GLEN in a changing Ireland - interview with Susie Byrne  

Interview with Susie Byrne - from Ireland's successful G L E N
GLEN is the G-ay and LE-sbian N-etwork, Ireland's only lobbying organisation which is supported by all Irish lesbian and gay organisations
recorded 16.10.1994.

Susie Byrne discusses how Ireland moved from one of the more backward countries in relation to homosexuality, to one with a progressive standpoint. "Remember that the Irish people themselves have been discriminated against for 800 years. After many years' lobbying by David Norris, an alliance was built with trade unions, with women's organisations, with people of disability's organisations."

C.M-S.:  What is life like for gays and lesbians  in Ireland today?

Susie: We are still looking at the implications of the decriminalisation of homosexuality, but there are a lot of things about to happen. A new refugees bill is being introduced which will allow lesbians and gay men from countries where they are being persecuted to seek asylum in Ireland – and that they will be granted it.

C.M-S.:   But it is only a bill at this moment ??

Susie:   Yes. The words „sexual orientation“ may possibly be mentioned as well but they are actually looking at social groupings and have assured us that they will include lesbians and gay men – but they are even thinking of going so far as to stipulate this within the legislation. Equal status legislation, that’s full anti-discrimination in non-employment areas will be passed within six months. It went through the cabinet last Tuesday. We already have the Unfair Dismissals Act which prevents lesbians and gay men from being dismissed in public and private sectors of employment.

C.M-S.: So now you want to move into the non-employment areas – with the anti-Discrimination law...

Susie:    Yes. That includes accommodation, services, education, and not only for lesbians and gay men, but travellers, people with disability, women, different parental status (children born out of wedlock, children of single parent families) and ethnic status. We have a cabinet minister for equality and law reform. He has been doing a lot of work getting this ready. It is a very difficult piece of legislation. The other departments in the government protested because of the implications (of extra work)  for each of their departments – but he got it through last week.

Campaigning for changes

C.M-S.: How has it  come about that Ireland is becoming so progressive in this field when you think what the catholic church is doing elsewhere ?

Susie: I think the first thing to remember is that the Irish people themselves have  been discriminated against for 800 years. The time had come  after so many years lobbying by David Norris, for example. And then, when our alliance was built by lots of groups – including GLEN – (G ay and LE sbian N etwork) Ireland’s only (LGBT) lobbying organisation which is supported by all lesbian and gay organisations, plus people of disability organisations, women’s organisations, and we got the backing of a wide range of Irish society, from non-governmental organisations, different churches – and the Catholic Church in the end didn’t protest all that much.

They are well known for their work in fields of social-justice, in missionary work, development aid, unemployment. It was made clear to them that decriminalisation was a question of human rights. I also think the Catholic Church is losing its influence.

The only thing they really control directly are the schools – and they’ll lose control of that in the next few years. They decided they couldn’t fight on this issue any more because the government were so determined that they were going to decriminalise homosexuality. We have a very effective coalition Government with a traditional centre-left party (Fianna Fail) and the Labour Party. It was a promise by the Minister of Justice, M.G. Quinn, who said that it would be the first thing she would do when she came into office, - and it was. People saw she was determined and wouldn’t be fobbed off, so …

The other legislation which has come in hasn’t just happened because of decriminalisation. It was being planned at the same time. Evidence was produced that lesbians and gays were sacked for being themselves and the Minister Mary O’Rourke, who took over that legislation, stood up and said why she was doing it. The Government now has a “cast-in-stone” commitment to equality. That’s very important. They also know that they are dealing with professionals when it comes to the representation of lesbians and gay men – in terms of GLEN. There have been strong links built and we said if we didn’t get equality we would call for MPs to “break the Whip” to defeat the bill. They understood the threats and respected them.

