Saturday’s Pride march will have something to celebrate

Life for gay and lesbian people has been transformed over the last two decades

Participants in the 2012 Pride Parade on Merrion Square. Photograph: Dara Mac Donaill

Next Saturday 35,000 people will parade through the streets of Dublin exuberantly, joyously celebrating Dublin LGBT Pride. It’s one of the great annual occasions in Dublin enjoyed by throngs of Dublin’s citizens and passers-by, who come out to join in the celebrations.

The parade signifies many things, but mostly it marks how Ireland has changed in a relatively short period of time.

Twenty years ago, the 1993 Dublin Pride march fitted into the Central Bank Plaza and yet had much to celebrate. The chant was “What do we want? Equality! When did we get it? Yesterday!” as participants cheered the passage of the law which decriminalised homosexuality. Mary Holland put it wonderfully in her column in this paper:

“One would need a heart of stone not to have been moved by the great waves of happiness that surged through the centre of Dublin last Saturday afternoon as Irish gays and lesbians took to the streets. They threw pink carnations into the crowd, walked hand in hand and chanted ‘We’re here, we’re queer, we’re legal.’”


That was a watershed moment in the liberation of gay and lesbian people in Ireland. Change had been long delayed. Senator David Norris had taken a case to the Supreme Court, which ruled in 1983 that we were still to be regarded as criminals. Senator Norris took and won his case at the European Court of Human Rights in 1988. A five-year campaign by GLEN, the ICCL and the trade union movement among others led to justice minister Máire Geoghegan-Quinn bringing a Bill to the Oireachtas in 1993 which decriminalised on the basis of equality.

The Debates in the Dáil and Seanad on the Bill are regarded as one of the pivotal moments in a transition to a more modern and progressive Ireland. Geoghegan- Quinn, in an address often cited as one of the great Dáil speeches, termed it "a necessary development of human rights". Minister for equality and law reform Mervyn Taylor commented "What could be more important for us as legislators than to create a climate where two people who have chosen each other can express and share their love?" Senator Norris quoted Daniel O'Connell "Human dignity and freedom are not finite resources. By extending freedoms to others, you enhance, not diminish your own."

Diverse and vibrant
Twenty years on, the LGBT community also has much to celebrate. Life for lesbian and gay people has been transformed over those 20 years. There are diverse and vibrant LGBT groups throughout country. More and more people are living their lives more openly, supported by their families, their friends, their work colleagues and their communities all across Ireland.

Decriminalisation ushered in further protections for LGBT people including powerful equality legislation, protection from dismissal in employment and comprehensive civil partnership legislation. Thousands of lesbian and gay people have celebrated their love and commitment through civil partnerships across every county in Ireland with joyful wedding celebrations where family, friends and neighbours give their affirmation of the profound commitment the couple have just given to one another.

A reflection and a generator of all this progress is that LGBT people are increasingly self-confident about their place in Irish society; increasingly empowered about their right to be “out” in whatever context.

Pride too has transformed. The Pride Parade has outgrown the Central Bank Plaza and the City Council Amphitheatre and now takes over Merrion Square. The Pride Festival is a week-long series of events, political, cultural and social, and yet is still run by a voluntary committee.

There are ongoing debates about the meaning of Pride and the balance of political activism and celebration; about the balance of commercial and community involvement in Pride. These can be healthy, if sometimes difficult, debates.

But until we have reached an Ireland where a young person can discover their sexual orientation or gender identity in an atmosphere of support and acceptance, each person’s participation in the parade is itself a political act. Until we have reached an Ireland where a lesbian or gay couple can walk safely down the main street of any town, hand in hand, the parade itself is a political act. Until we have reached a world where LGBT people in any country cannot be prevented from having a parade, the strong welcome from all sectors of society for Dublin Pride Parade is a political act.

Our progress is not complete, there is still work to do. Legal recognition and protection of lesbian- and gay-headed families and legal gender recognition are urgently needed and promised. The Constitutional Convention voted overwhelmingly for marriage in April and a referendum may be the next step.

Unacceptable prejudice
There is still an unacceptable level of prejudice and discrimination, of bullying and harassment. Young LGBT people can have very difficult times in schools, where the culture is at worst hostile and at best blind to LGBT people. There is much work to be done in the area of mental health and suicide prevention and in promoting awareness of HIV.

There is a strong platform on which to tackle these issues. Every political party supports progress for LGBT people. There is very strong public momentum for taking the next steps to achieve constitutional equality. Increasingly the needs of LGBT people are being integrated into health, education and community safety policies. Successful companies are understanding that it is good for their staff and for their business to ensure that their LGBT employees are fully supported in the workplace. Increasingly, the values of equality and diversity are understood as key attributes of economic recovery.

As the Tánaiste commented last week in a speech titled Open to the 21st Century: Freedom, Equality and Diversity at a GLEN event hosted by Google, "economic progress has to be embedded in a free, open, progressive society . . . We must continue to build a modern Ireland based on prosperity and openness, solidarity and freedom."

Brian Sheehan is director of GLEN - Gay and Lesbian Equality Network. The 1993 debates are available at