Protected: The Making of a Community – NIGRA

NIGRA (the NORTHERN IRELAND GAY RIGHTS ASSOCIATION) was formed in 1974. It consisted of the Gay Liberation Front (in origin a student Society of the Students’ Union of Queen’s University, Belfast,) and the Sappho lesbian groups in Coleraine, Craigavon, Derry / Londonderry and other places. Sappho magazine was launched in London at the same time, rather than causing friction, it led to a useful alliance. Other groups were the Northern Ireland Council on Religion and Homosexuality, (NICRH – members knew it as ‘knickers’) run from Portadown, (it later became the Gay Christian Fellowship, and then Outlook), and the 1974 Homosexual Law Reform Committee (of which [Archbishop] Robin [Lord] Eames was a Trustee). There was also a group for TransvestiteSeand Transsexuals (ancestor of the Belfast Butterfly Club) run from Bangor, North Down. ‘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 was the demand that those elements of the 1967 Sexual Offences Act, decriminalising some male [homo]sexual acts be extended to Northern Ireland. Westminster was forced to do this by the ECHR (European Court of Human Rights): the law was extended in October 1983. Gay men were thereby equally oppressed throughout the UK state. This ECHR judgement laid down a legal norm on the matter of the civil right to privacy of gay men, and by implication of all Gay people, (and of all citizens, irrespective of sexuality, or orientation).The campaign lasted six yearSeand, the actual case before the ECHR (a body attached to the Council of Europe, and not to the European Union) is named after the plaintiff, Jeff Dudgeon. The ‘Dudgeon Judgement’ has been quoted in cases before, for example, the Supreme Courts of Colombia, and of Romania. It has also been the subject of academic investigation in universities as far apart ‘as New England and New South Wales.The spirit in which the UK State fought the case is evidenced by the fact that NIGRA was denied its costs of more than 25,000. This money had been donated by Gay women and men, and their organisations, from Seattle, Washington State, USA, to

Auckland, New Zealand. The UK government’s behaviour in this case was in contradiction, and contempt, of the convention in these matters.

Sixteen, Seventeen, even EighteenIn 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. The age has been further reduced to 16 in England & WaleSeand in Scotland, and to 17 in Northern Ireland.

The latter figure is not a result of some ancient act of the vassal Irish ‘Parliament’. It’s due to an enactment of ‘Stormont’ dating from 1950. It waSean attempt to bring the age of consent into line with that in England [& Wales], and Scotland. This means that for more than 10 years the age of consent in Northern Ireland was lower that of the rest of the UK State. Understand that “age of consent” is ‘journalese’ and not a technical legal term, it does not appear in any laws of the land in any part of the UK State, or any ‘Common Law’ state (the UK, the USA, most of ‘the Commonwealth’; or Eire). The Law CourtsOver the years we have exposed the hostile attitude of the Courts to Gay women and men. The refusal of judges, on numbers of occasions (it is the usual attitude of these men: there are no women on the bench in Ulster) to allow lesbian mothers access to their children iSean injustice. Children have, usually, been handed over to heterosexual male parents who were drunks, drug-takers, religious fanatics, and / or guilty of domestic violence. Gay male parents come before the courts very rarely, and are even less likely to be allowed to look after their children. Such parents usually feel it necessary to prevaricate, about their sexuality and their domestic arrangements.

The Portsmouth Defence

The use of the ‘Portsmouth Defence’ (also known, more recently, as the ‘homosexual panic’ defence), has been exposed by uSeand has been the object of prolonged campaigning work. The ‘Defence’ consists of claiming that the victim (of murder or manslaughter) was making unwanted sexual advances to the killer. These alleged sexual advances (the dead have no defence in our courts), have

been held to justify killings of extraordinary violence. In fact, types of violence: rendering the victim unrecognisable by stamping or jumping on their face and upper body – is a sure sign of this sort of killing.This defence is becoming less widely used, due to the work of Gay Rights campaigners here, and also in England & Wales, and in Scotland (and further afield where English Common Law, or the enactments of Westminster, form the basis of the law of the land). NIGRA has played a most significant part in this, we have, over many years, supplied material to documentary programme makers who have exposed the practice. We have also taken the matter up at many legal levels up to the Office of Lord Chancellor (the chief law officer of the UK state).

The PoliceOur relations with the police (the RUC – Royal Ulster Constabulary / now the PSNI – Police Service of Northern Ireland) has improved over the years. There was a painful series of encounters in 1977, when picketing a large newsagents which refused to stock Gay News (while stocking the publications of groups which had bombed their premises!). The same year saw the series of arrests of officers of a number of Gay groups, (Cara-Friend, NIGRA, the 1974 Homosexual Law Reform Committee), which led to the Dudgeon case at the ECHR.There was a confrontation over the cover-up of the murder of a Gay man, Anthony McCleave. Mr McCleave was killed in 1978. The RUC closed the case within twentyfour hours. It was reopened due to a campaign by NIGRA (backed by Mr McCleave’s family). Anthony McCleave was found, by the longest-sitting Coroner’s Inquiry in Commonwealth [of Nations] history, to have been murdered. (It may be that the police were attempting to “spare” the family the shame of Anthony having been the victim of a Gay-killing. His family were quite aware of his sexuality, and demanded justice.) GLASNOSTSince the turn of the 1990s, with Pride events, especially the Dander, organised for a number of years by a sub-committee of NIGRA, relations with the police have become less confrontational. An element of glasnost has overtaken the RUC, and NIGRA has since 1996, taken part in the training of full-time officers. We have also taken to visiting police stations to try to get the Superintendent in charge to take a graduated approach to the policing of cases involving Gay men (or those engaging

past has been to prosecute first-time offenders, which has led to “exposure” in the tabloid press, and often, to the break-up of marriages, families, careerSeand sometimes, suicide.This work is still in hand and is very necessary, the police tend to mirror, as they see it, the generally accepted opinions of the society around them. They do not, for fairly obvious reasons, like taking an initiative in contentious – ‘moral’ – areas. Public SpaceWe have helped to provide a public space for Gay people, including entertainments like discos, and also social and cultural events. We have published material by Gay women and men and about Gay life, for our own community, at home and away. We have also published such material in general interest magazines, and appeared on, facilitated, or even made, radio and television programmes aimed at the general public. This aspect of our work, as a source of material, and also of advocacy, will probably become more important in the future. We also maintained a library of relevant books, pamphlets, magazineSeand other periodicals, at a time when such material was hard to come by, and was not readily available in public libraries, or commercial outlets. The greater part of our holdings is now with the Linen Hall Library, and includes a full set of the old Gay News – something which the British Library Periodicals department at Colindale, London, does not have.

Section 75Section 75 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998 (the Belfast Agreement) offers great advances to Gay people, in terms of our social rights. It is not equality of citizenship,and that still has to be fought for, (almost certainly at the level of the UK state Westminster, or possibly the European Union) and when we have achieved equal citizenship, it will have to be monitored.

There is still plenty to be done, if you would like to join us come to the meetings on the first Thursday of every month, or contact the following: NIGRA

PO Box 44 Belfast

BT1 1 SH Tel: 02890 665257 /90 664111 e-mail: – ASK BELFAST –I AM TOO PEE’D-OFF TO.

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