Gay rights campaign breaches many barriers, but battle is far from over

NEXT Monday the National Lesbian and Gay Federation of Ireland will formally donate the Irish Queer Archive to the National Library.

An archive that documents the struggle to achieve recognition, equality and protection for gay men and women over the past 40 years, its donation coincides with the 25th anniversary of the Supreme Court’s rejection of the challenge by David Norris to the laws criminalising male homosexual activity, and the killing of Declan Flynn in Dublin’s Fairview Park, as a result of a ‘queer-bashing’ in 1983.

A collection that includes in the region of quarter of a million press clippings, it is a reminder of a minority’s determination to challenge the harsh climate that existed for those who sought to live fulfilled lives as gay men and women, and the legal and social obstacles they faced.

When Nell McCafferty was covering court cases as a journalist in 1975, she wrote about two men brought to trial after a sexual encounter in a public toilet. What was striking was the manner in which the men were “pathologised, represented as immature, recommended for medical treatment and publicly humiliated”.

A priest referred one of the defendants to a psychiatrist; the other was deemed to be suffering from depression. They were bound to the peace for a year, the judge commenting “it’s a completely unnatural performance”.

David Norris also recalled that during the 1970s there were a “considerable number” of cases of men arrested in compromising positions and the “humiliation” that followed even when they were acquitted. In particular, he cites one case in which a young man in the Dublin District Court was forced to recount the sex act he had performed with another man in the Phoenix Park.

“The judge amused himself by making comic remarks… to the huge enjoyment of those in the body of the court and to the understandable human distress of the accused,” said Norris.

He vividly remembers district court cases where men were fined, given suspended sentences or ordered to see a psychiatrist, at which he would turn up as a character witness.

“I would be wearing a three-piece suit, a Trinity tie, a brief case, look terribly respectable and give character evidence. The gardaí were used to people coming in a state of collapse, saying ‘I’m guilty, I’m terribly sorry, please don’t’. When we started defending, and we had a string of successes, they realised it was not worth their while.”

The legal challenge taken by Norris to the 1861 law criminalising homosexual acts is central to the story of the Irish gay rights movement. Although the Supreme Court’s dismissal of his challenge is well known, the dissenting judgments have not received the same attention.

They included the observations of Seamus Henchy who condemned the “shame, ridicule and harassment” homosexual men were subjected to and the “insidiously intrusive and wounding ways he [Norris] has been restricted” from engaging in activities heterosexuals take for granted as an “involuntary, chronic and irreversible male homosexual”.

Henchy then made the idiotic observation that Norris’s “subsequent public espousal of the cause of male homosexuals in this State may be thought to be tinged with a degree of that affected braggadocio which is said by some to distinguish a gay from a mere homosexual”.

In 2006, in an address to the Burren Law Summer School, Colm Tóibín commented acidly: “But we must not blame Mr Justice Henchy. Such remarks belong congenitally to judges, being also involuntary, chronic and irreversible, especially when their lordships are in the dissenting position.”

In the same year as the Supreme Court rejected Norris’s case, Declan Flynn was murdered in Fairview park in Dublin by young men who had grown up playing in the same park.

Journalist Maggie O’Kane subsequently talked to the killers: “The night they killed Declan Flynn the girls had gone home. The girls always went home when they went queer-bashing or bashing people they thought were queer. Sometimes it didn’t really matter if they were or not, but it was better if they were because queers used to molest young kids and stuff like that in the park… one of the lads thought it would be a good way of getting a few bob — robbing a few queers… Steamers, they called them.”

The teenagers who killed him — blood pumped out of his mouth as they attacked him just 10 yards from the gate he sought to escape through — were expecting to get in the region of seven years in prison. They got five-year suspended sentences.

One of the 16-year-old peers of the killers thought “they went too far” with Flynn, “but he’s not against bashing queers. But that’s pervert queers, not ordinary gay people who go to their friends’ houses, but perverts, fellas that molest little boys, are different… a pervert is a person who has a mental disorder and you can’t fix mental disorders, you have to do something physical to them”.

Those convicted held a “victory march” in Fairview Park. Equally disturbing, a news story contained in the Irish Queer Archive recounts the experiences of a man who went to a garda station complaining about queer-bashing months before the Flynn killing and “he was jeered and laughed out of the station”.

Lest these stories be deemed reminders of an Ireland long buried, it is worth noting that in April 2007, it was reported that research conducted in 24 western countries between 1999 and 2002 suggested Ireland was one of the most homophobic countries in the western world, with almost one-third of people in this State having problems with the idea of living next to gay neighbours (only Northern Ireland and Greece were found to be more homophobic). Of course there are greater legal protections now in existence, but violence against gay men has not been eradicated. Only last week, further evidence of an ingrained homophobia was all too apparent.

IN MAYO, the editor of the local freesheet in Castlebar, The Mayo Echo, claimed that Larragh Park, on the periphery of the town, is a spot for gay men to cruise for sex in the middle of the day. He referred to “drooling perverts” and, most shamefully, sought to link gay men with paedophilia: “These perverts are engaging in this activity whilst overlooking children playing in the nearby playground.”

Locals have dismissed this out of hand and no complaints have been made to gardaí about this alleged activity.

Meanwhile, DUP Assembly member, MP and chair of the Stormont health committee, Iris Robinson, informed a radio audience in Northern Ireland that homosexuals could be “turned around” with psychiatric help.

She condemned attacks on gay people, but defended her right to her view that homosexual activity is an abomination. She believes homosexuals could become heterosexual with professional counselling.

“I have a very lovely psychiatrist who works with me in my offices and his Christian background is that he tries to help homosexuals — trying to turn them away from what they are engaged in,” she said.

I wonder would it be possible for DUP members to be “turned around” to a position of tolerance and respect for others if they received psychiatric help?

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