Category Archives: Current Affairs

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DUP only party not in attendance at Northern Ireland LGBT+ rights conference

This article was originally published on the Gay Community News (GCN) website on 21 JUNE, 2019.

Four out of five of the main political parties in Northern Ireland attended a conference on Thursday to join in a unanimous call for marriage equality, anti-bullying legislation and gender recognition reform.

The conference was organised by UK-based LGBT+ publication PinkNews, as a part of their Belfast Summer Reception.

In attendance was Michelle O’Neill, leader of Sinn Féin in the Northern Ireland Assembly, who called for Northern Ireland to join the rest of Ireland, as well as the UK, in introducing Marriage Equality.

“It doesn’t matter who you are, you’re elected to represent all people in society,” she said. “The LGBT+ community is a valuable and integral part of our society and I’m determined to ensure that people are heard.

“I’m determined to ensure that you can enjoy the same rights, the same benefits that everybody else does. That’s not a privilege, that’s just your right. There’s absolutely no room for second class citizenship in our society.”

LGBT+ equality is currently blocked in Northern Ireland by the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP).

Marriage equality passed by a small majority in the Northern Ireland Assembly in 2015, but has not been enacted to date as the DUP used a petition of concern to prevent this from happening.

The petition of concern was designed during the peace process to prevent legislation from passing that would favour one community over another (in the case of Northern Ireland, Republicans and Unionists). However, the DUP has yet to clarify how the passing of Marriage Equality would be of detriment to Unionist communities.

The DUP was the only one of Northern Ireland’s main political parties to not attend the conference.

The blocking of Marriage Equality by the DUP is a contributing factor to a current political stalemate which has led to the collapse of the Northern Ireland Assembly.

DUP leader arlene foster speaking after death of Lyra McKee

Also in attendance at the conference was Ulster Unionist Party leader Robin Swann.

Speaking directly to the LGBT+ community, he said: “it’s not as if there was an avalanche of legislation that benefitted you passing through this place in the past 10 years.

“If and when we restore devolution, Stormont must offer a platform and bring representation and legislation for our LGBT+ community,” he said.

Speaking on the topic of mental health in LGBT+ youth, he called for politicians across the political divide to “grasp the mettle and experience of those in our schools.”

He continued: “When I spoke here last year I reflected on the horrific statistics on LGBT+ youth in Northern Ireland, where two out of three do not feel that school is a welcoming environment. Where three out of five say they have had suicidal thoughts because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.”

His sentiments were echoed by Colum Eastwood, leader of the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP), who called the LGBT+ Rights Movement “this generation’s civil rights movement.”

The politicians in attendance paid tribute to Lyra McKee, the journalist and LGBT+ rights campaigner who was killed while reporting on riots in Derry in April.

Alliance MLA for South Belfast, Paula Bradshaw, opened the event by noting the contributions of McKee and other “absent friends” to the fight for equality.

Recently asked why they had denied Lyra McKee equality in her lifetime, DUP leader Arlene Foster said: “We have a long-standing policy which hasn’t changed. That remains the position of the party.”

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What Is Gay Panic Defence And Where It’s Still Legal

This article was originally published on the Gay Community News (GCN) website on 3 MAY, 2019.

James Miller had developed a passion since leaving the Austin Police Department: Music. He had acquired a guitar and propositioned fellow musicians at a bar about setting up a jazz band. His 32-year-old neighbour, David Spencer, shared in his passion, and the two would play music late into the night.

On one of such nights, after a round of drinking, Spencer moved in for a kiss. He was stabbed in the back two times by Miller, and bled to death.

Miller was charged with murder, but three years later claimed he was sent into a blind “gay panic” by his neighbour. The defence was successful: Miller only served six months in jail, with a decade to be spent on probation.
This sentence was passed in April, 2018.

Although seemingly a defence from decades past, the gay panic defence is still employed with alarming regularity worldwide. It is a workable defence in all but three American states (it is not applicable in California, Illinois and Rhode Island), and South Australia (where it is set to be repealed by 2020). It was still legal in New Zealand up until 2009.

The “gay panic defence” stipulates that same-sex interactions are so repulsive to cisgender, heterosexual individuals that it sends them into a rage that culminates in murder. It reinforces our second-class status: That our inherent sexuality is grounds enough for our deaths. That non-straight sexuality and existence is of less value than straight lives. It propagates the dated and offensive idea that we are sexual predators who need to be expelled.

The defence first attained recognition in the 1960s, when homosexuality was still defined as a mental illness. Californian man Joseph Rodriguez beat another man to death with a tree branch. His defence attorney called the incident, “an acute homosexual panic brought on him by the fear that the victim was molesting him sexually”.

Other such incidents have attained greater critical examination: The 1998 murder of 21-year-old Matthew Shephard by two older men received worldwide condemnation. In Ireland, the murder of Declan Flynn in 1982 by a crowd of youths – who received minor suspended sentences – was the impetus for growth in our national LGBTQ+ movement.

