Bill will exonerate men convicted in past for homosexuality

For too long homosexual men were harassed and tormented by the State and its culture

Spectators at Dublin Castle for the Referendum on Marriage Equality count in May of  2015: we must continue moving towards full equality for LGBT people. Photograph: Dara Mac Donaill

Spectators at Dublin Castle for the Referendum on Marriage Equality count in May of 2015: we must continue moving towards full equality for LGBT people. Photograph: Dara Mac Donaill

 

Eighteen months ago, on Saturday, May 23rd, 2015, our nation came together to declare that all people should be treated equally, no matter who they love.

To the credit of the Irish people, they reacted to the proposal to allow for marriage equality with a generosity of spirit that was admired the world over. On that day, we became the first country to decide by popular vote to allow same-sex couples to marry.

I stood at a count centre in Dundalk on that day, with tears streaming down my face, and I embraced two old friends. They, alongside many other activists across the country, had battled for years to have their loving relationship recognised like those of their married friends.

But while we celebrated that day, my thoughts also turned to the past, and how we have treated LGBT people in this country until recently.

When I sat down to begin my Leaving Cert exams in June 1993, sexual acts between same-sex couples were illegal. By the time I got to college that September, liberation had finally come for gay men, who were no longer told that having a sex life made you a criminal.

In truth, we’ve come a long way in a relatively short time since then.

Decriminalisation and after

Decriminalisation was followed by the ending of discrimination in the provision of goods and services, employment-equality legislation and, over recent years, gender-recognition legislation and the first anti-bullying procedures to require all schools to tackle homophobic and transphobic bullying.

Equality for LGBT people has not been fully realised. But we have moved a long way in the right direction.

An important part of delivering equality is coming to terms with the past. Just as new child-protection procedures had to be accompanied by a reckoning for historical child abuse, justice requires the same be true in other areas.

This week, the Labour Party will introduce two Bills into Seanad Éireann that will go some way towards making up for how we have historically discriminated against LGBT people.

Our State inherited from Britain the draconian laws we applied over the decades to persecute and prosecute gay men in particular. It took until the 1990s for Irish legislators to find the moral courage to do anything about this.

Hostility and derision

In that time, hundreds of Irish citizens – our brothers, fathers, uncles, cousins and friends – were convicted under our cruel and antiquated homophobic laws. These Irish citizens were harassed and tormented by a State and culture that officially treated them with hostility, derision and ridicule. They are owed an apology.

As is happening in England and Wales and even Northern Ireland, lawmakers here should support legislation to apologise to and exonerate those who were convicted of sexual offences before 1993, who would be innocent of committing any crime today.

That is why I am introducing the Convictions for Certain Sexual Offences (Apology and Exoneration) Bill 2016. The Bill, which will be introduced to the Seanad today and debated in mid-January is, I believe, long overdue.

It provides for an apology from the State and exoneration for those convicted of engaging in sexual offences that have since been abolished. And it goes further than this, to officially acknowledge that the offences and prosecutions involved were “improperly discriminatory, contrary to human dignity and infringed personal privacy and autonomy”.

Hurt and marginalisation

Nothing we do or say now will ever truly make up for the hurt and marginalisation which official Ireland imposed on gay citizens for decades, and which caused so many people to live with a crushing and enduring fear of being “found out”. But in apologising for what we did in the past and acknowledging that it was wrong, we might ease some of that pain.

In doing so, we can also begin to stimulate a wider national debate with and among older members of the LGBT community about their experiences of prejudice and stigma, their lives and loves, and their hopes and needs for the future.

Tomorrow, my colleague Ivana Bacik will introduce another related Bill to acknowledge that gay and lesbian couples who were legally unable to marry for so long shouldn’t be blocked from receiving normal pension rights just because they didn’t get married before a certain age – even though it was the State’s delay in legislating that prevented them from marrying before that age.

In May 2015, we saw a national outpouring of joy from a community marginalised in this country for too long. The two pieces of legislation being published by the Labour Party this week won’t have anything like the same impact. But they are important steps towards righting a historic wrong against LGBT people.

Ged Nash is Labour Party spokesman on equality, labour affairs and workers’ rights

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