Northern Ireland's gay community and the 15 year fight for extension of 1967 Sexual Offences Act

Jeffrey Dudgeon and Richard Kennedy reminisce about their time campaigning for gay rights. Picture by Matt Bohill
Jeffrey Dudgeon and Richard Kennedy reminisce about their time campaigning for gay rights. Picture by Matt Bohill

Fifty years ago the landmark Sexual Offences Act transformed the lives of gay men in England and Wales, but in NI it is only 35 years since legislation brought the same rights to the north in 1982. Bimpe Archer meets some of those who lived under the threat of incarceration.

THE same year the Sexual Offences Act was passed in England and Wales decriminalising private homosexual acts between two men over 21 years old, the RUC in Bangor, Co Down raided a party and arrested between 12 and 15 men. Cases were prepared against them and they were all convicted and incarcerated.

As an act of `mercy', two of those arrested, who were in their late teens, were sent to a mental institution instead of prison.

The RUC and legal establishment was sending a clear message - the sexual revolution would not cross the Irish Sea.

Northern Ireland was a cold house for gay people at the tail end of the swinging sixties. Young men tentatively coming to terms with their sexuality knew it would not be something they could explore openly - if at all.

Brian Gilmore was a 17-year-old schoolboy in Armagh when the 1967 act was passed.

"I didn't read newspapers but children of my age were becoming very excited about all this stuff on the news about `homosexuals'," he recalled.

"I tended to repress my sexuality. When I was 18 I worked as a porter in a hotel and during the day I went to the Carnegie library and would read books, including one by Freud where I thought I was the homosexual man in his writings.

"I'm sure I was depressed. I knew from I was six or seven that I was attracted to males. I just knew that.

"I came from a very Catholic background."

When he went on to Queen's University of Belfast, he shared a house with two other gay men who he was "uncomfortable" around.

"I was frightened of `queers' - they were people who could abuse you. I was thinking this although I was gay."

He was invited to a party where another (straight) student asked him "if I was homosexual".

Brian cautiously told him he was `bisexual' and agreed to be put in contact with his friend who took him to the first meeting of the university's Gay Liberation Society (GLS).

Mike Workman was just 11 years old in 1967 and not taking notice of the momentous social changes of that year.

However, two years later, a fateful meeting with a young woman called Irene Andrews would be the beginning of a journey of self-discovery.

Irene would be brutally murdered by the UFF alongside SDLP politician Paddy Wilson in 1973.

"I was a very keen astronomer and Irene Andrews was running a stall for the Northern Ireland Amateur Astronomy Society at Robb's Department Store in Belfast.

"When the Trouble started she used to take me to meetings in Belfast. I knew I was gay, I used the word homosexual (a very clinical term) then and I remember saying to her that I felt this way. She was really good and listened to me.

"I wanted to find out more about being gay. She was a librarian and she got a book for me. The only book in Central Library in Belfast at that time on the subject was DJ West's `Homosexuality - It's Nature and Causes' which regurgitated 1950s theories. It was very depressing to read.

"I thought `I'm going to have to live my life without sex, there's something wrong with me'. She was very good and said it's not true, things move on, you need to find other people like yourself."

Years passed and he began working as a journalist in Ballymena when one day he spotted a notice in a newspaper for Cara-Friend saying 'Homosexuals, do you have questions?' and giving a telephone number.

Cara-Friend had been established in 1974. By then Brian Gilmore was taking an active role in the GLS and, with strong support from the student union, had helped set up the counselling, befriending and information group.

The group brought a "huge, all-encompassing sense of freedom and liberation and connection" for Richard Kennedy.

"We didn't really get the `Summer of Love' here," he said dryly.

He had been 14 in 1967 and had "noticed (the Act)... because I was becoming politically aware and aware of what my sexuality was".

There were a wave of minority rights movements active in the north, but they had not, Richard said, joined together.

"The Civil Rights movement was not particularly inclusive to gay people at that time," he said.

His feeling of loneliness had been alleviated in 1971/72 when a supply teacher at Annadale Grammar School in south Belfast mentioned during a lesson that a gay disco ran regularly at the Royal Avenue Bar in Rosemary Street.

"I remember walking round the block three or four times, plucking up the courage to go in."

He remembers it as a time when, while there were physical encounters, the taboo around LBGT matters meant there was no room for deeper relationships.

Richard ended up in a house share with Jeff Dudgeon, a leading figure in the GLS.