A troubling offshoot of the gay panic defence is the “trans panic defence.” Last year 265 trans people were reported murdered in 29 countries, according to the Trans Murder Monitoring.

While stringent strides have been made in the development of LGBTQ+ rights both at home and abroad, it is impossible to feel fully-accepted by society at large while our siblings are slain in incidents that are justified by archaic laws. When legislation is on our side, only then can we begin the process of feeling safe.

Working-Class Heroines, Reviewed

The following article originally appeared in print in the November, 2018 issue of the Dublin Inquirer. It was also published on the Inquirer‘s website.

The stories told by working-class women in inner-city Dublin that are included in Kevin C. Kearns’ book Working-Class Heroines have acquired a new resonance in contemporary Ireland.

It might even be fair to say that this book resonates more strongly today than it did when it was first published in 2004.

In the wake of the Repeal the Eighth and Take Back the City movements, these oral histories, with their stories about women fighting for bodily autonomy and a right to housing, highlight the origins of contemporary struggles.

These narratives offer a framework through which we can judge how far we have come and how far we have yet to go.

In Their Own Words

Working-Class Heroines is the result of more than 30 years of research, a compendium of detailed oral history documenting the oft-forgotten details of working-class life, with a particular emphasis placed on working-class mothers.

It was something of a “pioneer path” more than 50 years ago when, in the 1960s, Kearns set out to be an urban oral historian, he said, by email.

Back then, Irish academics “associated oral history and folk history strictly with the west of Ireland, especially the Gaeltacht regions”, he says.

Yet there he was, “exploring the lower-income working-class neighbourhoods of Dublin that Irish journalists used to call slumlands,” he says. “From the Coombe through the old Liberties and into the tenement rows of the northside.”

In Working-Class Heroines, Kearns uses the narratives gleaned from urban “mammies” to construct a case for their reinsertion into the larger narrative of Irish social history, and to ensure that their stories of survival are not relegated to the footnotes of Irish femininities.

“Back in those days women were absolutely ‘voiceless’”, Kearns says. “And they dare not try and speak out against their husbands or any man […] I found the women so pathetically abused and defenceless in those days. So I determined to try and tell their stories in their own words.”

Working-Class Mothers

The word “mother” is laden with symbolic meaning in Ireland’s national discourse. It is a concept wrapped up in images of Mother Ireland, a figure chaste and maternal, sacrificial and tenacious.

The mothers interviewed in the book occupy a particular space as a result: the concept they embody, that which is devotional and pure, is at odds with the reality of their lives. They are admonished, abused and neglected – at home, and by the state.

The book is divided into chapters detailing everything from home, family, finances, sex and marriage, to religion, drugs and death. Throughout, Kearns interrogates the societal pressures placed upon urban mothers.

As Kearns tells it, the origin of their plight lies in the “flight to the suburbs” by middle-class families that occurred in the 19th and 20th centuries, which left lower-income families to live in a decaying city centre, raising eight or ten or twelve children in cramped quarters with no more than two or three rooms.

Often, the women of these urban families were expected to marry young and begin to care for children almost immediately. It is here that the traditional narrative of family life begins to unravel: what was propagated by the state was the husband as breadwinner, with the wife as stay-at-home caregiver.

However, as Kearns documents here, for working-class “mammies”, this was rarely the the reality. Husbands faced constant layoffs. Some squandered what little money they had on alcohol or gambling. This left women to rear the children and make ends meet. Many had to find menial cleaning and care-taking jobs.

Molly the Piss

As Dr James Plaisted, an inner-city doctor for over 40 years, says in the book: “[Mothers will] get up at six o’clock in the morning and go in and clean offices, and they’ll be home to get the children up and fed and out to school.”

The day isn’t over yet. “And then they’ll do their work in the house and do the shopping. And the man, if he’s unemployed, he’ll lie in bed until 11:00 and do nothing […] Your woman fed him and she’ll be back at half five in the evening to clean offices again,” he says.

Working-class mothers were just expected to “get on with it”. Husbands were granted freedoms of which their wives could only dream. Many men would rather become distant from family than have their pride wounded by being seen to help with household chores.

In one notable exception, Kearns quotes Lily Foy, a woman who grew up in the Coombe watching helpless men neglect family and home, and who married a man quite liberated for the 1950s, who helped with cleaning, cooking and washing.

However, his helpful attitude was taken as “woman-ish”, and Foy’s mother took to calling him “Molly the Piss”. Distress, an ever-present facet of working-class inner-city life, was expected to fall squarely on women’s shoulders.

Evictions

Reading Heroines, you begin to see how little autonomy mothers had. While many suburban mothers had access to better education and information around sexual health, and so some limited autonomy, many inner-city mothers were bullied and much more closely controlled.

This control could manifest through bodies such as the church and the state. Mothers, who took to looking after money and finances due to neglectful husbands, were often under the thumb of the Dublin Corporation.

The “Corpo”, as it was known, was responsible for social housing in the inner-city. It was notoriously ruthless in demanding rent, often employing eviction crews or local gardaí to help with the forced removal of tenants.

