Sylvia Meehan, a courageous champion of equality for all, including lesbians and gay men, died on September 6 at the age of 89.
Sylvia was a prominent member of the group of 19,700 feminists who shaped the Ireland of today, as the Irish Times rightly put it.
Sylvia was appointed the head of the new Employment Equality Agency in 1977. It was in that role that first met her, when a gang of lesbians and gay men who were also trade unionists were campaigning for equality in the workplace. Our demands included amending the employment equality legislation to include sexual orientation and also that we would have explicit protection under the Unfair Dismissals Act.
In 1985 we requested a meeting with her and she readily agreed, and from then on fully supported and worked for equality for lesbians and gay men.
In 2018 it is hard to imagine how beleaguered lesbians and gay men were in the 1980’s, how little mainstream support we had, and how powerful our opponents were. We were still criminalised and the government were defending that criminalisation at the European Court of Human Rights. In the midst of the AIDS crisis, the Department of Health refused to fund the educational efforts of Gay Health Action on the grounds that it would be contrary to public policy. Many universities refused to recognise gay societies. The killers of Declan Flynn got off scot-free.
Also, it is hard to imagine just how powerful the right were in the 1980’s and how successful they were in their campaigns, including the campaign against progress for lesbians and gay men. They were extraordinarily successful in winning two referendums, closing down abortion referral services and (secretly) getting an anti-abortion protocol into the Maastricht Treaty. This all created a climate of fear and a hopelessness that progress could be made in Ireland.
That is the context, and that is the reason that Sylvia Meehan as head of the Employment Agency in 1985 supporting our demands, readily and unequivocally, was such a breakthrough for our campaign, and was such a brave decision by her. Unfortunately, at the time many ‘leaders’ in other areas were not so brave or principled on the issue of tackling discrimination against lesbians and gay men.
These workplace equality demands were incorporated into GLEN’s programme when it was set up in 1988. In 1993 the Unfair Dismissals Act was amended so that dismissal on the grounds of sexual orientation was deemed to be automatically unfair. In 1998 broad employment equality legislation was brought in, introducing many new grounds, including sexual orientation. The Equality Authority was established (incorporating the Employment Equality Agency) and it became a great promoter of equality for LGBT people, including support for equal marriage.
The Equal Status Act was introduced in 2000, providing for equality outside the workplace and again including sexual orientation.
The Irish Human Dignity and Equality Commission replaced the Equality Authority in 2014 and is a powerful promoter of equality for all, including LGBT people. The commission took a strong position of support for marriage equality, saying simply that “it is a matter of human rights and equality”.
Sylvia was an active trade unionist, she was Vice President of the Association of Secondary Teachers in Ireland and chair of the women’s committee of the ICTU.
Speaking at a humanist ceremony to mark her death, President Michael D Higgins described Sylvia as a “tenacious campaigner for worker’s rights”. In her latter years, Sylvia took up the cause of rights for older people, was a founder member of the Senior Citizens Parliament and a board member of Age and Opportunity.
Speaking at the ceremony, her friend Betty Purcell said that “one of Sylvia’s greatest attributes was to remain cool and likeable, while winning an argument.”
Sylvia Meehan played a major role in achieving the more open, tolerant and equal Ireland we enjoy today.
Kieran Rose was founder member and former chair of GLEN, and a former board member of the Equality Authority and IHREC