Born in 1944 in Léopoldville (now Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo), Senator David Norris is arguably the face of civil rights movements in Ireland. Norris was the first openly gay person elected to the Irish Senate, but the path he walked throughout his life was arduous. For years, Norris campaigned in favour of legal reforms which would decriminalise homosexuality and grant equal rights to members of the LGBTQ+ community in Ireland. His fight was taken to one of Europe’s highest courts where justice was finally served. The fight has certainly been rewarding but alas, it is not over yet.
Who is David Norris?
David Norris grew up in Dublin where he lived with his mother. He studied English Literature at Trinity College, where he was elected a Scholar. Norris got involved in politics while in university, at a time where the Troubles were tearing through Northern Ireland. He joined a group which called for greater civil rights in the North, but to his disappointment, neglected the inequalities present in the Irish Republic. Openly homosexual, Norris created various pro-homosexual rights groups through which he advocated for legal reform and political support for these reforms.
Civil rights: the fight at home
Homosexuality had been criminalised in Ireland under British rule, after centuries of being considered a sin by the Church. Outraged by the fact that he could be prosecuted for the simple reason of liking men, Norris became engaged in a civil rights movement to decriminalise homosexuality and ultimately, obtain civil equality for members of the LGBTQ+ community.
In 1977, the first legal case was initiated. Although the judge had accepted the evidence presented by David Norris and his team that homosexuality was not a threat, the High Court ruled against Norris due to the “Christian nature” of the Irish Constitution.
Norris then tried to take the case to the Supreme Court, but was met with the same ruling. However, this civil rights action did not stop at the Supreme Court.
David Norris versus Ireland in Strasbourg
Norris litigated against Ireland at the European level in order to have his rights recognised by taking his case to one of Europe’s highest courts. In 1988, the European Courts of Human Rights ruled by one vote that the criminalisation of homosexuality was unjustified and formed an assault on Norris’ right to privacy. It thus had to be removed from Irish law. The law was changed in 1993 to allow for same-sex relations to legally take place.
David Norris’ civil rights activism undoubtedly left its mark on Ireland. Just in 2015, a nation-wide referendum was held in order to change the Constitution to allow same-sex marriage, civil partnerships and adoptions. Norris has since the decriminalisation of homosexuality enlarged his mission to further universal rights and fight all sorts of discimination. He also admitted that he wished for people to not solely remember him for his activism, but to also remember him for his Joycean scholarship and his academic career. In 1979, he opened the Hirschfeld Centre in Temple Bar as a Community Centre and discotheque for LGBTQ+ individuals and others.
However, as David Norris himself states, the work is not over. Many people still face discrimination across the world because of their sexuality, gender, or simply for their ideas. Nevertheless, Norris has often expressed how happy he is that young people are able to express their love publicly without guilt, shame, or fear of the law.
Homosexuality in Ireland today
Homosexuals have the same rights as any other Irish citizens, but just like the global fight against discrimination is not over, certain norms and practices which should have been long gone are still present even in Ireland. Conversion therapies, for example, are yet to be banned. These therapies offer “cures” to homosexuals or other LGBTQ+ groups, often through gruesome and traumatising methods. Otherwise, apart from certain members of the clergy, the Irish attitude towards homosexuality is often positive. One 2006 study even found that Ireland ranked very high in the EU regarding positivity towards LGBTQ+.
Nevertheless, injustices, hatred and discrimination still exist, whether in Europe or worldwide. The success of David Norris in Ireland, a traditionally very conservative society, should be regarded as an example and an inspiration. Even if they are small, victories are constantly being made and hopefully someday, all will be able to love and live with no constraints or fear.