Parallels of the 2015 Marriage Equality Referendum and Irish LGBTQ Activism in the 70s and 80s
Gays Against Imperialism, a small group of radical activists, 1984.
In the history of LGBT activism in Ireland, RTÉ’s The Late Late Show is perhaps best remembered for the ‘back passages incident.’ In a 1989 televised debate, the show’s host Gay Byrne responded to an evangelical Christian horrified at the idea of ‘men obsessed with men’s back passages’ by retorting, ‘Well what about men obsessed with women’s front passages?’ Indeed, this long running chat show provides numerous launching points for discussions of Ireland’s queer history.
More recently on May 1st, The Late Late Show hosted a debate on the Marriage Equality referendum currently underway in Ireland. Colm O’Gorman of Amnesty International, advocating a “Yes” vote to secure marriage equality for same-sex couples in Ireland, sourced many of his arguments in 1916, the ideological birth date of the contemporary Irish republic. O’Gorman pointed to one specific line scribed by the initial signatories of the Irish proclamation of independence, the promise to cherish ‘all the children of the nation equally.’ At first, the appeal to nationalism appears jarring. In my own discussions with friends, many of them found the argument anachronistic. However, an appeal to an innate nationalist sentiment has been encoded in Irish gay rights activism from the very beginning.
In 1974 the first public protest by members of the Irish gay community took place in Dublin. Historians such as Diarmaid Ferriter have described the wry placards declaring ‘homosexuals are revolting’ yet there is a pertinent aspect of this initial march that commentators have overlooked. One finds the first commingling of nationalist sentiment and sexual liberation when tracing the journey of the marchers. The small number of gays and lesbians in attendance protested against the 1885 Criminal Law Amendment Act, a peculiar inheritance of British rule in Ireland that criminalized male homosexuality until 1993. The march began at the Department of Justice, the institution that currently upheld the law, and finished at the British Embassy, representing those who initially put the law in place. The implication was clear, the movement for gay rights in Ireland would repeal both a systemic embodiment of prejudice and expunge a final colonial vestige from the Irish statute book. As the years progressed and the intensity of violence in Northern Ireland grew, the nationalist aspects of gay activism in Ireland transformed. Small agit-prop republican groups such as Gays Against Imperialism emerged to argue for ‘gay liberation through national liberation.’ Meanwhile, the more ‘respectable’ activists underwent a nationalist discolouration. Ed Madden observes Irish gay publications continued to reprint Padraig Pearse’s homoerotic poem ‘Little Lad of the Tricks’ repeatedly yet, importantly, without context. Providing interpretation may have necessitated evoking Pearse’s extreme brand of nationalism.
This phenomenon is by no means unique to Ireland. Gay activists operating in the United States located their demands within the broader tradition of America’s revolutionary heritage and egalitarian rhetoric. In a divergent historical context, activists in East Germany, organising prior to the collapse of the Berlin Wall, drew on the collectivist ethics of the state’s communist ideology to support their cause. Nationalist sentiment is a fascinating transnational phenomenon in gay movements worldwide, though it has yet to meet its historian. Nonetheless, evoking nationalist sentiment is not the only aspect of the current debate regarding gay rights in Ireland that prompts a feeling of the uncanny in historians of Irish gay activism (of which, admittedly, there are very few). The claims from the No campaign regarding ‘political policing’ merit historical contextualisation.
The 1983 Fairview Park March protesting the sentencing following the murder of Declan Flynn.
Following the Garda Representative Association’s April decision to call for a Yes vote on behalf of its membership, No campaigners called foul, stating police in Ireland should not take a stance on issues such as same sex marriage. When it comes to gay rights activists however, the Irish police force has never been shy of offering its personal opinions. The early 1980s witnessed a string of murders and vicious attacks directed against gay men in Dublin in addition to a substantial rise in urban crime. For Jack Marrinan, GRA general secretary in 1982, these issues were interlinked. In a vitriolic statement Marrinan claimed that the struggle for gay rights in Ireland was fostering this crime wave. Speaking on behalf of the police force, Marrinan argued these ‘unwholesome’ alliances between ‘homosexuals and pro-abortionists’ incubated a subculture within Irish society that ‘says you can do anything if you can get away with it.’ Rather than being a ‘biased’ representation of the force, it is perhaps more accurate to state the recent advocacy for a Yes vote has addressed a severe karmic imbalance. Compared to events in 1982, such as the systematic interrogation of 1200 members of Dublin’s gay community following the murder of Charles Self, an openly gay RTÉ set designer, the recent GRA statement is a measurable indication of social progress.
The history of the movement for gay rights in Ireland remains underwritten. Narratives that have emerged are linear in character and avoid the messy social and cultural histories that one finds implicit in the material contained within the Irish Queer Archive. When, and if, a Yes vote passes on May 22nd, the process of looking back into the past and excavating histories of the movement can perhaps be undertaken with more gusto. Historians considering the entire trajectory of the movement will discover continuities and symmetries coursing through the chronology. The current debate in Ireland has both its uplifting moments and ugly asides. If the history of the movement teaches us anything, it’s that this is nothing new.
Note: First item should read Casey, MJ, 2015