Out, Proud & Young in Dublin

Out, Proud & Young in Dublin

Gay teen publishing success a stunning milestone in Ireland’s cultural evolution

Ireland’s gay magazine, GCN, short for Gay Community News, last week celebrated publication of its 200th issue—with a new edition of the magazine entirely edited and written by gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered teenagers.

These teens proclaimed they “want to use this month’s issue of GCN to claim a piece of rightful territory—our existence in schools all over the country,” in the words of 18-year-old Kevin Gaffney, who served as chief editor on the project.

It is something of a milestone marking the explosion of Ireland’s out-of-the-closet gay community to have a group of out teens with enough self-confidence and maturity in their identities to take charge of an entire issue of an established publication.

Homosexuality was still illegal in Ireland when GCN, which today has a circulation of some 11,500 and an estimated readership of triple that figure, first began publishing in 1988. For those of us who grew up with the legendary sexual repression of Ireland’s traditional, extraordinarily austere and strict Catholic culture—the stuff of countless plays and novels—imprinted, as it were, on our inherited cultural DNA, and even transmitted across the Atlantic, the gay teen issue of the magazine is a stunning sign of progress.

“When it was first published, GCN was an underground freesheet that was delivered to gay bars in anonymous brown packaging for fear those bars would be identified as queer,” said the magazine’s regular editor-in-chief, Brian Finnegan. “One of our contributors to this issue is 15 and out as gay in his school. This issue is something that would have been unheard of when I was a teenager.”

Openly gay Irish Senator David Norris called the all-teen issue of the gay magazine “tremendously important and historic.” Speaking to Gay City News by telephone from Cyprus, where he was on vacation, Norris said, “It’s particularly relevant in view of the recent debate on lowering the age of consent in Ireland,” which is now set at 17.

Norris emphasized that coming out can still be a risky business in Ireland.

“There is a terrifying epidemic of anti-gay bullying in the schools, and nothing is being done” by the government, he said. “Ninety percent of all school bullying incidents have some foundation around homophobia, and 90 percent of those incidents go unpunished or acted upon by school authorities.”

Norris explained that “teachers are frightened to do anything about the anti-gay bullying and harassment because schools are controlled by the Catholic Church—which sought exemptions from Ireland’s equality legislation so they could be free to fire people on the basis of lifestyles. And homophobia in schools is behind the extraordinary rate of teen suicides” in Ireland.

The gay teen’s issue of GCN was produced by members of the Dublin-based gay youth group BeLonG To, launched in 2003 through the concerted efforts of a raft of Irish groups, including OUTHouse, the Dublin LGBT cultural center, OutYouth, Gay Men’s Health Project, Gay Switchboard Dublin, HIV Strategies, Parents’ Support, Union of Students of Ireland, and the National Lesbian and Gay Federation. The City of Dublin Youth Services Board also provided support.

A poll of BeLonG To’s members taken for the magazine underscored Norris’s comments—67 percent of the gay youth polled said that schools did nothing about homophobic bullying; 93 percent said schools failed to educate pupils “fairly and clearly” about homosexuality; 69 percent said they would not feel safe holding hands in the street with their partner; 69 percent said they’d been subjected to verbal harassment; 48 percent said that harassment took place in school; and 10 percent said they’d been subjected to physical violence.

A collective manifesto written by the gay teens for the magazine notes that, “In a report carried out by the Department of Education in Northern Ireland it was found that 86 percent of young people were aware of their sexual orientation while at school, with boys realizing they were gay at 12 and girls at 13.”

And, said the kids’ manifesto, despite the continuing problems, “By and large things have changed enormously for young gay people. At BeLonG To, the Dublin LGBT youth group, we get teenagers as young as 13 coming through the door and the numbers have increased so greatly, we have divided into two groups, one catering to the under-16s, with another for 17-24 year-olds. Many of the teenagers in BeLonG To feel a sense of self-empowerment that older people, even people in their late 20s comment on and are encouraged by.”

