As Government Prepares to Wipe Historical Convictions for Gay Sex, Some Activists Say They Want It to Go Further

Gay or bisexual men, arrested in the city in decades past for having sex, would often say that they didn’t have anything to say, when asked for a statement by the gardaí.

“I have nothing to say I did do nothing,” reads one man’s statement.

“Nothing to say,” said the man caught with him inside a public toilet at Beresford Place on 25 July 1950.

“I don’t say anything,” says another statement from a man arrested at another public toilet, at Harcourt Terrace, on 5 August 1950.

Their words, often in blue ink, can be found among some of An Garda Síochána’s official papers that, now yellowed and fragile, live inside olive-coloured folders held at the Four Courts in the city centre.

These are Dublin’s Circuit Criminal Court “gross indecency” files, dating from when the law banned homosexual acts.

While the men didn’t say much, these files have pages of garda statements, stories of how they caught them, detailed descriptions of intimate moments – and accounts of how those encounters were interrupted.

Seven decades later, Fine Gael Minister for Justice Helen McEntee TD is looking to wipe the convictions of those charged for consensual same-sex acts, through aproposed scheme to “disregard” them.

Worried not many will apply to have their records cleaned, three gay activists in the city have embarked on a mission to encourage people to sign up – but also say they want the government to go much further than just erasing gay men’s criminal backgrounds.

There should be, they say, a broader redress scheme through which the government can start to make it up to queer people who maybe weren’t arrested and tried, but had their lives stolen by the homophobic laws of the times.

Sex in the City

The guards’ accounts of the arrests in the 1950s files are thorough and graphic. They include how men touched themselves, their body language and attitudes toward one another.

The statements suggest that the guards would wait until the men were well into the act to come out and arrest them.

Most cases involved arrests made inside public toilets at Beresford Place, where the guards used an overhead bridge to peek into the cubicles.

Whenever that’s the case, a small paper album is attached to the files with “evidence” written on it.

All the albums have the same three black and white photographs taken by Detective Sergeant Michael Wall on 7 September 1950. One is an overview of Beresford Place. The other two, taken from the bridge, show a light tube and an overhead view of the toilet cubicles.

An old 1950s photo from court files, showing the overhead view of toilet cubicles at Beresford Place.

The files include records of the judgments handed down to the men prosecuted, some involving six months’ imprisonment with hard labour, and bail orders and receipts.

One case involves the prosecution of a deaf man who needed an interpreter.

Another document records a court’s decision to suspend a man’s sentence of six months imprisonment with hard labour, instead requiring him to put up £10 and promise to “keep the peace and be of good behaviour towards all citizens of Ireland” for two years.

Karl Hayden, one of the activists behind the initiative to publicise the Department of Justice’s “disregard scheme”, says most of the men arrested and convicted in the 1950s for having sex in the city are probably dead now.

Coming Forward

Hayden, alongside Brian Sheehan and Kieran Rose, is working on a website that, once done, should help to spread the word about the disregard scheme and collect personal stories about living in an Ireland that outlawed same-sex sexual affairs and stigmatised queerness.

“We would like to encourage as many people as possible from LGBT land to make a submission,” said Sheehan recently, sitting outside a café near Smithfield.

Sheehan says he worries not many people will apply. It’s vital to get the word out, he says.

He said the trio are trying traditional ways to encourage submissions – making a booklet, for example. “We’ll print some copies that would be sent to LGBT organisations across the country.”

Even if one person applies to have their convictions wiped, Hayden says, it means something. “It’s about correcting a wrong, whether it’s one person or 5,000 people.”

Hayden – who worked for the Labour Party back in 2016 and, alongside Ged Nash TD, pushed forthe 2018 Dáil and Seanad apology to gay people convicted for having consensual sex – says they’re hoping to publicise the scheme to queer people abroad too.

The records may have stopped some from going for citizenship in other countries, Hayden says, people who had gotten out of Ireland years ago precisely to have more freedom.

“Maybe they never applied for citizenship because they were afraid this will come up,” says Hayden.

