Being Lesbian, Gardaí, Bisexual, Trans in Ireland

Dylan O'Neill

What started on the streets in Greenwich Village, New York 1969 as a protest against police treatment of LGBTQ+ people, specifically trans people and people of colour, began the annual tradition of Pride parades through the major cities in the United States. 

Ireland has a particularly interesting history in terms of LGBTQ+ culture. Homosexuality was decriminalised in 1993, and within 25 years, marriage equality was legalised by public referendum, making Ireland the first country to legalise it by popular vote.

In 2019, uniformed officers from An Garda Síochána marched in the annual Pride parade alongside the organisations that protested them in previous years. Their presence garnered much controversy, leading to an “Alternative Pride” protest taking place on the Rosie Hackett bridge in Dublin City. 

Despite historical events that have directly impacted Ireland, little is taught in primary or secondary schools about the history or the culture of the LGBTQ+ community. For Heather Reynolds, UCD’s current Visual Design Artist with the LGBTQ society, all her learning was self-taught. 

 “My first introduction to LGBTQ+ history is actually through my straight friend. She did the Stonewall riots for her Leaving Certificate History project and that got me interested in the history of it,” said Reynolds.

“I’ve looked a lot into it through the Irish Queer Archives, listening to queer historians give talks and then also, in the sense of the Americas, going and finding American history books on it. One that I’ve read a couple of times is Odd Girls and Twilight Lovers, which looks at lesbian history in 20th century America,” she added.

 Nathan Young, an openly-gay journalist living in Dublin, believes “people talk about Stonewall as sort of the birth of the modern gay rights movement as if it was a beginning, although for it to have happened, it necessitated the existence of gay bars that had drag queens performing already for their rights, before the police tried to shut it down. Clearly it wasn’t the beginning.”

Reynolds found that for Irish history, aside from decriminalisation itself, events such as the Fairview Park murders, The AIDS epidemic and the 2004 KAL Supreme Court Case, where Katherine Zappone and her wife Ann Louise Gilligan fought to have their Canadian marriage recognised by the Irish State, were all important events that contributed to the Irish LGBTQ+ identity and informed her views on the relationship between the Gardaí and the LGBTQ+ community. 

“Since decriminalisation, [the Gardai] have been a neutral force at face value, they are no longer raiding gay bars… but prior to that they were a very openly abrasive force towards the LGBTQ+ community – particularly gay men and trans women – as the police forces in most countries were at that stage,” said Reynolds.

 “The law exists to enforce what the powers want society to look like, what they want us to feel is good…The State saying something is illegal is a very good way to get who wouldn’t have otherwise formed an opinion on something, to form a negative opinion,” said Reynolds. 

However Young believes that the Gardaí have contributed negatively to public perception and failed to address issues within the LGBTQ+ community in a respectful and effective manner.

“I can think of very few efforts that the Gardaí have taken to be more inclusive of LGBTQ+ people, outside of some very PR centred “let’s have inclusive language” or “let’s have classes understanding gay culture”.

TheJournal.ie reported that even after the marriage equality was passed, assaults on LGBTQ+ people were on the rise, with most going unreported.

Reynolds believes that even though decriminalisation helped change the social perception of LGBTQ+, this statistic doesn’t surprise her.

 “If you look at cases of people being assaulted in the middle of the road for being perceived to be gay, people being beaten up behind gay bars, the cases never seem to have an end point, these people are never caught, or they are let go because the evidence is circumstantial,” said Reynolds. 

This leads to the question of whether or not uniformed Gardaí should march alongside LGBTQ+ activists at Pride. Reiterating her earlier point, Reynolds also holds the view that their participation at the last Pride march was just a “good PR move on their front…I’m not comfortable with uniformed police officers marching in any Pride, even just in solidarity with LGBTQ+ people in countries where it is still illegal, where the police are still an oppressive force for them.”

At some level, An Garda Síochána are aware of these concerns. The Garda press office was contacted for an interview and provided questions beforehand as to the type of training that is currently made available and whether it is mandatory for all employees, but referred back to their Diversity and Integration Strategy 2019 -2021.

The policy outlines its vision to “provide a responsive, equal and accessible policing service to all, particularly those who are marginalised in society, minority groups and persons from diverse backgrounds.”

It also includes a working definition of hate crime, that the Gardaí hope to use to monitor, respond to, and prevent the occurrence.

One outcome, concerning the training is to “develop a Garda training programme for Gardaí and Garda staff to build their competency and capacity to interact more effectively with…people from diverse and minority backgrounds,” suggesting that people may see more tangible changes with how interactions when reporting crimes are carried out. 

 It’s clear that while some progress has been made to bring these two communities together, from the perspective of some people within the LGBTQ+ community more work needs to be done to feel like the Gardaí are there to protect them.

 The history of these two groups is one marred with tension and distrust, that has remained to this day.

 While older generations of white, cisgender gay men may see the inclusion of the Gardaí as a step in the right direction to quell the conflict, younger LGBTQ+ activists remain steadfast in their convictions that there are still changes that need to be made. With this strategy published by An Garda Síochána are, at least, saying they will make changes to make LGBTQ+ feel included and protected in Irish society. 

According to Young, change needs to begin at a higher level than the Gardaí, “There is very little that the Gardaí can do, other than to selectively decide, for community policing reasons, it’s just easier to not try to enforce the anti-prostitution of the anti-drug use laws and to focus on other more violent crimes,” said Young.

For Reynolds, more time and money needs to be invested in sensitivity training because, “if you are not coming from that community, you have no idea how to treat those people or how that relationship should work between you…and them as a person who has been affected negatively by that power, or whose community has been historically negatively affected by that power.”

Dylan O’Neill 

Image Credit: Giuseppe Milo