We have had a huge back-up from around the world – ILGA, and the letter-writing campaign called by ILGA. The last one which was carried out was amazing. The Taiseochs’s (PM) office was fed up with the number of letters which came in. I can remember the one from your association (Laughs. Perhaps because we wrote that Sir Roger Casement, the Irish Patriot, who had exposed the machinations of the imperial rulers in the Belgian Congo, and later was executed for by the British, would leave his grave if he knew how gays and lesbians were treated in Ireland.) It was very effective. Ireland always wants to be seen as  as a good European country – because we get a lot out of Europe to help us come into line with the levelling up with other countries.

Because the Court of Human Rights was so insistent – and every six months at the Council of Europe Ministers Committee, the “Irish” question came up. “Why hasn’t Ireland changed the law?”. They would make some excuse. Paidric Flynn is (= was 2000) now the European Commissioner for Social Affairs and a part of his agenda is gay and lesbian matters. He refused so often, but the embarrassment became great. Now England is embarrassed because the Irish legislation is so much better. Other elements of change have been that we are now able to do prevention work in terms of AIDS, Because the sexual act of sodomy was illegal, the Department of Health would not fund any prevention work specifically targeted at gay men. Now they have no excuse, they do fund such work, and are willing.

Now we are doing research into poverty among gays and lesbians women. It is quality research which will show how lesbians and gay men are discriminated against in schooling, and in the work place. How they are (not well off, well adjusted) if they are poor as people of the same background who are heterosexuals. They are psychologically disadvantaged. But the “most interesting” result that I have seen so far is the number of people who know somebody who has been beaten up. Around 78% of those questioned know someone who has been beaten up, around 46% have themselves been either verbally or physically abused because of their sexual orientation. This will be powerful, because it is not just legislation, changing policies. It puts into question the way police handle crimes against lesbians and gay men.

C.M-S.: Do you have a contact man by the police as they do in some German cities?

Susie: We are waiting for a letter from the Minister of Justice to explain her policies towards lesbians and gay men within the next week. The police are very positive. When asked what their reactions would be they say they would not behave differently towards other people. The police press office said we have 11,000 members which means around 1,100 must be gay. Even those of us who work in the gay and lesbian community are not aware of the scale of the gay bashing.

C.M-S.: So you don’t have a hotline ?

Susie:  No. We do have a gay switchboard and they ring me if there is a problem… I’m in the Hirschfeld Centre. But the problems I would be dealing with most is discrimination  - in terms of life assurance - which is a huge problem in Ireland at the moment - or the problems of those caught cruising who are looking for proper legal advice from gay-friendly solicitors. So the problem of violence is not high on the agenda for lesbians and gay men in Dublin at the moment …although we did have some murders at the beginning of the 1980’s. That brought together a lot of groups from various causes – straight and gay – in a fight against homophobia. In addition although the crimes are not reported, in the small scene in Dublin- only two pubs and two saunas - we would get to know about them. It doesn’t seem to be a big problem. I have only heard of two or three cases in the last twelve months.

C.M-S.: Is that because people don’t get beaten up or because you don’t hear about it?

Susie:   I think it is a combination of both. Although people will not report crime, the gay scene in Dublin is small enough for it to get around if someone is beaten up.

C.M-S.: Is that possibly because so few people are « out »  compared to Germany?

Susie: That may well be. There have been two murders in the past year of gay men killing other gay men. I think it may well be because people are not so open.

C.M-S.: … and no parks ?

Susie.: We have lots of great green parks in Dublin ! And there are cruising areas there too, but it is very quiet. There are more and more people coming out. The numbers of people contacting the youth group in Dublin – and attending have doubled in the last year – to about 70. There is a high turnover. They go to the youth group, find a friend and that’s it. They’re happy –and they can always come back if they need help.

Lesbian Visibility

Susie contrinues: But 1994 will be known as the lesbian visibility year. There are very few lesbians in Ireland who are known and visible. There were also huge problems between lesbians and gay men working together, but this year lesbian groups have attained a very professional footing. The y have got funding from the government to run leadership programmes and also an unemployment scheme.

