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Timeline: A history of gay rights in Ireland

Leo Varadkar becoming Ireland’s first openly gay minister comes 22 years after the decriminalisation of homosexuality in Ireland.

YESTERDAY MINISTER FOR Health Leo Varadkar became Ireland’s first openly gay cabinet member.

In an interview with RTÉ’s Miriam O’Callaghan, Varadkar stated that “it’s not something that defines me” and that “it’s not a secret but it’s not something that everyone would necessarily know”.

The Minister’s decision to go public with his sexuality comes just over twenty years after the decriminilisation of homosexuality in the Irish state.

leo varadkar Minister for Health Leo Varadkar Sasko Lazarov Sasko Lazarov

Here we take a look back at how things have progressed for the LGBT community over the past 150 years.  

1861 - Offences Against the Persons Act

For most of Ireland’s history, its laws against homosexuality dated from the Victorian era and were held over for more than 140 years. The Offences Against the Persons Act, 1861, which made “buggery” an offence punishable by penal servitude.

1970s – Initial movement 

The first notable heave against the regime of criminality in Ireland was spearheaded by David Norris – who at the time was a lecturer in English at Trinity College Dublin.

david norris Sam Boal / Photocall Sam Boal / Photocall / Photocall

This movement was known as the Campaign for Homosexual Law Reform and aimed at decriminalising homosexuality in Ireland and Northern Ireland. In the course of the movement, Dublin University Gay Society was set up – a group that is still running today, albeit under a different moniker.

1983 – First Gay Pride festival 

Ireland’s first Gay Pride festival was held in March 1983. The first event was a one-day affair and aimed at highlighting the levels of violence against gay men and women.

march in 1983

It came as a reaction to a ruling on the death of Declan Flynn – a 31-year-old gay man who had been killed in Fairview Park. The group of men convicted of killing him were given suspended manslaughter charges. This drew some celebration from the local community.

1988 – Norris v. Ireland

In 1988, David Norris – who by then had become a Senator – won a case in the European Court against the Irish State over the constitutional status of the criminalisation of certain homosexual acts.

David norris David Norris pictured in the centre here in the late 1970s

Norris initiated legal proceedings to decriminalise homosexuality in 1977 – stating that such laws contravened the Constitution’s stand on privacy. In 1980, Norris’ case was defeated in the High Court. It was subsequently appealed to the Supreme Court and defeated by a ruling of three to two.

His success at European Court level opened the way for its subsequent legalisation.

1993 – Change of Law

In June of 1993, Ireland passed Criminal Fraud (Sexual Offences) Bill which decriminalised homosexuality. The Bill was proposed by FF TD and Minister for Justice Máire Geoghegan-Quinn. With it, the Victorian-era rulings were removed from the Irish statutebook.

gay marriage Kieran Rose, Chris Robson, Phil Moore and Suzy Byrne celebrating the change of legislation in 1993.

Speaking about the Bill at the time, the future Tánaiste, Eamon Gilmore, said:

The sexual activities of consenting adults in the privacy of their home are a matter for the people concerned and should not be the business of the Dáil, the Garda or anybody else, including the peeping Toms of the self-appointed moral police from whom we hear a great deal nowadays.

2010 – Civil Partnership Bill

The Civil Partnership Act passed through the Dáil in 2010 and gave gay couples more rights than they had previously been afforded. While it was thought more was needed to be done to achieve full equality it was considered an important stepping stone. 

Civil partnership has been a controversial topic due to opposite-sex marriages continuing to enjoy greater legalistic privileges. The right to adopt is one of these.

2011 – First openly gay TDs elected to the Dáil

The 2011 General Election brought with it another milestone with three openly gay TDs being returned.

Jerry Buttimer, John Lyons and Dominic Hannigan took their seats in the Dáil representing Cork South-Central, Dublin North-West and Meath East respectively.

Hugh O'Connell / YouTube

January 2015 – Ireland’s first openly gay Minister

With Leo Varadkar coming out about his sexuality Ireland now has its first openly gay minister.

On his decision to come out the Health Minister stated that he felt it was important for upcoming votes he would be involved in – including whether laws on gay and bisexual men donating blood should be lifted and the upcoming referendum on same-sex marriage.

Speaking about his decision, Varadkar said:

It’s not something that defines me, I’m not a half-Indian politician or a doctor politician, I’m not a gay politician for that matter, it’s just part of who I am.

May 2015 – Same-sex marriage referendum

The spring of this year will see Ireland vote on whether to legalise gay marriage. The four main political parties have come out in favour of a ‘Yes’ vote. A Red-C poll carried out earlier in the month showed 76% support in favour of gay marriage.

gay marriage image

Read: Why no politician should ever have to do what Leo Varadkar did ever again

Also: Colin Farrell: ‘My brother got plenty of beatings for being gay’

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