Former president Mary Robinson said the reluctance of some LGBT leaders to be photographed at Áras an Uachtaráin, when she signed the bill decriminalising homosexuality in 1993, showed her how frightening it was to be gay in Ireland.
In a new documentary, A Different Country, on RTÉ tomorrow, she recalls how she was proud to sign the bill into law on July 7, 1993.
But she was surprised when activists from Glen, the Gay and Lesbian Equality Network, who were invited to Áras an Uachtaráin to celebrate the new bill, told her they were still not fully out to family and work colleagues.
“I said, ‘Don’t you want to have a photograph?’ They said ‘No, no, I’m not out to my grandmother’. ‘No, my people at work don’t know’.”
Mrs Robinson said their reluctance to be photographed demonstrated to her the huge stigma surrounding homosexuality in Ireland at that time.
“These were the leaders, this was Glen. These were the ones who had been out to somebody and had been brave. I had a photograph with less than half the group, who were willing to be there visibly beside the President of Ireland.
“It again brought home to me the amount of stigma and fear and hurt and misunderstanding, just the trauma involved in this, and how important it was to continue to make sure we could, ultimately, end up with total equality before the law, which we now have.
“We are a better country, now, for what has happened,” Mrs Robinson said.
The documentary catalogues the time when openly expressing sexuality could result in job loss, ostracisation, physical attack, and estrangement from family.
Irish actor, Rory Cowan, is a household name as the gay son of Brendan O’Carroll’s TV mammy in the hit show, Mrs Brown’s Boys. He remembered a dark undercurrent to gay life in Dublin, in the 1980s, when it was still a crime to be gay.
“I remember in the Parliament, (a pub), the police used to come in at half-eleven two or three times a week and take everybody’s name. They would ask your name, your address, your phone number.
“They weren’t harassing people or dragging people out, but there was an undercurrent that we are being targeted here.
“If a gay person was attacked, they were ringing people’s houses and some people were terrified of their parents finding out.”
But despite growing up when homosexuality was an offence, Mr Cowan said he never hid his sexuality.
The feature-length documentary chronicles the stories of people who were gay in Ireland when it was a crime to be so, prior to 1993.
It also delves into the fear and stigma around HIV and Aids in the 1980s, highlighting how some funeral directors refused the dead bodies of people who had Aids.
In the documentary, LGBT people reveal the true story of how the community first mobilised to change the laws around homosexuality.
This revolution culminated in watershed changes in law and momentous scenes at Dublin Castle, when Ireland introduced same-sex marriage.
A Different Country will be shown on RTÉ One tomorrow at 9.35pm
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