1979-2019: 40 Years Of The National LGBT Federation
We are the publishers of this magazine – the longest running free LGBT publication in the world – and advocate for LGBT equality in Ireland and abroad through policy initiatives, the organising of talks and symposiums, conducting research, and working closely with key political allies and civil society actors.
It is often said that the past is a foreign country and that certainly holds true when it comes to LGBT rights. The Ireland of 1979 was a harsh and unwelcoming place for LGBT people or indeed anyone who dared to challenge the suffocating social conservatism of the era, where Church and State operated as one to resist the secular and liberalising influences that were beginning to be felt in much of the rest of Europe. Abortion, divorce and contraception were all strictly illegal, in keeping with Roman Catholic dogma. And of course, gay people were deemed to be criminals through a homophobic law inherited from the British but which the independent Irish State was happy to maintain.
There were, thankfully, a few reforming voices who refused to go along with what effectively amounted to a theocracy masquerading as a Republic, and two such voices were present for the official opening of The Hirschfeld Centre – Ireland’s first LGBT community centre, and where the newly formed National Gay Federation would operate from. Senator Mary Robinson and Noel Browne TD were early supporters of the gay cause at a time when such a position was far from popular or politically fashionable. Mary Robinson would serve on David Norris’ legal team challenging the criminalisation of homosexuality through the courts while Noel Browne was the first Irish parliamentarian to raise the issue of gay rights and the need for law reform in Dáil Éireann in 1977.
David Norris was one of the founding members of the NGF, along with other leading lights in the gay rights movement such as Joni Crone (of Late Late Show fame) and Edmund Lynch. Later additions to the board would include such names as Tonie Walsh (Irish Queer Archive), Eamon Somers and Annie Dillon. The running of the Hirschfeld Centre – called after the pioneering German sexologist persecuted by the Nazis – was one of the main functions of the NGF in those early years and provided an invaluable space for a community subject to so much social and legal ostracisation in ‘mainstream’ Irish society.
The Hirschfeld Centre contained a disco called Flikkers (Dutch for ‘faggots’), a café, a small cinema, and space where groups could meet and access support and information. David Norris would recall years later that the early Irish gay rights movement was more interested in what was happening in continental Europe than the United States, and that European influence was very much reflected in the Hirschfeld Centre.
The 1980’s would prove to be a very difficult decade for the LGBT community with the onset of the AIDS crisis and a rise in reactionary politics on the global stage from which Ireland would not be immune. In 1983, we had what has been described as Ireland’s ‘Stonewall moment’ when the killers of Declan Flynn – a man beaten to death in a ‘queer bashing’ incident in Fairview Park in Dublin the previous year – walked free from court after being given suspended sentences for his manslaughter.
The judge in the case ruled that the killing of Declan could never be regarded as murder. That such a judgement could be handed down reflected the institutional prejudice and discrimination that confronted the Irish LGBT community and served to powerfully reinforce the notion that we were very much second-class citizens in the Ireland of the time, if indeed ‘citizens’ at all.
1983 was the year when NGF founder David Norris had his appeal against Ireland’s anti-gay laws dismissed in a searing Supreme Court ruling. In what has since been termed the most shameful legal judgement in the history of the State, Chief Justice Tom O’Higgins stated that the ‘christian nature’ of Irish society justified the continued criminalisation of gay men, while also alluding to other deeply offensive claims that supposedly justified the upholding of the British colonial era legislation. The NGF condemned the judgement and fully supported David Norris as he took his case to the European Court of Human Rights, where justice would finally be vindicated in a 1988 ruling declaring that Ireland’s homophobic laws breached the right to privacy. (The Irish government, led by an openly gay Taoiseach, would formally apologise for these laws in June 2018).
Another person closely associated with the NGF would prove central to the decriminalisation of homosexuality when law reform was eventually enacted in 1993. Phil Moore was the mother of a gay man who ‘came out’ in the 1970’s. Determined to support her son and others in the gay community, Phil helped establish a support group for parents of LGBT people under the auspices of the NGF and which met in the Hirschfeld Centre. In 1993, Maire Geoghegan-Quinn was the Minister responsible for overseeing the legislation and credits her meeting with Phil – “one mother to another mother” – with stiffening her resolve to ensure full equality in the criminal law between heterosexual and gay citizens.
Reflecting a greater awareness of and support for the pivotal role of women in the LGBT movement, the National Gay Federation (NGF) changed its name to the National Lesbian and Gay Federation (NLGF) in 1990. As our community continues to change and evolve, it has been important for us to evolve also, and in 2014, the NLGF became the National LGBT Federation (NXF) to formally incorporate the trans community and all LGBT+ groups into our shared identity.
From marriage equality to gender recognition and beyond, Irish society has seen much welcome social progress in recent times. However, there is absolutely no room for complacency and LGBT rights advocacy remains as important now as it has ever been. In 2016, the NXF published its Burning Issues 2 findings – the largest ever research into the views and priorities of LGBT people in Ireland up to that point. The findings confirmed that, post-marriage equality, LGBT people are as engaged and determined as ever to see further change enacted. The need for robust Hate Crime legislation emerged as the leading priority and the findings very much inform the work of the NXF going forward. Other key legislative priorities for us include mandatory LGBT inclusive sex education rooted in fact, a prohibition on the abusive and discredited practice known as so-called gay ‘conversion therapy’, support for LGBT migrants and broader international solidarity with LGBT communities suffering increased persecution abroad fuelled in no small part by the rise in illiberal ‘populism’ and authoritarianism. We also recognise the continued importance of Pride and chair the annual Dublin Pride Political Debate.
As an organisation, we have been very lucky with those attracted to our ranks: The aforementioned David Norris, Tonie Walsh, Tony O’Shea, Majella Breen and so many others. Our longstanding former chair Ailbhe Smyth, leading feminist and powerhouse behind the campaign that repealed the eighth amendment, also deserves a special mention. Our current board is led by Caroline Keane and will oversee the celebrations marking 40 years of the NXF.
We look forward to being very much part of the next 40 years of equality advocacy and campaigning. Our work is far from complete!