Senators, Queers and Northerners – originally printed in Gay Star Winter 91 Vol 2 No 5 (which cost £0.50 to punters)
On Saturday October 26 the Northern Ireland Gay Rights Association held a Tenth Anniversary Victory Celebration in the Unemployed Resource Centre, in Central Belfast. The tenth anniversary in question was that of Jeff Dudgeon and NIGRA in Strasbourg over the government of the United Kingdom; the actual date was being October 22nd. Happenstantially, it was the actual third anniversary of David Norris’s victory, although we did not know that at the time.
The other guest was Stephen Jeffrey-Poulter the author of Peers, Queers and Commons, a book recounting the past forty years of gay liberation politics in the UK. Stephen was amazed at the turnout in Belfast, which was roughly fifty gay women and men and some non-curvaceous persons. He had spoken to a grand total of three people in Edinburgh the day before.
Admittedly, there was food and drink on offer, which consisted of lots of dead beasts wrapped in various artistic forms. There were also a lot of cocktail sausages, or “pig’s dicks” as they were called by someone, who did not come into the meeting room – I couldn’t help noticing that the pig’s dicks had diminished by about three quarters when we emerged from the actual talkfest.
[You meet a nicer class of person at NIGRA functions].
“Talkfest” is an appropriate word as the celebratory air affected even by Mr Jeffrey-Poulter, who had a rather sombre tale to tell. The whole thing was introduced by PA MagLochlainn, with Jeff Dudgeon speaking first. He said he’d been loitering about Westminster in 1967, when “the Act” was being discussed. Judging from Stephen’s book, practically all the others in the Strangers Gallery during that time were Gay.
Heaven knows how they kept their faces straight while listening to some of the nonsense talked, but that was the way of the world the way of the world then. Gay people were, generally speaking, closeted and ashamed.
About t=his own assault on the UK government, he said that he “knew politics” and “how to organise” and that saw him through. His parents also were supportive and his mother opined that “…even a black beetle’s mother loves it…”, one got a general sense that the audience were discommoded at this but decided to laugh. Jeff demanded a drastic change in the law in effect equality for Gay women and men.
Soldiers are we?
David Norris spoke next and abused the Soldiers of Destiny quite strongly, (flicking through David Alvey’s book Irish Education – The Case for Secular Reform, – earlier in the day – one could not help but noticed that the Soldiers of Destiny [Fianna Fail] have been most active in reforming education in Eire. David described himself as a “retired homosexual” and made use of the libidinousness of the likes of Family Solidarity and various judges making use his allegedly energetic sex life and trying to humiliate him by describing homo-sex (which is, of course, invariably anal sex). This was used by the Save Ulster from Sodomy people, and as David said they are never subjected to the same treatment. “How would Donal Barrington like to have his sexual dealings with his shrivelled up old stick of a wife made public?”
David took a quick gallop through the history of homosexual law in Ireland. Under the old Brehon law it was not illegal, but it could be used as grounds for divorce by a wife if her husband slept with a boy “when it was not strictly necessary”.
The monks were, of course, very put out about this and wrote about people’s sexual misbehaviour at great length. In 1533 Henry VIII of England [it became Britain in 1536 with the Act of Union between England Wales] stole the monasteries and their lands. Thereby, the ecclesiastical courts were absorbed into the state’s statues, and the “abominable act of buggery” became a law oppressing the general population, and not just men who had chosen life-long celibacy.
This was not extended to Ireland, David says this was an accident, but the Poynings Law which made the Irish parliament a vassal of Westminster was not two-way. Laws passed by Dublin had to be approved by the Imperial Parliament as it took to styling itself, but Dublin was not obliged to pass every law passed in Westminster.
