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Letters to 'The Gay Byrne Show' in 1990 reveal a country opposed to discussion of homosexuality, never mind equality


Gay Byrne

Gay Byrne

Gay Byrne

'It must be proved that a man or woman is drunk before they can be arrested," wrote one Irish woman to Gay Byrne's radio show in January, 1990, in the week after an appearance on the programme by David Norris.

"In which case then," she went on, "it is only when the homosexual can prove that he is abnormal that legislation to legalise his action can be brought in. These homosexuals don't have to give proof, with the result that anyone can claim to be homosexual in order to have easy and irresponsible sexual gratification."

This letter writer continued with similar certainty that her argument was pure logic, and that anything else was crazy talk.

This was 1990. It wasn't the Stone Age. It was only three years before Ireland decriminalised homosexuality. It was, however, a world away from the current debate that surrounds the marriage equality referendum, no matter what you think of the standard of the current debate.

The letter writer above, and all of those whose words are reprinted today, were writing in response to the appearance of David Norris on Gay's radio show. Yes, you guessed it, one letter writer suggested that the show be renamed 'The Gay Hour', such was its perceived support for gay rights.

Norris, along with some other voices, was on the airwaves in response to a statement from the Archbishop of Dublin, Dr Connell, the previous week. The Archbishop had referred to homosexuality as a disorder and, as consequence, a disorder that could be put right.

David Norris talked to Gay in an attempt to point this argument up as hogwash, and the postal response was quite something.

"A very high percentage of gays are cultivated," wrote one listener, and he didn't mean that they were well versed in arts and culture. In his letter, this man counted six people who were known to be gay in his townland during his childhood, pre- and post-World War II. So they were known about, but living what might be called thwarted lives, but this listener firmly believed this was for the common good.

"I fear that the high profile of so many of them nowadays is bound to give this act respectability," he wrote. "None of us would wish this problem on our dear ones, but if it happens, then we must live with it." Silently, that is.

The "act" was a major preoccupation of the letters to The Gay Byrne Show. "Gay people may be very nice people in all aspects except in the act they perform between two men," wrote one correspondent. This person also took grave exception to Gay's use of the phrase "front passage of a woman".

For the most part, the "act" was at the heart of most of these letters. "Unnatural", "disgusting", "perverted", came up a lot. Tracts from the Bible citing proper ways to use one's body were also cited. And it was pretty much all about the men. Lesbians really did not figure in these letters.

Nor, interestingly, did any idea of gay men or women seeking to have children and a family together.

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In essence, all the letter writers imagined homosexuality to be about was sex. Not love, not a shared life, not happiness or self-acceptance. It was about the sex. And they were against it. And many questioned if homosexuality was an issue of nature or nurture, and most were in step with Dr Connell.

"Were they born with the complaint? Or did they develop it by pandering to their sex urges?" wrote one listener.

"Would it be more profitable [than talking about acceptance of homosexuality]," asked one writer, "to discuss the causes and try to prevent the upspring of so many of them in our country?"

There is passion in many of these letters for silence on the subject of being gay.

One writer bemoans a book used for sexual education in Irish schools, which holds up homosexuality as an option. This, she says, is the very mindset that creates the "condition".

Worse, she notes, are those helplines promoted by secretly gay volunteers at schools and youth clubs, which are only giving the young people ideas.

And putting a lid on the discussion and the "urges" is seen as what might be called the solution to homosexuality; the end of which would be its eradication, rather than any openness or equality.

One man wrote in to condemn Gay's final note on the radio show in question, in which he said that he hoped listeners had learned something from the discussion. "What we learned," this man wrote, "is that the teaching of Archbishop Connell is like pure clear spring water (divine revelation) and the pitiful pleadings of David Norris are clay. When you mixed the two you got mud to throw at your listeners." He was fed up with Gay's "efforts to erode and undermine" the hearts of the Irish people, this listener concluded.

Another writer, who acknowledged the "very large number of enthusiastic homosexuals" among Roman Catholic priests and brothers, said that it wasn't homosexuality that was at issue, but "buggery".

In fact, this correspondent went on to suggest a better alternative in mutual masturbation, which he describes as "a sort of ring a ring a rosie, which involves an alternative to holding hands."

"Homosexual acts are contrary to the law of God, being a perversion of the sexual nature of mankind," wrote one man, in the capital letters of an emphatic position.

"We should pray for homosexuals and all perverts . . . They are not gays they are sads," wrote a woman, who explained how the devil had worked on the minds of anyone who believed themselves to be gay.

These positions echoed throughout the letters to Gay, though there were some who wrote in support of David Norris, and others who wrote as gay people, or parents of gay people. For the most part, and worth noting, is that these people almost all remained anonymous.

They didn't just ask Gay to not read out their names; they didn't sign them.

One woman, said that she had "lost" her 24-year-old son to emigration because he couldn't live safely or happily here. "I am sure that you are becoming aware of the sense of isolation and fear that our tyrannical sexual jack boot society inflicts on a lot of its people," she wrote.

This woman signed off as "a closet mother", but later stuck a Post-It to the back of her letter, confessing her shame at remaining anonymous.

Another young man said that in writing, "I am homosexual," he was saying it for the first time. "Nobody knows, my family, my friends, and I dearly hope that nobody suspects," he wrote. He signed himself, apologetically, 'Mr X'.

With that in mind, consider the relative courage of a person who wrote in support of David Norris's position on a postcard, open to all to read, and with their name and address on full display.

Another woman who wrote in support of David Norris concluded her letter thus: "Signed: A married woman with teenage children, who are, as far as I am aware, heterosexual - God knows that won't make life any easier for them, either."

There was compassion here and there in the correspondence, and some degree of live and let live, but it wasn't in any way as present in volume or passion as the argument for shutting up and shutting out homosexuality in Ireland.

Fundamentally, most of the letter writers of January 1990 were in support of the Archbishop and his characterisation of homosexuality as a disorder.

Only a few letter writers actually condemned David Norris, but they were abhorrent of the "act" and despairing of emerging open discussion of homosexuality. In essence, they wanted it to go away. But it didn't go away and here we are now, on the brink of a marriage equality referendum.

We've come a long way since 1990. And, according to your position on the marriage equality referendum, you'll say not far enough, or far enough entirely.

Of course, as was always traditional with The Gay Byrne Show letter writers, the correspondence contained home-spun poems, including a limerick about a gay man and a lesbian who ended up in bed together. The final two lines of which went: "Till one of them said/Who does what, and with what, and to whom?" It was hard to tell on which side of the debate they fell.

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