Gay youth are not coming out only in Dublin—the magazine interviewed teenage members of groups in other parts of the country, like Young Outcomers in Dundalk, SPHERE in Wexford, and UNITE and Rainbow Chicks in Cork.

Another sign of the changed atmosphere—the magazine carried a half-page recruiting ad from the Gardai, Ireland’s police force.

This progress would not have been possible without the years of struggle by the Irish gay movement—which made its first media appearance in 1973, when Radio Eireann broadcast the voices of two openly gay people, Hugo McManus and the late Margaret McWilliams, speaking about a meeting to be held by the Sexual Liberation Movement.

Senator Norris, whom many Irish gays consider the godfather of the Irish gay rights movement, embodies much of that struggle’s history. In 1974, Norris—then teaching literature at Dublin’s Trinity College (Oscar Wilde’s alma mater)—and a group of friends formed the Irish Gay Rights Movement (IGRM). The group rented a building that housed a disco in the evenings, while in upstairs offices the work of fighting for gay rights went on during the day. After a controversy-stirring appearance on Radio Eireann in 1976, Norris—who had courageously become IGRM’s spokesman, earning him the nickname of the “Trinity queer” as the only out-of-the-closet faculty member—erupted into the general public’s consciousness, and became the public face of Irish homosexuality for the next several decades.

In 1976, the IGRM split into two groups—those who wanted merely to pursue social activities and run their disco, and those who were committed to the fight to make homosexuality legal. That year Norris, leader of the latter group, founded the Campaign for Homosexual Law Reform (CHLR), and enlisted the services of a friend, Trinity contemporary and barrister Mary Robinson, to initiate legal action to overturn criminal penalties for homosexuality. (Robinson was elected president of Ireland in 1990, serving until 1997, when she became the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights.)

With Robinson as its attorney, CHLR succeeded in bringing Norris v. The State before Ireland’s Supreme Court in 1983—but, in a 3-2 decision, the suit was rejected. The decision referred to the “Christian nature of the Irish State” and argued that criminalization of homosexuality served both public health and the institution of marriage.

Norris next took his case to the European Court of Human Rights to argue that Irish law was incompatible with the European Convention on Human Rights. In 1988, the court, in the case of Norris v. Ireland, ruled that the criminal penalties on homosexuality in the Irish Republic violated Article 8 of the Convention, which guarantees the right to privacy in personal affairs. But it was not until 1993 that Irish law was finally changed and homosexuality became legal.

Norris first ran for Ireland’s Senate, from a Dublin constituency that included Trinity College, in 1977—and received only 200 votes. But a decade later, after three more attempts, in 1987 Norris—by then an internationally recognized James Joyce scholar and a leader of the movement to preserve and restore Dublin’s historic architecture—finally won election. In the Senate, he led the successful parliamentary fight for decriminalization.

At Norris’ initiative, anti-gay discrimination was banned in the Employment Equality Act of 1998 and the Equal Status Act of 2000, which expanded the scope of the protections to include public accommodations, goods, and services. In his two decades in the Senate, Norris has also become noted for his voice on foreign affairs, most recently in his opposition to the Anglo-American invasion of Iraq.

Norris told Gay City News he is now active on the issue of the Iranian government’s escalating crackdown on gay life and expression, joining the recent international day of solidarity to draw attention to that tragic situation.

“I’ve been involved with the case of the two hanged Iranian gay teenagers,” he said. “We had a terrific, large rally

against this horrible example of state murder that was organized by BeLonG To in Dublin on July 19, at which I spoke, and I met with the Iranian ambassador.”

Norris, now 62, believes he is on the eve of yet another triumph—passage of some form of civil partnership that will include gay couples.

“[Prime Minister] Bertie Ahern’s government, with its typical dithering and long-fingering, will probably delay any action until after the next election, which will probably be held next spring,” Norris explained. “But within the next year or two, I have no doubt that we will pass a civil partnership bill. Whether it will be exactly my bill as proposed I don’t know—but it will happen.”

Doug Ireland can be reached through his blog, DIRELAND, at http://direland.typepad.com/direland/.