In one harrowing case documented in the book, “the Corpo” forcibly removes an elderly woman who is suffering from dementia. She had lost her husband, her mind had deteriorated and she couldn’t pay the rent. She was thrown out and left to wander Foley Street.

Baby-Making Machines

To the church, another controlling force, women were seen as little more than baby-making machines, and were encouraged – nay, forced – from the pulpit and confession box to have multiple children.

Women with 10 or more children were encouraged to have more, in spite of dwindling finances or heavy physical and emotional toll. Childbirth was viewed as maternal duty rather than personal choice.

Kearns documents how some women were turfed out of the confession box for admitting they could not bear any more children. He interviews May Cotter, who says she was often asked in the confessional why she was not having more children, a question she found invasive. “Didn’t matter if you had the wherewithal or not to feed them or rear them,” she says. “You just had to keep populating the country.”

Meanwhile, sex was a subject not spoken about or acknowledged. And even though they were in charge of home and finances, women were subordinate in matters of intimacy. “The man dominated. Always. Do your duty! His word was absolute law,” says one working-class mother.

Changed, Changed Utterly?

“[There was] nothing romanticized in their oral histories,” says Kearns via email.

“Emotions bared as never before […] And, God forbid, how some bared their anger toward the priests who terrified and condemned them in their younger years! Their faces turned flaming red as they told me every detail. How the husbands were tyrants in the home – and absolute demons in commanding their wives in bed!” he said.

Kearns uses Yeats’ poem “The Song of the Old Mother” to sketch an understanding of these women’s lives.

He might, these days though, have used a different Yeats poem. Indeed, in documenting the stories of these “mammies”, Kearns offers us an opportunity to gauge how things have “changed, changed utterly”. And the ways in which they have not.

Dancing in the Margins: How Inclusive Are Dublin’s LGBTQ+ Spaces?

This article was originally published on June 6th 2017, on the Dublin Inquirer‘s website.

In its early days, the Hirschfeld Centre in Temple Bar hosted a few different nights.

The centre – which had opened in 1979 in what was then an underdeveloped neighbourhood – was a three-storey knocked-back warehouse with a small black-box nightclub. It had a dance floor, mirrors and mineral bar at the end of the upstairs area.

The weekend disco was called “Flikkers”, named after the Dutch word for “faggot”. It was one of the only nights for LGBTQ+-identifying individuals in the country, and soon became grounds for experimentation, liberation, and conversation between people who otherwise may not have found each other.

Thursday nights were designated “women’s nights”, but that was hotly contested by its male patrons, says Izzy Kamikaze, the LGBTQ+ activist and occasional DJ.

Thursday “wasn’t a particularly high-demand night”, she says. It would attract 20 or 30 people in a given week.

“I often went on a Saturday night [too] and there could be a couple of hundred men and maybe two or three women,” she says. “If you were looking to cop off” – she laughs – “then it certainly wasn’t the right environment.”

Indeed, some feel that even decades later Dublin’s clubbing scene, that staple of queer identity, remains focused on cis gay men, with other members of the community pushed to the margins.

Spaces

Tonie Walsh, co-founder of the magazine, GCN, and current curator of the Irish Queer Archive, says that the Hirschfeld Centre had its pluses, though.

“Despite its flaws – and we’d be silly to imagine it as a perfect nirvana – it created a space for a generation of Irish lesbians and men to imagine and embrace new identities,” he said.

As he sees it, the conversation should focus less on attendance figures, and more on how those who used the centre’s various spaces felt in coming together to build a community.

It was “a home from home for young lesbians and gay men who […] had been devalued, expunged from family and community lives […] to build a positive, holistic attitude to their lives,” he says.

Outside of the centre, there were other attempts to establish nights for women: every Saturday, the proprietors at J.J. Smyth’s on Aungier Street offered an upstairs space to LGBTQ+ women.

“There was no dance floor, [only] a sticky carpet, and a portable sound system. Most of the dyke-scene stuff was like that,” says Kamikaze. Eventually, this scene withered away.

More Public

As LGBTQ+ people have become more prominent in the public sphere, some in the community have become more introspective.

Speakers and writers are challenging omissions in present-day LGBTQ+ campaigning, to create an intersectional dialogue between sexuality and issues of race, class, and gender.

Take Anne Mulhall’s depiction of the Yes Equality campaign in 2015, as focused on white middle-class gay men.

“The failure to address migrant communities or to include LGBT migrants and people of colour in the Yes Equality campaign compounded the alienation, marginalisation and exclusion that are the experience of minority communities in a white nation,” wrote Mulhall, a lecturer at University College Dublin.

Some feel the same about Dublin’s clubbing scene, that this staple of queer identity remains focused on cis gay men.

“It’s like every area of life: trans people are not catered to meaningfully,” says Gordon Grehan, the operations manager of Transgender Equality Network (TENI).

He sees more education and awareness as necessary. “Often the people in the L, G, B parts of the community are lacking in knowledge,” he says.

Clubbing in the nineties was an important part of Grehan’s life and his gay identity, and being able to meet other gay men in a pre-internet age was exciting.

