Sunday 20 May 2018

'They said ‘No, no, I’m not out to my grandmother’' - Mary Robinson recalls LGBT leaders' reluctance to be photographed on day bill decriminalising homosexuality was signed

A Different Country documentary chronicles stories of Ireland's LGBT leading up to the decriminalisation of homosexuality in 1993

Mary Robinson with GLEN 1993
Mary Robinson with GLEN 1993
Kirsty Blake Knox

Kirsty Blake Knox

The first rainbow flag was flown in the 1978 San Francisco Gay Freedom Day Parade by artist Gilbert Baker.

Now, international brands the world over including Facebook, Google, and Smirnoff are eager to nail their rainbow colours to the mast.

Documentary maker Edmund Lynch says while “it’s the in thing to have a gay friend these days”, it’s vital to remember the stories of members of the LGBT community who lived during a time when homosexual acts were illegal.

Before homosexuality was decriminalised in Ireland in 1993, a huge number of the LGBT community lived in isolation, their sexuality and sub culture shrouded in secrecy and a degree of shame.  

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Since 2013, Lynch has interviewed 168 individuals - both older members of Ireland's LGBT community and heterosexual people involved in the fight for equal rights - to create a living archive.

Lynch hopes this will ensure the obstacles they overcame are never forgotten.  

One of those interviewed is former President Mary Robinson, who signed the bill decriminalising homosexuality on July 7 1993.

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Robinson recalls how many of the LGBT leaders were reluctant to be photographed at Áras an Uachtaráin on the day the bill was signed.

“I said, ‘Don’t you want to have a photograph?’ They said ‘No, no, I’m not out to my grandmother’. ‘No, my people at work don’t know’,” she says.

“These were the leaders, this was Glen. These were the ones who had been out to somebody and had been brave.

“I had a photograph with less than half the group, who were willing to be there visibly beside the President of Ireland.

“It again brought home to me the amount of stigma and fear and hurt and misunderstanding, just the trauma involved in this, and how important it was to continue to make sure we could, ultimately, end up with total equality before the law, which we now have.

“We are a better country, now, for what has happened,” Mrs Robinson said.

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Mrs Brown’s Boys star Rory Cowan and founder of Ireland's Queer Archive Tonie Walsh share their experience of living in Ireland before homosexuality was decriminalised.

"I didn't know what it was at first," Cowan says. "Everyone else fancied girls but I didn't."

Cowan realised he was gay at the age of 25 and says he was fortunate to never experience hostility about his sexuality.

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Producer Lynch says he has received little to no funding for the archive.

 “But I thought it was so important to speak to these people - people who lived during that time.

"I want to keep this going so we have a constantly evolving archive.”

The documentary features extensive archive footage and details the obstacles the LGBT community faced as they tried to campaign and educate people about the AIDS epidemic at a time when both homosexuality ad contraception were illegal.

A Different Country will be shown on RTÉ One tomorrow at 9.35pm

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