In 1631, the Earl of Castlehaven was snitched on by his own son, he [the Earl] was having a relationship with his groom. Condemned by his Peers he was executed. A bishop, Atherton of Lismore, started a campaign to make sodomy illegal in Ireland. . This became law, a hanging offence, on November 1634.The first victim, by a nice irony, was the self-same bishop, who was having a similar relationship to the Earl with his own groom. This man, David said ran alongside the tumbril in tears until he was driven off with a whip.
There was a jump of several hundred years and we came to the Offences Against the Person Act 1861 which was a reforming act, replacing hanging with threat of life imprisonment and the Labouchiere Amendment of 1885. The latter criminalised “gross indecency” between males. The disparity in treatment of Gay men and lesbians in this matter was brought up in David’s own case – and the judges decided that while women might be able to behave indecently they could not be grossly indecent – “perhaps it is unladylike”.
A big problem facing David’s case was the de Valera Constitution of 1937 with its provisions on the family. Mary Robinson, David’s barrister discovered [invented?] “unenumerated rights” in Bunreacht na hEireann, and used these to bring about the right to contraception in the Republic.
The absurdity of the same judges putting their names to ajudgement claiming that anti-homsexual laws had to remain on the Statue book because Gays had to be terrorised into marriage and then handing down annulments because of a spouse’s homosexuality was touched on. So was a particular case from the ‘70s where two men had been spotted by a cop emerging from the closet in a public toilet. They were foolish enough to own up to the fact that they had been having sex. In court the younger man claimed that he had “proof” that he could be “cured” and could get married. The other man who was held [more] responsible had his wiefe in cort as a character witness.
David and Mary Robinson (other lawyers wer mentioned, Garret Sheehan especially) had wanted a “political show trial” in Dublin to expose the conspiracy of silence on the topic.
The State had tried to discredit each of the witnesses. They decided that one of the expert witnesses was Gay. One of them was – they choose the wrong man: a Dr Speigl who had got the American Psychological Association to remove homosexuality from its list of diseases – “…instantly hundreds of millions of people throughout the world wer cured – wouldn’t it be nice if flu, or the common clold could be cured with a show of hands!”
Despite all this David said that the Republic is a more comlex state and society tan many people think, “We elected the first woman MP. Had the first woman Cabinet Minister. Have a woman President. I was the first openly Gay man to be elcted to a national legislature. There are sexual orientation clauses written into a number of laws and this may become a common practice.” [The Soldiers of Destiny may well be led by a woman, Mary O Rourke quite soon].
Stephen [Jeffrey-Pulter] felt rather as if he were the stick to David’s carrot, he had been in six cities in as many days and asked forgiveness if he became somewhat confused. He launched into the 1967 Act immediately describing it, despite its mere six pages, as a “vicious little number”. It actually increased terms of imprisonment for some acts and excluses Service personnel and merchant seamen, there is also a procuring clause in it under which a person introducing two other parties to each other could b eimprisoned themselves.
[In case some people are confused by all this, it should be said that the period between the Wolfenden Report 1957 and the enactment of “the Act” in ’67 brought about an unprecedented level of discussion of homosexuality. Most of this was carried on at a vastly higher level than people are used to today. Even the popular press took a reasonable and usually sympathetic attitude towards the matter. The Act was supported by nearly all of Fleet Street.
It was this atmosphere that encouraged the Homosexual Law Reform Society to become the Campaign for Homosexual Equality (CHE). The law itself was not a great victory but the situation created by (mostly) closeted Gay women and men was of great benefit].
Unfortunately this cannot be said of the position today. The popular press is full of full of foul-mouthed abuse of gay people, and the AIDS crisis has spurred them on to even greater spleen. This led to the enactment of Clause 28 in 1988, “a complicated political cocktail” which made explicit what was implicit in the 1967 Sexual Offences Act, to give it its full title – homosexuality is inferior.
Stephen sprinted through gay history, in 1969 there was the Stonewall riot, where (as Norris said) it was “silly little queens, despised in the scene itself who did the fighting” – of New York’s finest [big butch Irishmen, with their biggest muscle in their brain cavity]. This led to the setting-up of GLF (Gay Liberation Front) in London in 1970 and – gasp! – in Belfast in ’71. Stephen obviously regards this as the Golden Age of Gay Liberation.