He was 21 in 1967 and had followed the debate leading up to the act's passing "very closely", even going so far as to send for and pore over the Hansard reports from parliament.

"I knew it wasn't going to apply in Northern Ireland. I didn't expect to see myself living here for much longer."

Many of his comrades from that time fled the twin oppression of homophobia and Troubles violence, but in fact Jeff would stay, allowing his name to go forward on a legal challenge to the law at The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) and later joining the establishment by becoming an UUP councillor and accepting an MBE.

"I was still in (the closet), I wasn't out, but I was determined. I wasn't of that generation that had given up or lost hope. We new we have a future, but we had to carve it out for ourselves.

"I was in and proud."

The `pogrom' of 1976 - which saw 23 gay men questioned under the same 1885 legislation that was used in the prosecution of Oscar Wilde - convinced some to quit Northern Ireland.

It ostensibly started with a complaint to the RUC by a mother who had read her son's love letters. However, the increasingly active GLS had been on the force's radar for some time.

Starting in January 1976, over the course of that year most of the GLS membership were taken to the notorious Castlereagh Detention Centre for interrogation, where they were urged to give up more names in a cycle reminiscent of the McCarthy Communist witch-hunts of the 1950s.

Jeff was among the first to be taken in for questioning. "Incoming letters from my partner at the time" were seized and he was questioned about the contents.

Housemate Richard had been out of Northern Ireland, "travelling around raising money" to fund the ECHR case.

He was arrested as he stepped off the boat on his return.

Both men gave confident account of themselves in interviews, Richard flustering his interrogators with eye-watering details of the acts they were questioning him about and Jeff "making statements that didn't incriminate myself".

However, for Mike Workman, by now working in the Irish News, it was a shattering experience.

"I wasn't out, except to a few friends, and I was having a very nice time. I had met a few men in Belfast and one day I got a call from (an) RUC sergeant - a couple of other friends had been arrested already that week. He wanted to come and question me.

"My lawyer at the time was Basil Glass, who was deputy leader of the Alliance Party. He said: `Don't go, tell them to b****r off, make them wait'", he said.

"(The policeman) was saying, if you don't come and see us at 3pm at Castlereagh we'll come and take you away. I caved in and went and was interrogated about my sex life in Castlereagh RUC station.

"You can't understand what it was like. I was absolutely, totally terrified. I was terrified of losing my job. The Irish News was very conservative at time.

"I was terrified people might misunderstand what was going on and I would end up dead."

Meanwhile, Brian, who was now working for Goodyear Tyres, had endured pointed questions about his church attendance and employment in a `good cop, bad cop' scenario.

"They were building up the pressure. You have to be nervous. The pressure continued, but you weren't gong to answer questions which were incriminating.

"Eventually the inspector investigating said `You are aware that police in Castlereagh are entitled to take the lives of Roman Catholics?'

"He said it was a seamless procedure and how it was done, all that was required was for someone like him to pick up the telephone and set up someone."

In the end, four people were recommended for prosecution, although with the ECHR case looming the British direct rule government ensured it was quietly dropped.

The arrests both strengthened the resolve of the north's gay community at the time and thinned out the numbers as members moved to the more liberal jurisdiction of England.

Mike, who moved on to work at Downtown Radio and BBC Northern Ireland, redoubled his efforts at law reform.

Disgusted at being told by the officers questioning him that they had been taken off a bigger case (which was later suggested to be Kincora), he tried to bring a resolution at the Alliance Party Council calling for the 1967 Act to be extended to the north.

"I thought I can either give in and let them terrify me or I can do something.

"Oliver Napier (leader) said `this destroyed the Ulster Liberal Party, it will destroy the Alliance Party. The only person who supported me was a young QC called Donnell Deeny (now a high court judge)."

He left the party and eventually Northern Ireland.

Richard also went to London where he worked as a chef for decades, only returning a few years ago with his partner Louise.

It meant that he was there to see the Order in Council passed at the Houses of Parliament in October 1982 - and to be arrested by the sergeant-at-arms for his noisy cheering and "thrown into the dungeons", missing the subsequent celebrations taking place at his own London pad.

Despite the trauma, however, all agree in many ways it was the time of their lives.

"It wasn't awful," Richard said.

"It was far from awful. It was empowering, exciting, we had such camaraderie and enjoyment with each other. It was brilliant and beautiful, all of it."

"Being gay made Belfast bearable," said Mike Workman.