LAST WEEK I spent a fascinating few hours in the Pearse Street Library, captivated by Tonie Walsh’s lecture on Irish LGBT history. Tonie, who is the curator of the Irish Queer Archive (now held at the National Library on Kildare Street), is one of those rarest of men, a living avatar of the Irish gay rights movement and Dublin social history, who is totally accessible and modest, always fresh and enthusiastic. He is like a portable Irish Queer Archive, himself.
Tonie’s lecture took us on a journey from the invisibility and frustration of the ’70s, through the dark violence of the ’80s and into the tentative dawn of the ’90s. The stories he told left me brimming with pride in the courage and dedication of the unsung heroes upon whose efforts my own happiness and freedom stand. It also filled me with determination that this generation would end the fight for equality. I think it would be impossible to be confronted with our LGBT heritage and not feel a revitalisation in the effort to progress the cause of equality, each of us in our own small ways.
The first Dublin Pride march took place on June 27, 1974, when ten brave souls marched from the Department of Justice on Stephen’s Green to the British Embassy on Merrion Road, to highlight the criminalisation of homosexuality, which was itself a nasty hangover from colonial times.
This first modest step towards visibility was made during a decade of great change. It’s probably impossible for young people now to understand how dangerous it was to be seen as or associated with homosexuality. Consensual gay sex was a criminal offence. There was a crusade against the very language used about gay people, with more liberal publications being attacked and censored. Such media coverage was a lifeline for the thousands of confused and lonely people trying desperately to forge a self-identity without the vocabulary to describe who they were.
It was also around this time that ‘Tell-a-Friend’, which would grow up to become Gay Switchboard also came in to being. In 1979, the landmark Hirschfield Centre in a rundown corner of Temple Bar became a crucible of the fledgling gay community. In 1981 a young civil rights lawyer called Mary Robinson brought some media attention to this humble venue by unveiling the Pink Triangle sign outside. The centre itself was not perfect, but at least it was a focal point and a home. There was no commercial gay scene yet, so ‘The Hirsch’, as it came to be known, was a desperately needed safe space for people to come and express themselves.
The darkness of the 80s
The 1980s would prove to be a dark time for queers in Ireland. This was in part fuelled by the grinding poverty and unemployment in the country, but also because the new gay visibility made us targets for victimisation. Dublin, in particular, was a powder keg. The last straw came with the brutal murder of Declan Flynn in Fairview Park in 1983. He was beaten and left to choke on his own blood by five assailants, aged between 12 and 18 years of age. They were arrested shortly after, admitting they were “clearing the park of queers”. Outrageously, at their trial the judge let them off with a suspended sentence.
The court case blew the lid off the injustices against gay people, previously hidden from the eyes of the general public. There were questions in the Dáil and the Seanad. The media was suddenly running sympathetic stories. Gay activists and trade union groups joined to organise a large-scale demonstration in March of 1983. With TV cameras in tow, hundreds marched from Liberty Hall to the location of the brutal murder in Fairview Park. It is chilling to note that as the protestors marched through North Strand they were greeted with the sight of bonfires being burned in celebration by the supporters of the five killers who had gotten off. That march, with its righteous anger and its demand for change, was a turning point. There was no going back.
Out and proud
A few months later on a sunny June 25, 1983 the first true Gay Pride parade, labeled as a protest march, took place. 200 people walked from Stephen’s Green down Grafton Street towards the GPO. Lesbian activist, Joni Crone gave a satirical speech, reworking the 1916 proclamation and re-dedicating the GPO to the gay rights cause. The young Tonie Walsh also took the stand. In Dublin magazine ran an issue dedicated to the “gay generation”, although the ‘gay’ was still in slightly sardonic inverted commas.
That year the bleachers erected outside the GPO for a children’s event the next day were appropriated by impassioned gays. Sadly, however in 1985 it seemed the energy was flagging and the Pride movement was running out of steam. The dark days were returning and the headlines changed from sympathetic to sinister. In 1987 the precious Hirschfield Centre was destroyed in an arson attack.
However, in 1988 the movement redoubled its efforts. GLEN was founded, the first issue of GCN was published, and there was an explosion of new literature critiquing existing laws and spelling out the reasons why equality and justice were important. The Irish Congress of Trade unions and others seized on this new spirit of professionalism and determination in the movement.
After years of stagnation the Irish Pride parade began again in earnest in 1992. 400 people turned up at Stephen’s Green, marching past that other symbol of sexual liberation The Virgin Megastores and then on to Central Bank. In 1993 the bill decriminalizing homosexuality was signed off during Pride Week, prompting the humorous rally cry during the parade: “What do we want? Equal rights! When do we want it? Yesterday!”
With decriminalisation came a new attitude of engagement. Taboos on discussing LGBT issues in polite conversation were broken. It gave mainstream Irish society license to interact with their gay peers. With social respect came commercial validation, as savvy capitalists began to acknowledge the power of the pink punt.
One of the many creative banners in the black and white pictures presented by Tonie at the talk proclaimed: “better blatant than latent”. I think that’s a fitting call to visiblity. The youth vote will be essential in the upcoming referendum on marriage equality and it is more important than ever that young people realise the bravery in the face of terrible violence, the work and dedication, our journey so far has cost.
One of most pertinent and painful aspects of seeing the past is that we are yet to enjoy real equality and liberty. We have inherited a great legacy from brave individuals like Tonie Walsh, but we still have to keep fighting the good fight. We are at a crossroads in Irish history. For the sake of the generations to come we must leave a lasting legacy. We must demand equality with bravery and dignity. We must demand it with pride.
This article originally appeared on TheOutmost.com.