History of LGBTQ+ rights in Ireland
June is Pride Month in many countries around the world. It started in the US to commemorate the 1969 Stonewall Riots, but has since grown to signify much more to the LGBTQ+ community. In Dublin, the first pride parade was held in 1983 and has grown to become one of the largest and most popular events alongside the St. Patrick’s Day parade. This year, there are over 100 events held throughout the month which will culminate in a virtual pride parade on the 26th of June. What is the history of LGBTQ+ rights in Ireland? Why is the parade still going on to this day?
Up until 1993, being a homosexual was a criminal offence in Ireland. This comes to show that the history of LGBT rights in Ireland is, in fact, very recent. But, before discussing the relatively recent struggle which led to the decriminalisation, there are other historical events worth noting. When reflecting on history, historians have noted that a significant number of prominent actors were, in fact, members of what is known today as the LGBTQ + community – Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, and the “+” alluding to the other sexualities not directly referred to in this umbrella term. Some of the most famous examples which come to mind are Alan Turing, Andy Warhol, and even Alexander the Great. But, within Irish history, there are also some important figures who have been proven or speculated to be LGBTQ+ members.
Irish historical figures who were LGBT
Many examples of gender variance exist in cultures worldwide since ancient times. Although he was not the first, Patrick McCormack, thought to be born around 1821, is the first Irish transgender man that we have on record. He lived for over 30 years in Castleknock, Dublin, surviving the famine and working as a labourer. However, it was only post-mortem, in April 1871, that it was discovered he was born a woman. Unfortunately, more was never uncovered about his story.
Oscar Wilde, a famous Irish author, poet, and playwright from the late 19th century was also the subject of one of the first “celebrity” trials in 1895 for his homosexuality. He was sentenced to two years of prison and hard labour for gross indecency.
The trial originated from his relationship with Lord Alfred Douglas, whose father, the 9th Marquess of Queensberry, suspected the sexual nature of their relationship and left his calling card at Wilde’s club, inscribed: “For Oscar Wilde, posing somdomite”[sic]. Wilde accused him of criminal libel, but eventually dropped the case as the evidence against him was significant.
The trial against Queensberry left Wilde bankrupt. Not long after, he was arrested on charges of sodomy and gross indecency, and was finally convicted for the latter. After his release, he exiled himself to France, living his final days out alone and spending what little money he had on alcohol.
Sir Roger Casement was a diplomat and Irish nationalist. He was a well-respected humanitarian activist for his work in the Congo and Peru in the late 19th century. He was even knighted in 1911 for his investigations of human rights abuses in Peru.=
However, in 1916, Casement would become a leader of the Easter Rising, an armed insurrection launched by Irish republicans with the aim of establishing an independent Ireland. In the aftermath, he was arrested on charges of high treason, and eventually convicted and executed.
It is around the time of his trial that the “Black Diaries” started circulating. These were said to be Casement’s private journals, in which he detailed his sexual relationships with men. It is commonly believed that public opinion turned against him due to his uncovered homosexuality.
Laws criminalising homosexuality in Ireland
The Irish experience is, generally speaking, not a unique one. The Catholic Church has, for centuries, preoccupied itself with punishing homosexuality, which they have found to be a sin. In the UK, it was not until around the 16th century that it transitioned from sin to crime and became absorbed by common law. As Ireland was, during this time, occupied, the laws introduced in England were enacted accordingly in Ireland.
After Ireland gained its independence, after World War I, it essentially kept the old laws in place and the Church would continue to play a large role in influencing Irish political attitudes. In 1937, the constitution opened the way to potential legal challenges on the grounds of cherishing all children of the nation equally. However, no real attempt would be made and the issue remained largely dormant for a few decades. Apart from small individual acts of support, no prominent effort was made to speak up against the injustice and discrimination which LGBTQ+ people experienced.
It wasn’t until the 70s that the first real movements would form to call for the liberation of homosexuals in Ireland. In 1974, the Irish Gay Rights Movement was created. Due to internal tensions, it eventually dissolved a few years later, but its cause was quickly picked up by the National Gay Federation (NGF, now known as NXF).
In 1979, the NGF would open its headquarters in Temple Bar, called the Hirschfield Centre. But it was much more than just the headquarters of the liberation movement, it was a disco, a cinema, and a general safe space for gay people in Dublin to be themselves, feel accepted, and meet others like themselves at the time. The centre is often cited as being the reason for Temple Bar’s reputation as a party zone in Dublin.
One of the leading gay rights activists involved with these movements at the time – and still active to this day – was David Norris. He would even be the main catalyst for the decriminalisation of homosexuality in Ireland. For more information on David Norris and the Hirshfield centre, see the following articles on Babylon.
- David Norris and civil rights: the Fight
- The Hirshfield centre, Ireland’s first place to make the LGBT community safe
Norris v. Attorney General
In 1980, Norris took a case to the Irish High Court seeking to prove the unconstitutionality of the 1867 and 1885 Acts, which criminalised homosexual conduct. He eventually lost the case in the High Court and the Supreme Court, where the judgement was upheld on the grounds of “the Christian nature of the state”.
Immediately after the judgement was delivered, Norris announced he would be taking the case to the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR). In 1988, in the case of Norris v. Ireland, the ECtHR ruled in Norris’ favour, essentially finding that Ireland’s decision to uphold these rules was in violation of the Convention on Human Rights – specifically the right to respect private and family life. This ruling would eventually lead to the 1993 decriminalisation of homosexuality.