For Sheehan, Rose and Hayden, campaigning doesn’t end at the disregard scheme. They hope, they say, to set up an advisory group and ask for a broader redress scheme from the government.

That would be for people not prosecuted but impacted and rendered invisible by Ireland’s past anti-queer laws and taboos.

The activists are seeking an official apology from the Garda Commissioner and compensation either in the form of government donations to LGBTQ+ non-profits or a city monument dedicated to queer people, or both.

“We never had an official apology from Commissioner Harris, no, no, no, An Garda Síochána never came forward with an apology,” says Hayden.

A spokesperson for the Gardaí said the state has already apologised, referring to the Dáil and Seanad apology.

Rose says the Court Service of Ireland should apologise too.

Rose, Hayden and Sheehan all say they especially want justice for lesbian mothers who either stayed in heterosexual marriages because they feared losing custody of their kids or got separated and had their sexual identities weaponised against them in family courts.

“They knew that if they revealed that they were lesbians, they would lose custody of their children,” says Hayden.

Rose, who is also a member of the working group set up by McEntee to work on the disregard scheme, says he’s optimistic that the Department of Justice will agree to work with them on a redress plan too.

A spokesperson for the Department of Justice didn’t say if it would consider a separate redress scheme.

But they said any financial compensation plan falls outside the remit and “Terms of Reference” of the current disregard programme and what its working group is considering.

The working group’s final report is due to be sent to the minister by the end of this year, they said. “Subject to the conclusion and outcome of the consultation process.”

In the Present

Hayden says gay men historically searched for a moment of freedom and intimacy in the city’s public toilets. Some still do, he says, for various personal reasons, including housing issues.

“Why did gay men go out to these places to meet up for sex? Because the opportunities to meet elsewhere were limited and still is,” says Hayden.

Gardaí’s approach to policing queer people today still bothers Rose and Hayden, they say, and they want it to change.

Last year, gardaí arrested queer men having sex at Marks and Spencer’s public toilets during sting operations.

The media coverage of the arrests spotlighted one man’s Brazilian nationality. The Sun ran an article including his photo with a headline that called him a “pervert”.

“The damage that has been to him is phenomenal,” says Hayden.

Rose says it’s fair enough to police public sex, but the guards could’ve let the men go with a slap on the wrist and then used their communication platforms to warn people against meeting up there.

It’s unfair, he says, since the arrests involved an undercover garda pretending to be a gay man looking for a hook-up to catch them red-handed.

“It makes me very angry, you know, that’s like this is happening after all these years,” says Rose.

He says he’s baffled when people complain about having trouble getting the guards to attend a robbery or an anti-social issue when the Gardaí focused so much energy and resources on that case.

“They must have put a huge amount of resources into this, and then the resources of DPP [Director of Public Prosecutions] to get them prosecuted and the courts, so it’s a phenomenal misapplication of resources,” says Rose.

A spokesperson for the Gardaí said that it responded to private third-party complaints in that case. It investigated and based on recommendations from the Director of Public Prosecution, decided to take the case to the court, they said.

The case went ahead under section 45 of the Criminal Law (sexual offences), the spokesperson said.

They couldn’t let the men go with a warning, they said, because the adult caution scheme doesn’t apply to sexual offence cases.

They’re currently looking at international best practices on how to respond best to these cases “from a problem solving perspective, and how we can engage with other stakeholders to resolve these issues”, the spokesperson said.

Hayden says it’s hard to police any community without winning its trust first. “No police force can successfully police a community without the consent of that community.”

Author:

Shamim Malekmian: Shamim Malekmian covers the immigration beat for Dublin Inquirer. Reach her at [email protected]

Reader responses

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Eamon Somers
at 24 August at 11:08

Well done (DIQ) for highlighting this issue. In my novel Dolly Considine's Hotel (recently reviewed by this paper https://dublininquirer.com/2022/0… ) one of my characters proposes to the hotel's barwoman (a single mother) after he is charged with gross indecency.

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