20 years of being legally gay
Two decades ago, Mary Robinson signed a law decriminalising homosexuality. Life for gay people in Ireland has changed hugely since then, but has it changed enough?
Say it loud: the 1993 Pride parade on O’Connell Street, Dublin. Photograph: Matt Kavanagh
On parade: two members of the Garda get caught up in the 2005 Gay Pride march. Photograph: Fran Veale
Campaigning senator: David Norris at the 1990 Gay Pride parade
Registration date: Hugh Walsh and Barry Duignam, the first gay couple to have a civil partnership in the Republic, in 2011. Photograph: Alan Betson
When University College Cork refused to recognise its students’ first Gay Soc, in the late 1970s, the group’s members responded by building a raft with a triangular pink sail and taking part in the annual boat race through the city as part of the university’s rag week.
At the Labour Party conference at Connolly Hall in Cork, in 1980, Mary Robinson, who was then a senator, advised a group of men from the city’s Gay Collective to join political parties, join trade unions and lobby for change from within established structures.
In May 1981 more than 200 gay men and women attended Ireland’s first national gay conference, also at Connolly Hall. The seminal event, organised by the Gay Collective, was presciently entitled Gays in the ’80s: Which Way Forward? The conference, which attracted speakers from the US and the UK, was effectively ignored by the Irish media.
In the autumn of 1983 Paul, a gay man who had Aids and was in the last weeks of his life, asked the chaplain of the Catholic-run Dublin hospital in which he was a patient to hear his confession. The priest explained that, because homosexuality was against the laws of church and state, he could not absolve the man unless he promised never again to contemplate having sex with another man.
Paul was distraught. He died shortly afterwards. His death wasn’t recorded as related to Aids. He was the man I had planned to spend the rest of my life with. This was 10 years before Ireland belatedly fulfilled its obligation to decriminalise homosexuality.
Journey as a gay man
My sexual exploration and journey as a gay man began properly in New York in the late 1970s, on a J1 working holiday. After a spell in the Caribbean in the late 1980s, I lived in San Francisco for some time.
Life there was good for a gay person. Being gay wasn’t an oddity; it was normal and integrated. I often thought how different my life would have been if I had grown up in that type of environment, if my first gay experiences had been fostered in an open society instead of one where secrecy and subterfuge were required.
One day, shortly after arriving in the city, a guy smiled at me as I left a dry-cleaner. It was a simple smile, nothing more, and we both went on our way. It was about appreciation and recognition. But in that smile there was an effortless affirmation, something I had been denied most of my life.
I liked it there, but I had unfinished business with Ireland. One day, months later, while driving to early-morning swimming practice I heard on the radio that Mary Robinson had been elected president. A little later, while doing laps of the pool, I decided it was time to go home. Change was in the air.
For some, Dublin of the early 1990s was an emergent gay-friendly city. There was a growing confidence. The city had its first gay and lesbian film festival in the summer of 1992. That weekend the new-look George bar opened. It was an August to remember.