine Zappone was the first openly gay woman to be elected to the Dáil, Liz Noonan was the first openly gay person to run for a seat in three consecutive elections in the early 1980s for Dublin South East. The first lesbian to be elected was Kathleen Lynn, in 1923, but due to Sinn Féin’s abstentionist policy, she never took her seat.
Micheál Mac Liammóir and his partner Hilton Edwards founded the Gate Theatre at a crucial juncture in Ireland’s
literary and cultural development. “MacLiammóir embraced Ireland, its language and its culture, with the same passion and intensity as he embraced his homosexuality,” says Martin. How did their personal and professional lives thrive in Catholic Ireland?
“Roger Casement’s homosexuality was used to kill him and has never been seen as anything other than dark, sinister and suspect,” says Colm O’Gorman, executive director of Amnesty International Ireland. “What role did it play in his evolution as a thinker, as a Republican, someone who wanted to see an independent and free Ireland?”