“I don’t think there is something like that for trans people, but I do think there are spaces that are very inclusive,” he said.

But Grehan questions whether the answer to this is a nightclub just for trans individuals. “Is that a bit othering?” he asks.

“What are we saying, that trans people need something that others don’t? Everywhere should be trans inclusive is where I’d be coming from, and that there would be certain spaces that are majority trans or trans-only spaces, but I don’t know if a club should be one of those spaces,” he says.

Some promoters have made an effort to create inclusive LGBTQ+ club nights. Cormac Cashman, who is behind the weekly events “PrHomo” and “Mother” held out of The Hub in Temple Bar, says he has made great efforts to make his spaces inclusive.

This includes a gender-neutral bathroom policy. “Trans inclusivity is vital on the LGBTQ scene. We’re a community,” he says, by email.

“Honestly I don’t know why people get so worked up over bathrooms. Why the fuck should anyone care who is in the next cubicle to them?” he says.

Emily Scanlan has also worked to address the omissions present in Dublin’s LGBTQ+ community.

She has, in her career as a club promoter, organised nights for queer-identifying women such as “Cake,” and “Crush”. She set up the latter after the end of the lesbian-and-bi night K.I.S.S, which was around for about 10 years then weaned out.

“And at that stage there were absolutely no lesbian or bi nights whatever, and so I set up Crush with GCN, and that was really successful,” she said.

These days, she runs “Spinster” once a month out of Sycamore Street near Dame Lane. It’s mostly marketed to queer women but she strives to make it as inclusive as possible, she says.

“It’s not a ‘gay’ night, I never said that anywhere, I want it to be really inclusive […] There are a lot of lesbian and bi women at it, of course, but it’s very open. It’s the kind of place anyone can come to and have fun. I feel it’s the most inclusive thing I’ve ever done,” she says.

It is harder to run a commercially viable club night for a smaller and more marginalised group of people, though. “I don’t know if [Spinster] would work every week,” says Scanlan.”[It is] a hobby for me. I have a full-time job.”

Grehan echoes Scanlan’s sentiments: “In the trans community, the cohort of people who are interested in going out every week or every month is much, much smaller, so I don’t think you could create a club around that.”

The Rise and Role of Drag

One of the mainstays of LGBTQ+ club nights in Dublin are performances by charismatic drag queens. It’s a draw.

Drag queens grace the dance-floors of “PrHomo” and “Mother”. The George has also hosted a drag-themed bingo night every Sunday for 20 years. It was a platform for performers such as Shirley Temple Bar and Veda.

But as drag has become more mainstream, some have begun to cast a critical eye on the stereotypes and the ideas of femininity that it can spread – and have asked whether in some forms, it can alienate groups in the LGBTQ+ community.

For some, drag has served as a way to explore gender identity.

“As I started to perform, I suddenly realised that, just by putting on a frock and a wig and clown make-up, that I was challenging the norms and stereotypes of gender,” said Noel Sutton, who has performed in drag regularly since the nineties.

When you perform outside of the rigid stereotypes inscribed onto you, “you become a magnet for people who feel different”, says Sutton, who is also the manager of Dublin’s LGBTQ+ film festival GAZE.

But that’s changed a bit as drag has moved from the margins.

Says Grehan: “Some trans women have a problem with drag queens in terms of creating an idea of femininity that isn’t real. That causes confusion around what it means to be a trans woman, or to be a woman.”

There’s a move in drag towards being as glamorous as possible, or to be as passing as this incredible attractive cis woman, he says.

“But that holds up an idealised version of how women should look, and particularly trans women, which is reductive and unhelpful.”

To some, it’s unsurprising that as drag has gone mainstream with RuPaul’s Drag Race – in a particular form, and with a particular attitude – there are questions raised about the potential dilution of drag.

“The judging on that show has given the impression that only a certain presentation of drag is worthy – and this is a hyper-feminine, padded and contoured version,” said Declan Buckley, known for his drag persona Shirley Temple Bar.

But while there are many who take to the stage without considering the political currency of drag, who simply want to entertain, there are many others “who are challenging the norms and the stereotypes,” he said, by email.

Sutton says that the idea that some would cater their personalities to fit an established ideal is disappointing. “I never set out to look like anyone when I dress up,” he said.

For Buckley, however, the idea that someone can “do drag wrong” is counterintuitive. But it’s a conversation worth having, he says.

“While the visual aspect of drag – through exposure and over-familiarity – may have lost some of its capacity to be impactful, the performative aspect still allows us to do what we have always done: poke fun, raise questions, rally the troops and entertain,” he says.

It is not just sections of the trans community that have come to challenge contemporary drag. Some queer and feminist critics have also criticised such performances, in particular what is presented, and indeed mimicked from, RuPaul’s Drag Race.

In this critique, drag is often seen as an outlet through which cisgender gay men can express a certain kind of misogyny: with gendered slurs and harmful stereotypes of women as ditsy, promiscuous or dangerous.

Club promoters in Dublin may be isolating some of the LGBTQ+ community by supporting drag acts that spread these ideas.

