Category Archives: Current Affairs

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.”

 

lets

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.”

 

flikkers

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

A New Miracle Drug: Campaigning for the Introduction of PrEP in Ireland

Note: This article was originally published in the University Observer, Vol. XXIII, No. 6. It was later published online.

With HIV figures increasing both at home and abroad, David Monaghan looks at the student-led ‘UCD for PrEP’ campaign and how effective the drug is in combating the disease.

 

RISING figures of HIV in Ireland have encouraged student activists to campaign for help in minimising its continued spread. ‘UCD for PrEP’ is a student-led initiative that aims to lobby the Students’ Union to take a proactive stance on introducing the drug ‘pre-exposure prophylaxis,’ or ‘PrEP’ for short. According to the American Center for Disease Control and Prevention, the drug is reported to reduce the risk of contracting HIV by up to 90% when taken daily.

PrEP is intended for people who are at high risk of contracting HIV. This includes individuals whose current partner is HIV-positive, as well intravenous drug users. It is a preventative measure that is readily available in some countries across the globe, and has been recommended by the World Health Organisation since 2015. It has been approved for usage by those at risk of contracting HIV in the United States, where depending on income it can be obtained for free, and France, where it was approved in November 2015 and introduced the following January.

However, the drug is not readily available in Ireland despite increasing concerns about rising HIV figures. According to Newstalk, 513 people were diagnosed HIV-positive in the country last year, a startling increase of 5.8% from previous recorded figures. Numerous factors have been suggested to explain such a jump in numbers: a failing sexual education system; dating apps like Tinder or Grindr; disconnect between LGBTQ+ individuals and the history of the virus. Whatever the reasons, it is clear that immediate action must be taken to combat the spread of disease.

“513 PEOPLE WERE DIAGNOSED HIV POSITIVE IN THE COUNTRY LAST YEAR, A STARTLING INCREASE OF 5.8% FROM PREVIOUS RECORDED FIGURES”

Finn McLysaght helped establish the ‘UCD for PrEP’ campaign with fellow activists. “There is a need [for PrEP]” they said. “HIV has reached a crisis point. There’s a new diagnosis every 18 hours.” The campaign was inspired by the work of ACT UP Dublin, a non-partisan group dedicated to using direct action against increasing HIV figures. “[It’s] a coalition to campaign for the introduction of PrEP and PEP [post-exposure prophylaxis],” McLysaght continued.

In Ireland the drug does not fall under the HSE’s Drugs Payment Scheme, and trials are ongoing to establish its effectiveness. “It would cost hundreds for a thirty day supply,” McLysaght says. “Most people don’t even know about it. I think only 51 people availed of it last year.”

The current actions of the HSE echo the debate surrounding the introduction of PrEP in the United Kingdom last year. According to the BBC, a trial was established to see how effective the drug would be in preventing HIV transmissions. The trial finished early when it became obvious that PrEP worked successfully.

“IT IS CLEAR THAT IMMEDIATE ACTION MUST BE TAKEN TO COMBAT THE SPREAD OF DISEASE”

Despite this, in 2016, the NHS decided not to fund the drug and said it was the responsibility of local councils to deal with its distribution. This was successfully challenged by the National AIDS Trust in the UK’s High Court.

McLysaght has met with Students’ Union Welfare Officer, Róisín Ní Mhara, and last week a motion relating to PrEP was passed by the SU council. The motion will see the Students’ Union campaign for the licensing of PrEP at the Dublin Pride Parade in 2017. Speaking to the Observer before the council meeting, Ní Mhara said: “My own personal belief is that, if you need it, absolutely you should take it. If you feel you need it and you warrant it in your life, who am I to say it’s not suitable for you to take?”

UCD Students’ Union currently has a plethora of information on sexual health on its webpage. How will the introduction of PrEP augment this current campaign? Ní Mhara continues: “I’m not sure how we’re going to slot it in just yet…because the drug itself isn’t licensed for use in Ireland [but] I would like to sign it into sexual health week somehow.”

“HIV HAS REACHED A CRISIS POINT. THERE’S A NEW DIAGNOSIS EVERY 18 HOURS”

Although the campaign is external to UCD LGBTQ+ society, the committee is still very much dedicated to campaigning for its licensing and usage. Philip Weldon, LGBTQ+ society’s auditor, states: “we took a vote last Monday [23rd], the first committee meeting of semester two, and we all voted in favour to support [the drug], by making the campaign visible at our own events. For example, simply things like stickers. We’re more than happy to display it on our own materials at coffee mornings and other events.”

At present, the campaign has not been met with opposition at any level. PrEP is known to create minor side effects, such as nausea and diarrhoea, but these are known to pass after a few days. “There are side effects,” McLysaght says, “but that’s part of the territory of taking any medication. They’re pretty minimal.”

With HIV diagnoses increasing, a trend that has not been curbed in recent years, it is becoming increasingly obvious that direct action must be taken to stop its escalation. Trials have shown that PrEP is effective in combating HIV, and so necessary measures are needed to see its licensing both at home and abroad.