Exploring late 80s queer Ireland through wonderful RTÉ Archive finds

Curious discussions, interviews with icons and reports continue across Irish television and radio as the media's spotlight shines brighter on the community.

a split screen of different old photos of various people

As part of a new series diving into the RTÉ archives for a trip through the queer history of Ireland, we continue with this selection of clips from the 1980’s.

The LGBTQ+ community of Ireland continued to dazzle in the 1980’s as conversations surrounding sexual identity, and icons of queer culture, received more airtime.

Conflicts emerged though, as the media began its reports on the rapidly growing AIDS crisis. Yet, the end of the decade saw hope as a long-winded legal battle succeeded in laying down the ground work for LGBTQ+ rights in Ireland for years to follow.

First, it’s over to Brenda Harvey and Tonie Walsh of the Dublin Lesbian and Gay Men’s Collective as they discuss queer matters in ’80s Ireland.

1. ‘How Do You Know You Are Gay?’ 1984 

A man and a woman sitting together
Source: RTÉ Archives

This episode of Access: Community Television was made by the NGF (National Gay Federation) – noew the NXF. We first meet a group of young heterosexual people discussing their views surrounding homosexuality, having had little to no interactions with queer people before with one individual saying, “I think it’s very wrong when they try to flaunt it.”

Later on, Brenda and Tonie join the discussion. Brenda explains to the group that for her, in choosing to tell people that she’s gay, she accepts the problems and consequences that could happen as a result of those around her being ignorant towards a queer lifestyle.

“You don’t see ‘so and so is a straight’ written on the wall or something,” adds Tonie.

Some individuals in the group felt that Brenda was being negative, to which others in the group stood in her defence. One woman challenges them by saying:

“Forget about being gay for a moment, if you come up across anything that you don’t understand … what do you do? You automatically slag it. To get away from your own ignorance.”

2. ‘Prayer Vigil As Lesbian Nuns Appear On TV’ 1985

A group of people protesting at night
Source: RTÉ Archives

In this brief report, we see a prayer vigil take place outside RTÉ Studios as American authors Nancy Manahan and Rosemary Curb arrive on The Late Late Show to promote their book, Breaking Silence: Lesbian Nuns on Convent Sexuality.

The book tells of their experiences, through interviews and essays, as young women coming to terms with their sexuality while studying at a convent. The programme had RTÉ’s then highest TV ratings, attracting both praise and condemnation.

You can find the full interview on YouTube with Gay Byrne leading the discussion with Nancy and Rosemary alongside an Irish nun, Sister Maura, and Father Raphael Gallagher.

Speaking in the interview, Nancy clarifies that being lesbian does not equate to a sexual term.

“When we say ‘lesbian’ … we’re not speaking necessarily of sexual activity. We’re speaking of a sexual orientation but we’re also speaking about a spiritual and political commitment to loving women, working for women and that is the bond that connects the women in the book.”

3. ‘The Naked Civil Servant’ 1985

An elderly man wearing a green tie sits on a TV set
Source: RTÉ Archives

British actor and author, Quentin Crisp chats to Gay Byrne about growing up in England, his sexuality and his eventual move to New York. Gay opens the interview asking Quentin if he had any preconceived notions of what Irish audiences would be like.

“None whatsoever. I start out each day without any prejudices, without any preconceived ideas. I start with each person all over again every day.”

Quentin was born in England in 1908. He became famous on the release of his 1968 book The Naked Civil Servant and was also a gay rights campaigner throughout his life. He died in 1999.

In 1975, The Naked Civil Servant was adapted into a film starring John Hurt.

4. ‘AIDS Campaign’ 1987

A man in a grey suit sits at a desk on the telephone.
Source: RTÉ Archives

RTÉ featured many reports on the AIDS pandemic across its programming in May 1987, as the nation began to become more educated on the issue and how to stop the spread of the virus. This clip features a man, living with HIV, sharing his story on a prime time TV panel.

“When I found out that I was HIV positive in February of last year, the first thing I did was have a complete nervous collapse.”

The clip also features comments from the Catholic church, with Bishop Desmond Williams telling a reporter that the church has not condemned the use of condoms but that “the best antidote to AIDS is virtue”.

The anxiety surrounding the pandemic was only fuelled further as government health education committees utilised fear as a desperate means of education. This would only add to the stigma surrounding the virus and so towards the LGBTQ+ community and those affected by it.

5. ‘European Court Rules In Norris Case’ 1988

A document from the European Court of Human Rights lays on a table
Source: RTÉ Archives

A seismic moment in Irish LGBTQ+ history. After 14 years of campaigning and legal battles, Senator David Norris succeeded in decriminalising homosexual activity between consenting adults in Ireland in the European Court of Human Rights.

In this clip from the RTÉ News, Eamonn Lawlor, states that, according to the now long outdated law, David could face criminal prosecution and that to make him live with that risk was a breach of his right to private life under the European Human Rights Convention.

It took five years for the new law to be brought into effect with President Mary Robinson, an outspoken gay rights activist herself, signing it off in 1993.

More on that, along with a silent street performance artist, Pride marches and likely the television debut of Panti Bliss in the next in our queer history of Ireland series: The 1990s. Stay tuned!

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