“I think there is something very challenging for trans women in that this is a cisgender man performing and being able to take the layers off and live [his] life and not have people take that second look at [him],” Grehan says.

“Really thoughtful and good drag is aware of that, and aware of the binary and what they’re doing,” he says.

From Criminal To Campaigner: An Interview With Senator David Norris

This article was originally published in the University Observer in March 2017. It was later published online.

 

David Monaghan speaks to Senator David Norris as he receives UCD LGBTQ+’s Foy-Zappone Award.

 

IN JUNE 1993, homosexuality was decriminalised within Irish law as a result of the Criminal Fraud (Sexual Offences) Bill. A century-old law that saw LGBTQ+ people thrown into prisons, beaten, tortured and analysed as sexual pariahs had finally been overruled, and many felt they could now begin the long journey to feeling like they were welcomed in Irish society.

The progenitor from which the momentum for decriminalisation came was David Norris, a former Joycean academic-cum-Senator, who kick-started the movement in the late 1970s. It is because of his efforts that many are no longer considered criminals in their home country, and why successive generations of LGBTQ+ individuals are now unaware of the threat those handcuffs held.

In February 2017, nearly 24 years since his efforts to increase the rights of sexual minorities in the country resulted in decriminalisation, David Norris has been honoured by UCD’s LGBTQ+ society. He recently received the annual ‘Foy-Zappone Award’, a prize reserved for anyone seen to do remarkable work within the field of LGBTQ+ rights advancement. It is named for Dr. Lydia Foy and Katherine Zappone TD, the inaugural recipients of the prestigious award, and Norris is the fourth person to be honoured since its inception in 2014.

 

David Norris and long-time friend Mary Robinson. Source: senatordavidnorris.ie

David Norris and long-time friend Mary Robinson. Photo credit: senatordavidnorris.ie

Known for his jovial attitude, before the prize-giving began, Norris joked with society members and recounted various anecdotes from his career as a political activist: “I was once approached by a man who was worried his dog was gay,” he quipped.

The event began with a short screening of an RTÉ recording from 1975, featuring Norris being interviewed by the late Áine O’Connor – possibly the first time an openly gay man had been seen on Irish television – as the somewhat younger but still recognisable activist is asked upfront if he is sick. “When they approached me,” says Norris, addressing the audience that had formed to hear him speak, “they said, ‘well, we’ll have your back to the camera and disguise your voice,’ and I said, ‘well then I’m not doing it,’ because the whole point in being on television […] was to disprove the idea that we’re monsters.”

“If they had me sat there like the Elephant Man, back to the camera, in shadow, using a disguised voice, of course people would think I’m a fucking monster.”

Of course, RTÉ suggesting something like this was symptomatic of the time: many gay people were simply too afraid to be vocal about their sexuality in public for fear of violent backlash, or in extreme cases, incarceration. Norris, however, never shied away from discussing his sexuality, and he took his first baby steps towards campaigning for equal rights in 1969, as he informed the audience: “There was an advertisement on the back page of the Observer newspaper and it said ‘Homosexual? […] Send address on envelope to The Campaign for Homosexual Equality, 28-something street, Manchester.’ And I sent off my ten bob […] and became a member.”

“IF THEY HAD ME SAT THERE LIKE THE ELEPHANT MAN, BACK TO THE CAMERA, IN SHADOW, USING A DISGUISED VOICE, OF COURSE PEOPLE WOULD THINK I’M A FUCKING MONSTER.”

In the very early 1970s, Norris’s activism became more overt, shifting from the personal sphere to the public. Seeing the Troubles unfold in Northern Ireland, Norris was involved in the formation of the ‘Southern Ireland Civil Rights Association’, which was established to show solidarity with oppressed Catholics north of the border.

Although a member of the Church of Ireland, he felt Roman Catholics were being treated with contempt, but he became incensed when fellow campaigners suggested Presbyterians were more tolerant in the Republic, prompting Norris to stand up and say, as he recalls now: “‘You think you don’t discriminate but you do. I am ‘homosexual’’ – that’s the way we said it in those days, as if we were a species of rare butterfly – and I eventually persuaded them to include reform of the criminal law as part of their agenda, and that was the first time in Ireland that any group had committed itself to law reform.”

 

Aine

David Norris speaking to Áine O’Connor on RTÉ television in 1975, as chairman of the Irish Gay Rights Movement.

Despite this initial success there soon followed a brief hiatus in Norris’s overt campaigning until 1973. He explained to the audience that a conference was held in Trinity College at this time on the broad topic of sexuality, but as the event progressed it became increasingly apparent that most of the attendees were interested in the more specific and much more taboo subject of homosexuality. Norris continues: “Then they started another conference in 1973 that I went to, and they had various people from England coming over, [such as] the editor of Sappho, a lesbian magazine, and we had our own people, like Hugo McManus.”