Lesbian “chic” came to Ireland this year and was defended – and opposed – very eloquently by lesbians who had not spoken out before. You can count on the fingers of two hands the number of lesbians who might appear on television to say something

C.M-S.:  What is “lesbian chic” ?

Susie:    That is what hit the States last year with k. d. lang and Cindy Crawford who on the cover of Vanity Fair photographed as they were shaving each other. This whole thing came from the States into Europe. The media in Ireland started to take note that lesbians had been around for a long time.

Why haven’t they been so visible as gay men? Firstly Irish women have been chained to the kitchen sink. They were supposed  to get married and have children. Being lesbian was not an option. That was one of the things that kept women “underground”,  The problem of gay men was another factor. But they saw what was happening to gay men in terms of criminality and even though lesbian sex was never criminalised, it was – by association seen as very negative.

C.M-S.: You told me earlier that you had appeared on TV ..

Susie:  Since decriminalisation there has been a lesbian and gay publishing bandwagon. Finally there are  books being published, and the publishing companies are fighting over who will write the books for them! Myself and Junior Larkin were commissioned by Martello to write Ireland’s first book about coming out. It was published two weeks ago and has personal stories, advice, explanations of gay culture, things to do with sexuality, safer sex, religion and a contact list with a bibliography. It’s getting mass exposure because the issue of how do you tell your parents fascinates the media. They can’t concentrate on the illegality anymore, so they’ve picked on this. There were no books when I and Junior came out so we were glad when we were asked to do it.

So we were on TV during prime time for twenty minutes – and we’ve done 7 radio and two national newspaper interviews. There are at least another five books due out before the spring – short stories, and a book called “There’s one in every family” – for parents and families. That’s targeted at people who are not gay. There are plans for a radio programme on the national broadcasting network, too.

Politics and the Future

C-M-S.: What about the political developments in relation to Northern Ireland? Are there signs of hope there, too?

Susie:  Very hopeful. Both cease-fires. I never thought I would see them and that the IRA would do it. It is very necessary that Sinn Fein are brought to the negotiating table. The wishes of everyone will have to be respected. I will never see a united Ireland, and I don’t think I would want that against the wishes of the majority. But there is an awful lot of talking to be done.. The British Government must accept that the nationalist Catholics have been discriminated against – and that there has to be reconciliation. The Nationalist have to learn that the Loyalist (Those opposed to a united Ireland C.M-S) fears are also valid.

But there are implications for lesbians and gay men in Northern Ireland. There is a huge question as to whether sectarianism has divided the gay and lesbian community or not. One person I spoke recently - he is a Protestant – went home and told his father that he was gay. To which the father replied “Well, I would rather that you are gay than going out with a catholic.” What he didn’t tell his father was that his boyfriend is a catholic! But there is some sectarianism in the gay and lesbian community in the North.

Also Ian Paisley ran a “Save Ireland from Sodomy” Campaign and Northern Ireland was left out of the British Sexual Offences Act (1967) for 15 years.  The gay and lesbian lobbyist in Britain didn’t want Northern Ireland included in the Edwina Currie amendment to lower the age of consent because they were afraid the Unionist (= Loyalists) would come to Westminster and defeat it with their block vote. The Unionist were going to go there anyway.

Jeff Dudgeon – who was the first (gay)  person to bring a case to the Court of Human Rights and get a positive judgement – is respected world-wide today. He’s still battling. The Royal Ulster Constabulary (Northern Ireland Police) are the most homophobic constabulary in the United Kingdom. For gays and lesbians the big implication of a period of peace is that the RUC would have very little to do if the IRA and Loyalists stopped fighting. They’ve got to keep the crime statistics down to justify  heir numbers and existence, so there are a loot of agent provocateurs (pink police!) going around the parks and toilets in N. Ireland. There have been four suicides in the last three months, two teachers, a priest and a policeman who was being hunted by his colleagues. They committed suicide because they were charged with gross indecency. The RUC are stepping up their surveillance and the lesbian and gay community are worried about this.

Colin de la Motte-Sherman

DAW 12/1994

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