Ceann Comhairle, I am grateful that we all have this opportunity to mark the 25th anniversary of the decriminalisation of homosexuality in Ireland.
It can be hard to change laws. It can be even harder to change hearts and minds. To change what is considered normal. To change a culture.
Twenty-five years ago President Mary Robinson signed into law an historic act that brought an end to decades of cruelty and injustice.
The Fianna Fáil/Labour coalition at the time deserves credit for its courage in driving this change, and a special mention should be made of the Minister for Justice, Maire Geoghegan-Quinn who led on this issue.
I would also like to acknowledge the work of Senator Ged Nash in bringing forward tonight’s motion.
Several pieces of legislation were repealed in 1993. Many were historical and stretched back to the 19th century and even before the famine.
There was some legislation from 1842, some from 1847, with the main legislation from 1861 and 1885.
They were the dogmas of a different time and they dictated how we treated and mistreated our fellow citizens, our brothers and sisters.
It is oppressive to live in a constant state of humiliation, a constant state of fear. It is also deeply traumatic to feel that you are rejected by your own country.
As the work of Diarmaid Ferriter has shown, between 1940 and 1978 an average of 13 men a year were jailed for homosexual offences. Between 1962 and 1972, there were 455 convictions.
I was born in 1979 and in the three years before that there were 44 prosecutions in this country. It’s not that long ago.
Homosexuality was seen as a perversion, and trials were sometimes a cruel form of entertainment. Others saw it as a mental illness including the medical profession at the time.
For every one conviction there were a hundred other people who lived under the stigma of prosecution, who feared having their sexuality made public, and their lives destroyed.
Last summer, I was in San Francisco and I visited the memorial in City Hall in honour of Harvey Milk.
Milk was the first openly gay man to be elected to office, and he was assassinated forty years ago by those who were offended by everything he stood for. His picture now hangs in the Taoiseach’s office.
Milk believed that hope is never silent.
In this country we were too silent on too many issues for far too long. It was the voices of the brave few who gave us all hope and who changed things for everyone.
I was just a child when Declan Flynn was murdered in Fairview Park, his only crime that he was gay.
He was brutally attacked by five young men, one a teenager, who shouted ‘Hide behind a tree. We are going to bash a queer’.
He died from asphyxia after been given an horrific beating.
When the Oireachtas makes something a crime, some people believe they have a license to punish those they believe are committing it.
These were young men who had grown up in a society which hated and feared homosexuality. They took the law into their own hands. And all too often, people allowed the law to do its bashing for them.
A year after Declan Flynn’s death there were huge protests in Dublin, organised by a coalition of groups who were horrified at the sentence given to his attackers, and a movement was mobilised in Ireland.
The same year we had the first Pride parade in Dublin. People would no longer remain silent. Pride is now a festival of diversity and inclusion. We shouldn’t forget, it did not start out that way.
The 22nd of May 2015 – a date I will never forget – it was the day of the marriage Referendum – the bench where Declan Flynn was killed, at Fairview Park, was covered with flowers and notes.
We think of him today on this anniversary, and of the new Ireland that we live in.
We also remember those who paved the way for this change. We had many tireless campaigners over the decades, such as the people involved with the Irish Gay Rights Movement.
We had the inspiring example of Senator David Norris, who brought his case for decriminalisation all the way to Supreme Court thirty-five years ago, who never let defeat dampen his determination or good humour.
We owe a debt to Europe. In 1988 the European Court of Human Rights decided in favour of David Norris in a landmark case. It created the impetus and provided the momentum for us to change our laws.
Some years later, Senator Norris wrote a letter to the Irish Times and said that for the first time in his life he felt that he was a full and equal citizen in his own country.
So much has changed since then. Three years ago we helped to transform how this country is seen around the world when we voted for marriage equality. The first country in the world to do so by popular vote.
Last year I had the privilege of being elected Taoiseach, something that would have been unimaginable when I was born, and would have seemed impossible even a few short years ago.
There are many people who helped change minds and change laws and their contribution should be remembered. People who fought for me before I did so myself.
I think today of the people who are no longer with us. Champions like Dr. Ann Louise Gilligan, someone whose courage helped change the laws in this country.
We have a long history of homosexuality in this country, and it is something we should be aware of. Aristotle wrote that the Celts openly approved of same-sex relationships, and there are many references to same-sex relationships in Irish mythology. The Brehon Laws mentioned homosexuality.
It’s no secret that a number of patriots who were involved in the founding of the state – men and women – were homosexual. While the state’s laws affected gay men in a legal sense, they had a chilling effect on lesbians as well.
However, today the people I want to pay a special tribute to are the unknown heroes, the thousands of people whose names we do not know, who were criminalised by our forbears.
Men and women of all ages who tried to live and love and be themselves in a society where their identity was feared and despised, and who were aliens in their own country for their entire lives.
We cannot erase the wrong that was done to them.
What we can say is that we have learned as a society from their suffering.
Their stories have helped change us for the better; they have made us more tolerant, more understanding and more human.
This evening we mark the anniversary of the decriminalisation of homosexuality in Ireland and the progress made since.
We have come a long way, we remember those who suffered and we acknowledge that we still have more to do. There is always more to do, whether it’s promoting LGBT equality around the world, combating bullying or working to improve sexual health.
Harvey Milk reminded us of the challenge we face in society to ‘break down myths, and destroy the lies and distortions.’ He understood why it needed to be done. We do it for ourselves, we do it for others, and, most of all, we do it for the young.
All of the speeches made by party leaders in the Dáil start at 4:40.
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