Out of this sprung the Sexual Liberation Movement, of which David Norris was a member. Disappointed with the direction the group was taking, he led the first split and formed what became known as the Irish Gay Rights Movement. The first event was held by IGRM on the grounds of Trinity College. Norris, expecting a meagre 20 or so interested patrons, was shocked to find that, in fact, 250 people had shown up. “That set my little nose wriggling,” Norris jokes, “and I thought, ‘oh, there’s money to be made in this’.”

“I AM ‘HOMOSEXUAL’’ – THAT’S THE WAY WE SAID IT IN THOSE DAYS, AS IF WE WERE A SPECIES OF RARE BUTTERFLY”

The IGRM then began regularly holding discotheques. Later, Norris helped found the Hirschfeld Centre in Temple Bar, Dublin, which became a social hub for an oppressed and overlooked minority for many years after its inception. Norris recalls: “On the night it opened – St. Patrick’s Day, 1979 […] 450 people turned up! This surging, seething mob outside [was] trying to push the doors in […] I noticed that the floorboards were deflected, because of people dancing […] So I stopped the music and made the announcement […] and got hissed and booed, and then somebody said, ‘c’mon now lads, at least somebody gives a shit about our welfare.’”

Norris and company began work on fixing the issue and the Hirschfeld Centre was up and running again weeks later. Although he enjoyed working at the Centre, Norris admits that he knew little of the music that was played at the venue: “This led to me interrogating Freddie Mercury over his membership card and whether it was up to date – and I did the same to Elton John! I hadn’t a clue who they were!”

The Hirschfeld Centre, although successful, was targeted numerous times. Norris informed the audience of one such occasion: “I was in the office on the top floor […] and I could see sparks [coming from the roof]. When I got up I found a bomb […] Someone had put […] two milk churns full of explosives, one on each side of a barrel of petrol, and they had poured petrol on the roof and thrown up firelighters […] the idea was to heat up the roof, and that would explode the milk churns, blow the lid off the barrel of petrol, blow the roof off, and send flaming streaks of petrol down to the discotheque, where about 300 people would have been burnt to death.”

“THIS LED TO ME INTERROGATING FREDDIE MERCURY OVER HIS MEMBERSHIP CARD AND WHETHER IT WAS UP TO DATE – AND I DID THE SAME TO ELTON JOHN! I HADN’T A CLUE WHO THEY WERE!”

Horrified, Norris entered fight or flight mode and used fire extinguishers he had carried with him to put out the firelighters. It was a narrow escape. The Hirschfeld Centre eventually burned down in 1987: “I was in bed about 2:30 or 3:00 in the morning,” Norris recalls, “and I was called down as a key holder […] and I ascertained that nobody had been injured, the archive was rescued, and the insurance was in place [and] I sat back to enjoy the fire.”

The Irish Gay Rights Movement, which had been founded by Norris, was about to experience another major split, as he explained to the audience at the award ceremony: “I was pushing for political change and public agitation – and this was a very, very frightened community at this stage, we really were threatened by the criminal law […] and a lot of people didn’t want [public agitation]. They wanted [us] to keep our heads down, and to be quiet, and to have discos, and meet somebody to go to bed with […] all these perfectly natural human things, but they wanted to cut out the political things.”

 

iqa

Image via The Irish Queer Archive.

David Norris then moved on to form the Campaign for Homosexual Law Reform, which aimed to change the status of male same-sex activity in Irish law, then illegal. In 1983, Norris took this challenge to the High Court, and later the Supreme Court – where he was represented by former President Mary Robinson – and it was rejected both times.

The case was then brought before the European Court of Human Rights by Norris and Robinson, the latter of whom had made the submission, where it was found that Ireland’s anti-gay law breached the European Convention on Human Rights. “We won by one vote,” Norris reflects. “And there were about twenty judges, so it was very narrow. The Irish judge, of course, [voted] against us.” This ruling paved the way for decriminalisation by the Irish government in June 1993.

With such a vast, long-standing and notable career in campaigning for the advancement of gay rights, it is unsurprising that Norris would be selected as the next recipient of the Foy-Zappone award. Speaking to OTwo after a long talk, and a round of questions, he is quick to inform that receiving such accolades always comes as a surprise: “I’m surprised people remember these things, because my policy is to go straight on to the next thing and keep forging ahead, and I don’t look back very much, so it’s lovely.”

“I NOTICED THAT THE FLOORBOARDS WERE DEFLECTED, BECAUSE OF PEOPLE DANCING […] SO I STOPPED THE MUSIC AND MADE THE ANNOUNCEMENT […] AND GOT HISSED AND BOOED, AND THEN SOMEBODY SAID, ‘C’MON NOW LADS, AT LEAST SOMEBODY GIVES A SHIT ABOUT OUR WELFARE.’”

The audience that had come to hear Norris speak and receive the award was comprised mostly of people in their twenties. “A lot of young people don’t realise it was a criminal offense, which surprises me,” Norris admits.

Senator Norris made headlines in 2013 when it was announced that he had developed cancer on his liver, and he had to undergo a transplant in late 2014 as a result. A month before receiving the Foy-Zappone Award, he signed off from his duties at Leinster House for a time, citing a chest infection. “I couldn’t breathe,” Norris explains, “I couldn’t do anything, and I was put straight into hospital […] Then they found I had a very severe form of diabetes […] But my energy levels, physically, are not what they used to be.”

