'I knew I was an outlaw, my life not real'
DAVID NORRISreveals in this extract from his autobiography how he came to fight for gay rights in a hostile society
I WAS born a criminal. From the moment of my arrival on this planet, my essential nature defined me as such. There was simply nothing I could do about it, since homosexuality is a natural but minority variation of the sexual instinct.
As the American author Wainwright Churchill points out, homosexual behaviour occurs “throughout the mammalian order, occurring in frequency and complexity as one ascends the phylogenetic scale”.
So if such activity is fully natural for a large minority of life on this planet, I sensed that there had to be some reason for the antagonism leading to historic human taboos. The source for this scapegoating of 10 per cent of the population, I discovered, was politico-religious, as it remains.
... In Ireland it was an austere era, and I was an outsider in every way. I was Anglican in a deeply Roman Catholic society; I was half English in a narrow and negatively republican state defined more by hatred of England than love of Ireland; and I was homosexual when you could be jailed for being so.
I knew I was an outlaw, and that my life wasn’t real, which was the reason I didn’t get into politics until much later. Politics was for the real people, and real people went to dances in cricket and tennis clubs, got married, bought houses and ran for election while their wives sat on the platform beside them.
Even as a child I was confronted with this unreality. All Irish schoolbooks concerned Daddy being at work and Mammy, as provided for in Mr de Valera’s Constitution, in the kitchen; and in fiction, the lucky hero and heroine overcame all obstacles and ended happily at the altar. I had no external reality, it was all internal.
Gay people were non-people who lived in a concealed and hidden world. We had to stay in the shadows, keeping our presence under the radar, because if we became real we would be noticed, and that was dangerous. As a result my entire youth was stolen from me.
Towards the end of my schooldays I started to explore a little.
I had a kindred spirit in school, and we occasionally visited a city centre bar called Bartley Dunne’s which was a notorious haunt of the homosexual demi-monde.
It was an Aladdin’s cave to me, its wicker-clad Chianti bottles stiff with dribbled candlewax, tea chests covered in red and white chequered cloths, heavy scarlet velvet drapes and an immense collection of multicoloured liqueurs glinting away in their bottles. The place was peopled by lots of theatrical old queens, with the barmen clad in bum-freezer uniforms. While not being gay themselves, as far as I know, the Dunne brothers were quite theatrical in their own way.
Barry would hand out little cards bearing the legend “Bartley Dunne’s, reminiscent of a left bank Paris bistro, haunt of aristocrats, poets and artists”.
Whatever about that, Saturday night certainly resembled an amateur opera in full swing. There only ever seemed to be two records played over the sound system: Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien by Edith Piaf, and Ray Charles’s Take These Chains From My Heart.
My friend and I were just flirting with the notion of being gay, and enjoyed the camp theatricality of this gloomy bar. We never really discussed our sexuality with any great seriousness but we both fancied the same rugby players and would spend our Friday nights traipsing across from Bartley Dunne’s to Davy Byrne’s and The Bailey in search of a glimpse of our latest out-half.
There were, of course, hundreds of thousands of other gay people in Ireland at the time, and if you accept Kinsey’s reckoning of 10 per cent, then there were perhaps close to half a million. They were almost all in hiding, and as they didn’t have blue ears or any other indicator, you wouldn’t know one if you met him or her on the bus.
There was no doubt about the man I met in the public lavatory in Capel Street on the way home from a social event, however. He flashed at me, and winked. I was in my early twenties and it was the first time I was confronted with the fact that I was not the only real gay in Ireland, and I was delighted. I was less delighted when he asked was it my first time, because when I said yes he dumped me. I call it my George Michael moment!
There was a hugely active sexual life in Dublin in the 1950s and 60s, but it was concentrated in public lavatories, because that was where society corralled gay people. I find it hard to imagine that nobody seemed to think it extraordinary to have a queue as long as you might see outside a cinema along Burgh Quay, and at the corner of Capel Street Bridge and Ormond Quay, every weekend evening. Every so often the guards would go in and fish an unfortunate pair out, but the general populace averted their gaze. Irish people just couldn’t be gay, so what they could see with their own eyes could not actually be happening.