But the CHE (Campaing for Homosexual Equality – organised in England and Wales because the Act was not extended to Scotland or Northern Ireland) organised conferences which were attended by thousands of people. These included GLF activists who were also members of CHE, it had something called “national membership”.
This is why the differences between Stonewall, with its allegedly “respectable” approach and OutRage and ActUp are not quite the same as the differences between GLF and CHE, Firstly NIGRA and SMG (the Scottish Minorities Group) – later SHRG) had very strong GLF connections. Secondly, Stonewall and OUtRge are very small and by and large London-bound.
CHE went down the tubes after it moved from Manchester to London.
AIDS has also brought bisexuality to the fore and bisexuals find no place for themselves in Gay groups. What is needed is something like what Jeff had asked for, an Equal Opportunities Act not just within the UK but for all of Europe. Most European states have more rational laws than the UK; 18 year old men who in Denmark can have a perfectly legal association with the same footing as marriage, could be put in prison if they decided to settle in the UK.
Stephen ended by quoting from the GLF Manifesto.
The Dog that didn’t bark
The treatment of the local newspapers of the above celebration – which is quite important, what other element within civil society in the North has changed a law for the good in the past twenty years? – was a case of “the dog that didn’t bark”. Not a word was printed about the event, not even in their What’s On columns. Radio Ulster’s Sunday Sequence had interviews with “Gerard” and with David Norris, but not with Stephen Jeffrey-Poulter or, surprisingly, with Jeff Dudgeon. Radio Ulster gave a lot of time to the first Gay Pride festivities.
I went out in the middle of the meet around the corner to the Sunday News office but the journos who had expressed interest were out in the pub. I have been told that “we weren’t that far away”. Fair enough, but there ae half a dozen pubs they could have been using, and anyway, why should the makers of the news have to search the streets for the reporters of the news?
Fr Pat Buckley, gave the whole of his column in the following week’s Sunday News to the implications of the celebration. The Irish News carried an article on Monday October 28 on a groups set up by NI AIDS Helpline for carers of PWAs. Generally, the Irish News does not handle Gay stories, but it has taken to reporting sleazy stories about cottaging and so forth. Its television critic chose to whinge about having the word “gay” stolen as well as “out” when discussing the eight hours of Gay programming on BBC 2 television. Most of what he wrote was about one of the homophobes, Auberon Waugh – should the Beeb not have a number of Gay women and men on every night telling the viewers why they dislike the socio-sexual goings-on? The Belfast Telegraph also takes a high and mighty attitude to Gay people. This did not prevent one of its pompous columnists, one Laurence White, from sneering about Gay people wanting representation on the St Patrick’s Day Parade.
Sunday Life, the companion paper to the BT has decided to get right down into the gutter and attack gay men in particular, there was a slighting story about the Gay Pride march, there was a full page on Hazelbank on the northern shore of Belfast Lough which apparently is hiving with predatory homosexuals. The same edition carried an editorial condemning homosexuals in the same breath as drunken hooligans and drug [ab]users.
In the cross-channel press, as Radio Ulster rather coyly describes it, the Independent and the Guardian are pro-Gay. The Independent regularly, unfortunately, carries obituaries of lesbians and homosexual men, the latest one being Tom of Finland.
Scotland on Sunday and so far as one can tell the Glasgow Herald and the Scotsman (the companion paper to SonS) have good policies on Gay mattes.
In Northern Ireland we have no friends among the press except Sunday News, which may be dragged down with the News Letter, but this seems to rather little effect, on The Stand on BBC1 NI, a sixth form student asked the chief executive of Amnesty International about the organisation’s attitude to homosexuality..
Further Reading: Stephen Jeffrey-Poulter