Has Norris’s physical health impacted on his work in the Seanad? “I used to speak on absolutely everything,” he says. “But now I’m much more targeted. I select the issues on which I could make an impact, and I speak on those. For example: Alice Mary Higgins [Senator for the Civil Engagement group] put down a thing on the Canadian Trade Agreement, and I did my research on it and made a really passionate speech, and my speech led to Fianna Fáil abstaining, and the government were defeated […] which was good, but some of the other issues that are going around I just leave them.”

 

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Image via LetsMakeHistory.ie.

One issue that Norris has spoken about is the campaign to repeal the eighth amendment, which currently prohibits women from attaining legal abortions in Ireland. “I think [the eighth amendment] is dreadful,” he says. “I don’t understand how somebody outside a relationship, with no connection to the people involved, can presume in their arrogance to tell a fourteen-year-old girl who has been raped by a neighbour, that she has to keep the child. I think there should be choice: if women keep the child in those situations, or in terms of fatal foetal abnormality, or rape, or incest, then that’s wonderful and I admire them for it, but I definitely think they should have the choice.”

In 2011, Senator Norris entered the race to become the ninth President of Ireland, a position hotly contested by six other candidates. Support initially fell in his favour, with Stephen Fry even tweeting that Ireland “couldn’t have a more intelligent, passionate, knowledgeable, witty or committed President” than the famed Senator.

However, it was revealed in July of that year that Norris, over a decade previously, had used notepaper with the Oireachtas letterhead to send a letter to the Israeli High Court. He asked for clemency in the trial of his former partner, left-wing activist Ezra Nawi, who was convicted of statutory rape. Norris withdrew from the race later that same month, but re-entered in September when it seemed support was moving in his favour again. Norris eventually lost to Labour Party candidate Michael D. Higgins.

“I’VE ALWAYS BEEN FAIRLY LOQUACIOUS, SO THAT DIDN’T REALLY CONCERN ME AT ALL, AND I NEVER FELT IT WAS A BURDEN. THERE WAS OFTEN QUITE A LOT OF FUN INVOLVED IN IT, AND I WAS QUITE IRREVERENT IN THE INTERVIEWS I GAVE.”

Reflecting on this period, Norris calls it a “destructive and homophobic experience.” He elaborates: “RTÉ put out jokes that [said] ‘David Norris would like it up the Áras’ […] If they had said that kind of thing about women, they would have been burnt to the ground. They said I advocated parents having sex with their own children – I mean, crazy, crazy stuff […] And then also the Israeli Government were involved in releasing information which only they had about the case Ezra [Nawi] was involved in, which was actually a honey-trap by the Israeli police.”

Norris continues: “my whole campaign team — bar three people — buggered off and left me. Not one of them officially resigned. I learned it on the Nine O’Clock News […] that the principle PR woman […] no longer worked for Norris campaign. It was devastating – the utter scandalous disloyalty.” Despite losing after an embittering and dramatic race, Norris feels that our current President, Michael D. Higgins has done a stellar job. “I do think we have an excellent President […] He’s a little academic [and] if you tune into his speeches, if you’re tuned into his wave-length, they are brilliant.”

 

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Flikkers Dance Club in the Hirschfeld Centre 1985/6. (Photo: Tonie Walsh).

The Senator has seen huge political and social changes in his lifetime, particularly in the area of LGBTQ+ rights. Having been born into a state in which he was considered a criminal, Norris now lives in a country where he need not live in fear of incarceration simply because of who he is, where anti-discrimination laws exist in LGBTQ+ individuals’ favour in areas of employment, the provision of goods and services, and speech, and where he can not only adopt children, but also marry the partner of his choice. And this is to say nothing of the Gender Recognition Bill, which allows Ireland’s trans citizens to change gender on legal forms without interference from doctors or psychologists.

“I rarely thought about [the changes that were possible],” Norris explains. “I had a series of defined targets at each stage. The first one was knocking out the criminal law, and then building on the social and human rights legislations. So I was usually targeting an immediate object, and planning and strategizing for that, rather than looking beyond that, at the next thing, because that would have been a waste of time.”

When asked if he ever felt a burden of responsibility in being one of the first openly-gay public figures in Ireland, Norris responds with a firm and decisive “no,” adding: “I’ve always been fairly loquacious, so that didn’t really concern me at all, and I never felt it was a burden. There was often quite a lot of fun involved in it, and I was quite irreverent in the interviews I gave.”

Setting the Record Straight | Great Anger at the ‘RTÉ Recognition 4 Repeal’ Protest

This article originally appeared on the HeadStuff website on March 14th, 2017.

