NIGRA was formed 1975. It consisted of the Belfast Gay Liberation Society (in origin a student society in Queen’s University, Belfast) Sappho readers’ groups in Belfast, Coleraine, Craigavon, Derry/Londonderry, and other places, the NI Council on Religion and Homosexuality (NICRH), then run from Portadown, (it later became the Gay Christian Fellowship, and is now Outlook). There was also the 1974 Homosexual Law Reform Committee, and a group for Transvestites and Transsexuals (run from Bangor/Newtownards). This has been superseded by the Belfast Butterfly Club. ‘Gay Rights’ was taken to mean the rights of anyone oppressed on account of their – actual or imputed – sexuality.
The main thrust of NIGRA’s campaigning activities was the demand that those elements of the 1967 Sexual Offences Act, decriminalising certain male [homo]sexual activities in England and Wales be extended to Northern Ireland. The government at Westminster was eventually forced to do this by our case at the European Court of Human Rights [ECHR] in Strasbourg. The law effecting decriminalisation in Northern Ireland was passed in October 1982. This meant that gay men were equally oppressed throughout the UK state. This judgement of the ECHR laid down a Europe-wide norm on the matter of the right to privacy of gay men, and by implication, of all gay people (and, indeed, of all citizens, irrespective of their sexuality).
In early 1994, NIGRA spearheaded a campaign to have the relevant provisions of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act extended to Northern Ireland. This reduced the male homosexual age of consent from 21 to 18, the latter being a “compromise” age, stopping short of equality at 16. Two further reductions (to 17and then 16) were later effected.
Over the years we have exposed the hostile attitude of the courts to gay women and men. The refusal of the courts to allow lesbian mothers access to their children is a serious injustice. The use of the ‘Portsmouth Defence’ (also known as the ‘homosexual panic’ defence), has been exposed by us and been the object of prolonged campaigning work with the police and prosecution services.
Equally important has been our work with the police in Northern Ireland. Over the years we have developed relations with them and also provided a training course for police cadets on gay sensibilities. We have also actively challenged the police force when necessary if it was and is felt that they have been heavy handed or back-pedalled in what is obviously a death with a gay overtone.
NIGRA has also helped provide a public space for gay people, by organising entertainments like discos, and social and cultural events. We have published material for gay people and about gay life, for our community in general interest magazines, and appeared on, facilitated, or even made, radio and television programmes aimed at the general public.
Currently we maintain a watching brief on the police and government, challenging and advising where appropriate. We also have a number of ongoing campaigns, one of which is the ‘Access to Material In Libraries for the Gay Community’.