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?

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.

Between drinks and films I chatted with friends, and we commented on the fact that the revamped bar had no blinds on the windows, allowing passersby to see straight through to the revelry inside. Although it did install window coverings some time later, it was still Dublin’s first modern openly gay bar. This was a far cry from the old days.

In 1980s Dublin the Bailey, on Duke Street, was a trendy pub to go to on a Saturday lunchtime. The Oak, on Dame Street, was also a happening place. The best-known gay bar was Rice’s, on St Stephen’s Green. Nearby, “the Triangle”, between Peter’s Pub, Bartley Dunnes and the South William, was an oasis of tolerance.

Many would head to the Hirschfeld Centre, on Fownes Street, afterwards to dance and, if they were lucky, to score. Disco reigned, and a mirrored alcove was the unofficial territory of a cohort of handsome young men who had been to the US and brought back with them music and a lifestyle that were previously alien. They imbued Dublin with a joie de vivre and gave us a taste of what was possible. Most of those fine young men have died since then.

The Labour Party won 33 seats in the 1992 general election and went into government with Fianna Fáil. This put Labour in a pivotal place to introduce the long-overdue legislation to decriminalise homosexuality. There was a circularity attached to the fact that, as president, Mary Robinson signed the legislation into law in 1993. This was a decade after she had represented David Norris in his Supreme Court action to challenge the constitutionality of the 1861 Offences against the Person Act and the 1885 Criminal Law (Amendment) Act.

Flight or fight
I was on the Greek island of Mykonos when the law was enacted, in June 1993. One night shortly after I got back, on my way to join friends at a club, I was accosted by thugs in an alley. They taunted me with homophobic comments. I sized them up, all four of them, and realised the odds were hopelessly stacked against me. Flight wasn't possible, so I knew I had to fight. And I had to be decisive.

Perhaps it was a lifetime of pent-up rage against intolerance, but I let loose on who I guessed was the leader of the pack, the guy with the loudest mouth. My fist drove him to the ground, and as his gang members came to his aid I retreated to the safety of the nearby club. I was lucky. Buzz O’Neill, in a well-documented assault, was attacked in Dublin as he left a gay club in April. This was on a main street, not in an alley. And no one came to his assistance.

Life for gay people in Ireland has changed. But not quite enough. We are still in danger. Many are still caught up in the closeted life of old. And marriage equality is now the major issue.

It was heartening recently to hear the opinion of my young grandniece, Orla, on what it means to be gay. She was upset because people said her idol, a certain Mr Bieber, was gay. My nephew asked his daughter what gay meant. Casually, she told him it was when a boy loved another boy, or a girl loved another girl. He was impressed by his seven-year-old’s ease with the topic.

This is where the real progress has been made in the 20 years since decriminalisation. The fact that children and young people are not intolerant; this is the bedrock of the further progress that will be made.

The late Harvey Milk, the first openly gay person to be elected in California, spoke of the importance of gay visibility. “Break down the myths, destroy the lies and distortions. For your sake. For their sake. For the sake of the youngsters.” Gay people continue to do this. Proof, if it is needed, comes in a 2012 Millward Brown survey that showed 75 per cent of the electorate would vote in favour of same-sex marriage. Yet again our politicians are playing catch-up.

When President Obama said, “I think same-sex couples should be able to get married,” with those 10 words he sent out a strong signal of support, value and inclusion. When Enda Kenny refuses to voice his views on marriage equality, and says it’s “a matter for the constitutional convention’’, he sends out an equally strong message to the contrary, one that undermines support for gay people.

A little over a year ago I attended the wedding celebration of two beloved friends who left the State to tie the knot in a place that recognised the marriage of same-sex couples. When they got back they and their families and friends had one of the most meaningful celebrations of marriage that I have witnessed.

By comparison, civil partnership was an insult to many gay people. It was as if we had to serve an apprenticeship, to prove our relationships endured and were valid and worthwhile.

Yet it’s uplifting to see young and not-so-young people being part of the growing visibility of gay life here, to witness the increased integration of young gay men and lesbians. There is a queer sensibility hitherto unknown. Gay bars evolved so that people who were unwanted elsewhere could congregate and be themselves safely and without fear of the consequences in a hostile world. And we now exist beyond the ghetto and the haven.

Twenty years ago a friend in California wrote to congratulate me on the reform of homosexual law. He said that it was a huge step forwards but that a long journey remained. We are hopeful that, with marriage equality imminent, the end may be just in sight.

I can't help thinking of how my departed friends, people who were in the wrong place at the wrong time and are no longer with us, would make sense of the Dublin and the Ireland of 2013. I imagine there'd be some dancing involved.

Ger Philpott is a writer, director and journalist, and former director of Aidswise