On March 8th, an estimated 10,000 people partook in a march in Dublin to protest Ireland’s Eighth Amendment, which positions the life of the unborn as equal to that of its mother. This restricts abortion access for Irish women and forces many to travel to the UK in order to avail of the country’s more progressive abortion laws. According to the website of the Irish Family Planning Association, approximately 166,951 women traveled to the UK between 1980 and 2015 in order to make use of this legislation. The mental and physical toll of this journey, coupled with the stigma many face upon a return to their native country, has been a subject of great anger for campaigners since the Eighth Amendment’s implementation in the October of 1983.

Although the march attracted a lot of media attention both at home and abroad, appearing on CNN and Buzzfeed, Ireland’s national broadcaster, RTÉ, instead focused its news report last Wednesday on the worldwide significance of International Women’s Day, neglecting to mention the implications of such a movement in Ireland. They did not reference attendance figures, the Eighth Amendment, and also dedicated equal time during the broadcast to the rise in stamp prices.

“We set this up basically because we shut down the city twice last Wednesday, there were marches all over the country, we had solidarity come in from all over the world, and [there wasn’t]a peep from RTÉ. We decided to bring the story to their doorstep.”

This angered activists Eva Griffin, Sadhbh Ní Bhroin and Síofra Dempsey, who together organised a protest outside RTÉ studios on Monday, March 13th, in order to hold the broadcaster to account for its blatant misrepresentation of the march. Speaking at the protest, Ní Bhroin outlined the reasons for organising such an event: “We set this up basically because we shut down the city twice last Wednesday, there were marches all over the country, we had solidarity come in from all over the world, and [there wasn’t]a peep from RTÉ. We decided to bring the story to their doorstep.”

RTÉ 4 Repeal - HeadStuff.org

Echoing Ní Bhroin’s comments was co-organiser Eva Griffin: “After the strike and march on Wednesday, I saw a lot of people […] complaining online about the RTÉ coverage, which consisted of […] ten seconds of the strike, which they actually bought from another source, used as a segue into a story on the gender pay gap, which is obviously important, but they skipped over the biggest story in Ireland at the time.”

Also at the event was Síofra Dempsey: “The purpose […] is to make it clear to RTÉ, and to the state, that they can’t ignore the issue of Repeal the 8th. It’s something they want to sweep under the rug and pretend isn’t happening, and by not reporting [on the march], RTÉ are directly colluding with the state in covering up, so we want to make that impossible for them in organising a protest.”

Griffin set up the Facebook page ‘RTE Recognition 4 Repeal’ late last week, and overnight it attracted hundreds of interested participants. This was down to support from the Strike for Repeal movement, Trinity for Choice, UCD for Choice, ROSA, Amnesty Ireland’s Colm O’Gorman, and People Before Profit.

Griffin continues: “The Facebook group blew up. Between attending and interested, there was over 1000 people.” The protest on the day attracted approximately 90 participants who joined together in chants of “Hey hey RTÉ / Put the strike on our TV,” and “Enda, Enda / We want a referendum.”

The protest began at 4:30pm outside RTÉ’s side entrance at Nutley Lane, and eventually moved to Stillorgan Road where it continued until 6:30pm. It attracted attention from the Pro-Life Campaign and Liberal.ie’s Cora Sherlock, who is a noted Pro-Life advocate.

RTÉ 4 Repeal - HeadStuff.org

In attendance at the protest was MA student Aisling Fulcher, who noted the broadcaster’s hypocrisy in claiming to be non-biased: “They obviously show a centre-right leaning [in not reporting the march], and if they say it’s their responsibility to provide fair and equal coverage, they should do that. They should do [their]job.”

“[It’s important] that there’s more inclusion and intersectionality. With trans people and non-binary people, it’s a discussion that affects us too. Abortion is always talked about as a woman’s issue, but it also affects non-binary people and trans men, and there are added traumas they might have to go through as well”

Representing Non-Binary+ Ireland at the protest was Kay Cairns, who spoke about a neglected minority in debates surrounding the Eighth Amendment: “[It’s important] that there’s more inclusion and intersectionality. With trans people and non-binary people, it’s a discussion that affects us too. Abortion is always talked about as a woman’s issue, but it also affects non-binary people and trans men, and there are added traumas they might have to go through as well – such as being misgendered at an abortion clinic, or having terms used to describe our bodies that we might not use ourselves.”

“I say it’s important for trans and non-binary people to be included in these marches, but I do see the value in highlighting how much it is a women’s issue as well, because it’s a symptom of the systematic oppression of women. When legislators are making laws like the Eighth Amendment, they’re not thinking about trans or non-binary people, of course, so I do think it’s important we put women at the centre of that, but it is also important to talk about the trans and non-binary people that it affects.” Cairns led the crowd in a chant of ‘Trans for Repeal / Trans for Repeal.’

RTÉ sent out two cameramen at different times during the protest in order to record the event. Despite this, the event did not receive mention on either the Six One News or Nine O’Clock News that evening despite interest. Instead the event was mentioned in the ‘News in Brief’ section of RTÉ’s website. On this, Ní Bhroin stated: “It was a challenge for them to prove us wrong and give the movement some coverage but they didn’t step up. Normally I love being right but this time [I] was bitter.”

Featured Image by Louise Flanagan