Ireland’s progress on gay rights offers hope

A BILL that stigmatises gay people and bans giving children any information about homosexuality won overwhelming approval last week in Russia’s lower house of parliament.

Ireland’s progress on gay rights offers hope

Hours before the State Duma passed the Kremlin-backed law in a 436-0 vote with one abstention, more than two dozen protesters were attacked by hundreds of anti-gay activists and then detained by police.

The bill banning the “propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations” still needs to be passed by the appointed upper house and signed into law by President Vladimir Putin, but that is very likely now.

When Paula Rwomushana, an 18-year-old lesbian in Uganda, took her own life in 2003 after being flogged at her school assembly, many people in her country celebrated. Callers to the radio stations and letters to the newspapers all expressed delight that the country was one lesbian less. Women’s organisations failed to talk about it. The government failed to talk about it. So Kasha Jaqueline, founder of an LGBT rights group, Freedom & Roam Uganda (FARUG), decided she would talk about it.

“I have been a lesbian my entire life,” says Jaqueline. “I didn’t know it was illegal until I went to college. The registrar warned all the new students that they would be expelled if they were found consorting with me. But this just let others know that they weren’t alone.”

They used to hang out at a local bar smoking, drinking and talking about women. But when the bar’s location was revealed in a newspaper, men would gather outside, waiting to ‘curatively’ rape or to beat them.

“We knew we needed to make the world outside as safe for us as it was inside the bar,” says Jaqueline. FARUG was formed.

Six months later, when Rwomushana took her lethal overdose, they went public, appearing on TV for the first time, calling on the government to make the school culpable. Nothing happened. Two years after that, when a principal flogged another girl to death, they were met with the same apathy.

And what Uganda is going through today, is being replicated, unfortunately, in so many countries around the world.

Of course, it’s only 20 years since we decriminalised homosexuality in this country. Just over a decade earlier, in 1982, Declan Flynn, a 31-year-old Aer Rianta worker, was beaten to death in Fairview Park, Dublin. Tonie Walsh, a gay rights campaigner, remembers: “The kids — aged 14-18, said they were up there to ‘clear the park of steamers and benders and queers’. And they were doing it with the full support of society.”

Justice Sean Gannon’s decision to let all five teenagers off with suspended sentences for manslaughter, gave validity to that belief.

In the wake of another killing, that of Charles Self, a gay RTÉ employee who was stabbed to death in his own home, the gardaí rounded up a number of gay men. Coming into their homes and workplaces, outing them to their employers and families, they grilled them — not on the crime, but on their sex lives. The case was never solved.

After Corkman Michael O’Connor stabbed John Roche to death with a 6” blade at the Munster Hotel on Coburg Street in 1982, shouting, “Your gay days are over”, he was given a five-year prison term for manslaughter. Justice McMahon opined, “Provocation did not justify murder, but excused it to a limited extent”.

In Uganda, the powerful pastors whose influence over politicians has lead to the tabling of a ‘Kill the Gays’ bill, best display such ignorance. Martin Ssempa, a special representative of the Ugandan first lady Janet Museveni to her Task Force on Aids, shows gay porn in his church and has appeared on television using fruit to demonstrate how they have sex. His belief that homosexuals are out to recruit children has incited much violence.

In 2010, a Ugandan tabloid published the names and addresses of ‘Top Homos’, calling for them to be hanged. “I have been attacked 20 times over my sexuality,” Jacqueline says. “A colleague of mine has been raped 32 times. It happens on a daily basis.” People have had their houses stoned, have been attacked on the street by their neighbours and have been evicted by their landlords.

In Uganda, the Evangelical Christian churches drive a lot of the anti-gay campaigns. They helped put an infrastructure in place, building schools and hospitals, sewing back together the fabric of societies that had been ripped apart by civil wars. But they have laced the thread with hate.

However, when you look at the Irish situation, there may be hope for gay Ugandans. “Some of the more notorious periods of bashing coincided with increased visibility by LGBT people,” says Tonie Walsh. “I wonder if it isn’t an unreconstructed bigoted elect taking its last gasp.”

The Flynn/Self murders propelled the Irish gay rights movement into a decade-long fight to decriminalise homosexuality.

“I’m convinced,” says Walsh, “that lifting that cloud of criminality gave mainstream Irish society a licence to engage with our needs, desires and aspirations. You see that explosion of creativity and business on the rainbow scene from 1993 onwards which fed into the development of the Celtic Tiger.”

For Jaqueline, there are no regrets. “It has become a national debate. They used to say there were no homosexuals in Uganda. Now they talk about us in the taxis, in the arcades.”

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