Since the decriminalisation of homosexuality in Ireland, many amendments and new bills have been introduced to help LGBTQ+ individuals integrate into society fairly and safely. Unfortunately, this is not a process that can be completed overnight, but Ireland has made significant progress over time. Here are some of the significant changes which have happened in the last few years.
The Employment Equality Act (1998) extended the previous act to seven new grounds including gender and sexual orientation, which protected the rights of many people within the LGBTQ+ community, who were often discriminated against in the workplace and unfairly fired due to their sexual identities.
A few years later, following the introduction of civil partnerships of same-sex couples in 2010, Ireland became the first country to legalise gay marriage by popular vote in 2015. The referendum resulted in a 62% yes vote and 38% no, proving a major shift in the general opinion towards people in the LGBT community compared to only a few decades prior. On October 29th of that year, the Bill that enacted the result was signed into law.
Also in 2015, the government passed the Gender Recognition Act, which allowed any individual to have their preferred gender recognised by the state. This was a big win for transgender people in Ireland, who up until this moment, could not legally have their gender changed.
In March 2018, Senator Fintan Warfield introduced a bill to the Irish Senate to formally ban conversion therapies in Ireland. The bill would prohibit any person to perform or offer to perform conversion therapy, as well as prohibit the advertising of such procedures. Although it still hasn’t passed, the bill is currently in the third stage as of September 2020.
Other than this, numerous openly gay TDs have been elected in Ireland, and Leo Varadkar was famously the first openly gay Taoiseach. In recent years, support for LGBTQ+ rights has overwhelmingly increased and Ireland has, in some respects, been an international leader.
The biggest challenges still faced by the LGBTQ+ community in Ireland today
Ireland has made significant strides to ensure that the rights of LGBTQ+ people are protected and to prevent discrimination against them. But there is still a lot of progress to be made. Here are some of the big issues which are still being advocated for today.
In 2017, the lifetime ban for gay and bisexual men to give blood was lifted. However, a 12 month deferral period was put in place instead. This requirement of men who have sex with men to abstain from oral and anal sex for a 12 month period prior to donating blood, regardless of sexual information such as the relationship status of the person, has been criticised by all LGBTQ+ activist groups for being discriminatory and unjustifiable.
In fact, these kinds of laws were initially put in place in many countries in the world in the 70s and 80s on the grounds of high levels of HIV and hepatitis B infections in gay and bisexual men. But, with today’s technology, screening tests are much more reliable, which significantly reduces the risk of such infections being passed on through blood donation.
Another important issue that has been frequently reported in Ireland is discrimination against LGBTQ+ youth, especially in schools. In a 2019 survey, 73% of the respondents – all of which were LGBTQ+ – said they felt unsafe at school. For many, this caused them to avoid certain spaces and activities, such as PE classes, bathrooms, and locker rooms. Overall, the evidence flagrantly revealed worse mental health, high levels of absenteeism in schools, and poorer education outcomes for LGBTQ+ students, which is very worrying.
The changes which are being advocated for by most activist groups with regard to education, usually focus on higher levels of representation within the curriculum. The survey revealed that 68% of students were never taught anything positive about LGBTQ+ identities in school. Furthermore, it seems that more inclusive and supportive staff is necessary, alongside explicit anti-bullying policies within schools to help build a safer environment and secure better educational outcomes for these students.
All in all, the battle for a world in which LGBTQ+ individuals feel fully accepted and included in society, regardless of their gender or sexuality, is not over. Activism to help social change and policy change is still necessary, and pride month is dedicated to raising awareness for these issues. It is also an opportunity to celebrate and create a spotlight for talented individuals within the community, showcasing their work to people all over Ireland.
Pride in 2021
Pride is today a recurring event in Ireland with the entire month of June dedicated to it. Lots of events are organised throughout the month, in the run-up to the main affair: the Pride Parade. This year’s parade will, once again, have to be held online due to Covid-19 restrictions. It will be broadcast from The Round Room at The Mansion House on June 26th as part of a full-day entertainment programme.
The 2021 theme for pride month is “Community”, in celebration of the ways the community has managed to support each other these last 18 months as well as to promote the vital work of LGBTQ+ organisations, who have been indispensable as people struggle through this pandemic, with many being forced back into the closet or having to live in hostile and homophobic environments. Pride is usually the main fundraising event for such organisations, so new initiatives have been taken to support those that have been affected by Covid-19.
Each week of June has its own focus, the first was dedicated to Machnamh Bród, or Pride Reflection, the second to Culture, Arts, and Heritage. Today, June 14th, kicks off week three, focusing on health and wellbeing. The final week will focus on the main theme, Community.
There are many activities you can still partake in to celebrate pride month. The National Gallery of Ireland is offering a virtual or in-person tour of artworks that explore parts of the national collection through an LGBTQ+ lens, bringing untold stories to light. You can also visit the Dublin Pride Hub, on 19 Duke Street, Dublin 2, or through their online store. Different virtual talks and seminars are also being held, which you can find through the Dublin pride calendar.
The festival will come to an end on the 28th of June on the anniversary of the Stonewall Riots. For more resources and information on Pride 2021, visit dublinpride.ie.