independent

Friday 18 April 2014

Queer times

Out and proud: The annual Gay Pride Parade has moved from being defined by protest to being a colourful celebration

The young gay man was attacked in a known cruising spot in the Phoenix Park. He was set upon by a group of what he later described to Gardai as "maniacal youths" who knocked him to the ground, and beat him with clubs, resulting in several cracked ribs.

They then used a Stanley knife to cause a laceration on his penis that required six stitches. Finally, as he lay semi-conscious on the ground, some of the thugs ejaculated over him before they fled.

This shocking news report was carried in the March/April 1986 edition of Out magazine, one of the thousands of resources that make up the Irish Queer Archive, which officially transferred to the National Library of Ireland this week.

Within that archive of newspaper cuttings, magazines, journals, and pop culture memorabilia lies material that attests to the great achievements and advances in Irish gay life over the past four decades.

But it also serves as a crucial reminder of the many shameful prejudices and problems that gay and lesbian people encountered during the long, often dark struggle for equality in this country.

The archive holds numerous stories of gay men being refused entry to pubs and hotels around the country, while a feature from the Irish Times in June 1985 quotes the founder of an Irish singles club as saying his group has "no queers, homos, none of that carry on. Our members are entitled to no less".

Elsewhere, there is a media-watch report charting the response to the appearance of a lesbian named Joni on The Late Late Show in January 1980.

One caller to RTE, a doctor no less, is quoted as saying that he "does not pay the licence fee to see that filthy person", while another complainant refers to the woman as "a pervert".

But it's the largely anecdotal instances of violence against gay people in the 1970s and '80s -- crimes that more often than not went unreported by victims who feared they would be "outed" or even mocked by authorities if they came forward.

The most notorious -- though by no-means isolated -- "queer-bashing" of this kind was the death of 31-year-old Declan Flynn at the hands of five teenage thugs in the Fairview Park in September 1982. Their release on suspended manslaughter charges in March 1983 provoked a huge reaction, and led to the first proper Gay Pride march that June.

The 25th anniversary of that protest will be marked this afternoon when hundreds of gay, lesbian and transgender people, as well as their families and friends, take to the streets of Dublin for the annual Pride parade. This year's Pride festival also commemorates the 20th anniversary of Senator David Norris' victory against the Irish government in the European Court of Human Rights, which put enough pressure on the State to eventually decriminalise male homosexuality in June 1993 -- 15 years ago exactly to the day.

Tonie Walsh, one of the guiding forces behind the Queer Archive, says the nature of today's parade itself illustrates how much has changed in gay life over the past 30 years.

"It shows how we have moved from a phase when Pride used to be defined by protest," explains Walsh, who is also Grand Marshall in today's march. "Now it's a party, with a fantastic, colourful parade.

"The protest isn't over, but so much of the equality and civil rights jigsaw has been put into place, and while there are a few remaining pieces, we know they are in sight."

One of those jigsaw pieces is the proposed civil partnership legislation that's currently gathering dust in Leinster House. This year's Pride festival, however, is pushing further with its message and calling on the Government to bring in full marriage rights for gay couples (see panel below).

Aside from that issue, there remain other serious problems to be tackled. Certain toxic attitudes and prejudices still prevail, a case in point being the kind of views expressed recently by Northern MP, Iris Robinson, who called homosexuality an "abomination".

"There are still very definite areas of discrimination for gay and lesbian people in the workforce, and in schools and educational establishments," says Ailbhe Smyth, Chairperson of the National Gay and Lesbian Federation.

"It's still very difficult for gay people to achieve prominence in public life, for example, and people around the country still disguise their sexual identity for fear of being stigmatised.

"We also have to recognise that there is still a level of violence against gay people on the streets and in public areas.

"A liaison officer has been appointed by the Gardai to deal with such attacks, but that continues to be very worrying."

Homophobic bullying in Irish schools is also a major concern of gay rights groups, and that issue is covered in a startling documentary entitled Faggot, Dyke, Freak, Whatever, which will be broadcast on NewsTalk 106-108 next Saturday at 7am.

"Bullying against young gay people is disgraceful," Smyth says. "There has to be at least some connection between this problem and our shocking youth suicide rates. The word 'gay' is thrown around schoolyards as an insult.

"Enormous strides have been made, but gay people are still not on a level playing field. In that regard, events like the transfer of the Queer Archive to a national institution are hugely significant. It symbolises that the Irish State is taking ownership of our gay heritage for the first time."

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