Wednesday 18 September 2019

'I am living the future that people of the 80s fought for' - LGBT+ people share their experiences growing up gay in Ireland

19-year-old Dean O'Reilly became involved with the DCU society in 2017, and has been organising LGBTA events on campus ever since.
19-year-old Dean O'Reilly became involved with the DCU society in 2017, and has been organising LGBTA events on campus ever since.
Rachel Farrell

Rachel Farrell

On June 19, Ireland celebrated the 25th anniversary of the decriminalisation of homosexuality.

In 1982, a gay man called Declan Flynn was attacked in Fairview Park in Dublin, and later died from his injuries. His death sparked a catalyst among many people who lived in fear of expressing their sexuality publicly. 

Eleven years later in June 1993, Ireland passed legislation that decriminalised homosexuality. 

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, an openly gay man, last week paid tribute to those who suffered before the legislation was passed. 

"Men and women of all ages who tried to live and love and be themselves in a society where their identity was feared and despised, and who were aliens in their own country for their entire lives.," he said.

"We cannot erase the wrong that was done to them. What we can say is that we have learned as a society from their suffering.

"Their stories have helped change us for the better; they have made us more tolerant, more understanding and more human."

As Dublin Pride festival comes to an end on Saturday, just three years after Ireland voted for marriage equality, we spoke to two LGBT+ activists- one born before decriminalisation and one born after- about what life was like for them growing up gay in Ireland. 

Tonie Walsh, founder of GCN magazine and the Irish Queer Archive

Tonie Walsh is an LBGT+ rights activist, and one of the founders of Gay Community News (GCN) magazine. Tonie was in his 20s in the 1980s and describes Ireland pre-decriminalisation as "shame-filled".

"It was dangerous and shame-filled while also being exciting and dynamic. The liberation of possibility was writ large," he told

"The paradox of being a sexual outlaw is that one is not bound by any rule book. This in itself can be hugely liberating.

"Law change had no immediate impact on me. However, it changed the way society accepted me. If felt like for the first time, Irish society really, truly recognised me, both as a citizen and also as a consumer."

Tonie Walsh and Garda Inspector Paul Franey.jpg
Tonie and Garda Inspector Paul Franey at the Dublin Castle reception to mark the 25th anniversary of decriminalisation of homosexuality. Garda Franey is responsible for setting up the LGBT Garda group called G-Force.

For Tonie, growing up in the LGBT+ activist community of the 1980s had its challenges, but in 1988, Tonie and Catherine Glendon founded Ireland's longest running LGBT+ publication. 

"All of the 1980s was hugely challenging. I was in my 20s and watched one after another of my closest friends and lovers die of AIDS complications, one of the most horrible, lonely and destructive ways to die and in a society that, in the main, showed scant regard for our suffering. There was enormous neglect, of the dying and of the living.

"Such was the cloud of oppression that beared down on Irish society pre-decriminalisation, some gay businesses were even reluctant to advertise in GCN during its early days. A classic example of internalised homophobia at its most extreme.

"Although the first couple of years of the publication were exhausting and hard, over time there was a progressive buy-in by readers and contributors. This was such important and necessary encouragement to the mag. It helped validate what we were doing and allowed TeamGCN to constantly move forward with ever bigger goals."

Dean O'Reilly, Chairperson of Dublin City University (DCU)'s LGBTA society

But for 19-year-old Dean O'Reilly, growing up in Ireland post-decriminalisation wasn't without its own challenges. The chairperson of DCU's LGBTA society, Dean spends much of his college time actively fighting for representation among students in DCU.

"The hardest thing growing up was never seeing myself represented. I had this specific idea of what a gay person was – how they act, talk, walk, carry themselves and so on. I never felt like I had someone I could relate to that mirrored my identity," he told

"I think that’s why I spent so long in the closet and denying my attraction - I’m not like what I’m being told gay is, so I must not be gay. It’s quite logical thinking when you put it that way. 

"Looking back, I think I was going through more emotional turmoil than I let myself believe. I was a very emotionally charged teenager, especially between the ages of 15-17 when I was struggling with my identity the most, and I would lash out a lot."

Dean admits he is "privileged" to have grown up in a country where being gay was no longer against the law, and says he "cannot thank" the people that fought for his rights before he was born.

dean oreilly dcu lgbta.jpg
19-year-old Dean O'Reilly became involved with the DCU society in 2017, and has been organising LGBTA events on campus ever since.

"It is hard enough growing up and living in a society where the people around you don’t accept you, it’s another story when your government targets you as well. 

"I am living the future that the LGBTQ+ people of that time [1980s] fought for. I can never thank anyone that was influential in the change enough."

Although he says he was "very much closeted" during the campaigning for marriage equality, Dean says his work with DCU's LGBTA society has changed his life for the better.

"My work in DCU LGBTA is one of the most important things in my life – and that’s no exaggeration. I had nothing coming into the society for the first time. I had very much separated myself from my old friend group having recently been outed. I didn’t know what I was doing."

Both men will celebrate Pride on Saturday, but in different ways.

Tonie believes the parade needs more work and co-operation from Dublin City Council, but will celebrate in his own way.

"As the most public tip of Pride, the parade is all about visibility and a celebration of Irish LGBT people finally taking our rightful place at the centre of Irish society. 

"If we're made march, shimmy, dance, walk through minor streets of the city, with hardly anyone spectating on the pavements, then it defeats the process and makes a mockery of the whole event."

On the other hand, Dean says he will walk the parade for those abroad that are still struggling with their sexuality. 

"Getting out in the streets and joining the movement reaffirms that we are here to stay and we are here to support all those that have been forgotten elsewhere. I walk for every LGBTQ+ person living in Russia who hides themselves for fear of persecution. I walk for the closeted trans kid in the middle of nowhere in the United States who is afraid of being harassed for living as their authentic self.

"Supporting Pride is supporting someone’s right to exist. It’s supporting your friends, your family, your loved ones, the kid down the road, your pen pal across the pond…it’s giving community to those that have been robbed of one for so many years."

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