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. 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.”
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.”
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.”
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 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.”