“I suppose I knew I was gay or that something was up so to speak, I was about 14-15 and fought against it for a while. I just knew it was wrong even though I read about it and tried to learn about it. I did tell my mother and she got me to a psychiatrist.” – P.A Maglochlainn
“Even at the age of 15-16 I had sort of rationalised that I didn’t want to be any different from what I was. My whole outlook of the world was coloured by my sexuality.” – Doug Sobey
“I found a book that dealt with the topic in my final year in Queens and up until that time we had no guidance whatsoever except, don’t!” – Jeff Dudgeon
In 1967 the Labour Government passed the Sexual Offences Act in England and Wales. This act legalised homosexual practices between two men over the age of 21 in private. Northern Ireland was not included in the legislation.
“The tabloids used to compound this with a mix of telling lies and talking about dirty old men in raincoats.” – Jeff Dudgeon
“For the churches it was very much a sin, it wasn’t a sexual orientation, it was a sin in which you could confess and be absolved. The attitude of doctors and the medical profession in Belfast was that it was an illness. At the City Hospital they were still using aversion therapy, which is now considered disreputable.” – Doug Sobey
Belfast city centre remained closed off in the evenings during the Troubles of the 1970s and few ventured into the city centre.
“We capitalised on the Troubles because there was no nightlife in the city of Belfast, it was completely bleak. Everything closed down except the gay venues.” – P.A Maglochlainn
“In the closed off part of Belfast, if you saw anybody moving after six o’clock at night, it was either a British army soldier, either in uniform or undercover, or it was a gay man.” – Jeff Dudgeon
“I just stood there for an hour petrified but amazed. It was my first experience of a gay disco. I didn’t do anything or go with anybody but I was glad that I went and absorbed what was the very, very beginning of the Belfast gay social scene.” – Gerard Walls
Division and sectarianism was rife during the Troubles, but for the LGB community, ideologies and politics were most often set to one side.
“Working class Protestants and Catholics were mixing in a way that they could never have done in any other part of Belfast. I think your sexuality overrode your religion or political background.” – Doug Sobey
The LGB community began to set up much needed services. One of the first was a much needed counselling, befriending and information service. A phone service was established, Carafriend, by students in Queens University.
“It was a means of helping all those people who had no means of escaping their isolation and wouldn’t have talked to anyone unless they were also gay”. – P.A Maglochlainn
“There has always been a higher rate of suicides among the LGBT teenagers than straight teenagers.” – Jeff Dudgeon
Jeff reflects on his case, taken to the European Commission of Human Rights in 1975. The court hearing was in 1981 when it was agreed that Northern Ireland’s criminalisation of homosexual acts between consenting adults was a violation of Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which says: “Everyone has the right to respect for his private and family life, his home and his correspondence. There shall be no interference by a public authority with the exercise of this right except such as is in accordance with the law and is necessary in a democratic society …for the protection of health or morals….”
Judgement was given in Dudgeon’s favour on that aspect by 15 votes to 4. The case had taken six years, before the Homosexual Offences Order was passed in 1982.
“We knew it was coming, it was sort of anti-climactic at that stage. All the work had been done. We had been acting like we were legal anyway that is people within the organisations. I think for the mass of the people it did say something very important that, no longer was it illegal for men to have sexual relations.” – Doug Sobey
The ruling had a huge impact internationally.
“Every country in Eastern Europe currently trying to decriminalise or change its laws, the Dudgeon case is used. It even got quoted in U.S Supreme Court when the Texas Sodomy Law was overturned.” – P.A Maglochlainn
“It established for the first time ever in law, a right to a private life for not only gay people but for straight people, all 260,000,0 million inhabitants of the European community.” – Jeff Dudgeon
The interviewees reflect on further campaigns to gain equality.
“I think the big change came in 1997 with the election of a Labour Government, which was prepared to put through laws that would make gays equal to non-gay people. As a result all sorts of legislation were changed in the 1990s and early 21st century.” – Doug Sobey
“We moved from being a group of people who had been decriminalised and tolerated into a group of people who are integral to society and were part of life. We moved from toleration to acceptance to equality and it’s essential to maintain that position.” – P.A Maglochlainn