Friday 23 August 2019

Melanie Finn: 'Pride has come long way in 45 years - but LGBT activists 'can't just relive past glories''

In the beginning: A protest outside the Department of Justice on Pride Day in 1974. Photo: David Norris, IQA/NLI
In the beginning: A protest outside the Department of Justice on Pride Day in 1974. Photo: David Norris, IQA/NLI
Melanie Finn

Melanie Finn

It was a quiet occasion for the first Dublin Pride event back in June 1974. There were no trendy rainbow T-shirts or waving of flags or raucous street celebrations that lasted for days.

It was a quick march to the Department of Justice followed by a low-key picnic in Merrion Square for campaigners keen to show their opposition to the criminalisation of homosexuality.

An international movement had been sparked after the 1969 Stonewall Uprising by members of the gay community in New York, protesting against police brutality.

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A parade on Dublin's O'Connell Street in June 1984. Photo: Thomas A O'Shea/IQA/NLI
A parade on Dublin's O'Connell Street in June 1984. Photo: Thomas A O'Shea/IQA/NLI

Senator David Norris recalled how there were "about seven or eight of us" who picketed outside the Department of Justice as they took the first stance against the outdated laws.

"I remember I carried a placard reading 'Homosexuals are revolting' and the 46A bus was going by at the time and it nearly went into the railings at Trinity College when the driver saw us," he said.

"We were protesting because, at that stage, gay men could be sentenced to 10 years' imprisonment as the law criminalised what it termed as any kind of gross indecency between men."

From humble beginnings, the annual event mushroomed as it began growing in support and in 1979, the first Gay Pride Week was organised by the National Gay and Lesbian Federation.

Things took a turn for the sinister in 1982 with the callous killing of Declan Flynn (31), a gay man who was savagely beaten and left to die in Fairview Park.

The gang of five youths, aged between 12 and 18, found responsible for the killing was subsequently given suspended sentences. This sparked huge outrage among members of the LGBT community, who had been suffering an increasing number of public attacks.

Anger led to a protest of 200 people from the city centre out to Fairview Park in March 1983 and the first Pride parade was held on June 25, 1983.

Mr Norris describes Mr Flynn as a "very shy guy" who had come to his house to drink Champagne after the 1979 event as he quietly enjoyed the support of his peers.

"These young louts murdered him in the most vicious fashion and then the judge let them off without any penalties. They murdered a man for nothing other than being gay," he said.

To the wider LGBT community, this sent out a message that people had a "licence to murder gay people with impunity".

"They suffered no penalty whatsoever. That was the mood of the day," added Senator Norris.

He was fighting his own battle behind the scenes as in 1988, after a legal battle lasting more than a decade, the academic won his case at the European Court of Human Rights.

Ireland's laws criminalising homosexuality were found to be in breach of Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights. A very important landmark battle had been won and in 1993, Ireland finally followed suit and officially decriminalised sexual relations between men.

Dublin Pride that year was the biggest event to date, with 1,000 people marching loudly down O'Connell Street.

But what was the reaction to all this change from the forces of power, in particular the Catholic Church?

"Silence," said Mr Norris. "But they had been pretty vocal against gay rights.

"They never spoke out against the injustices done to the community. I know there were decent people within the Roman Catholic Church who did their very best.

"But the Church was in a state of chaos and confusion and it was a time of huge hypocrisy. They were giving sermons from the pulpits while bishops were having children outside marriage and priest were interfering with children. I think that's rather tragic for the Church."

The campaign for civil liberties continued its work with a quiet determination, culminating in the passing of the 2015 Marriage Equality Referendum.

The decision was lauded worldwide as our once-conservative country threw off the shackles of the past and celebrated diversity and equality.

Today will see an estimated 70,000 people taking part in 2019 Pride as the city comes to a standstill. It's now 50 years since the Stonewall Uprising, with events worldwide to commemorate the anniversary.

So with all the landmark victories in recent years, how relevant is Pride in modern-day society?

This year's Grand Marshall Will St Leger still thinks it's vital.

His first Pride was in London in 1985, an event he said he went to with some straight friends as he had only recently 'come out'.

His first Dublin Pride was in 2005 and it was attended by 6,000 people as the movement began to make its effects felt.

The theme of this year's event is Rainbow Revolution and, as an activist and an artist, Will clearly believes the event is still highly important politically.

He feels that while Ireland has made huge progress in recent times, there's still room for improvement in certain areas like healthcare and helping those in minority groups.

"The theme centres around putting the activism back into Pride and we need to get back to understanding that serious issues are still there and not just relive past glories," he said.

Irish Independent

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