Lads We Love: Senator David Norris
If you’re Irish and/or gay and you don’t know who David Norris is, well then that must be one secluded rock you’re living under. And, in light of his being honoured in San Francisco last week – including comparisons with Harvey Milk – everyone should know him! He’s gone international!
Born in Léopoldville in the Belgian Congo (now Kinshasa in the Democratic Republic of Congo), David Norris was the first openly gay person elected to public office in Ireland, and is a Senator, Joycean scholar, former university lecturer in English, civil and human rights campaigner, fluent orator, bon viveur, and an all-round wonderful man. He is a writer, historian, traveller and raconteur and “his greatest fears are bores and boredom”.
He may be most noted for his legal challenge, through the Irish and European courts, seeking to impugn Victorian legislation criminalising male homosexual acts. In Norris v. Ireland, David Norris (whose legal team included one Mary Robinson) endured what I can only imagine was a bizarre and disturbing scrutinising of his very being, by several conservative, religious – and quite possibly homophobic – barristers and judges from the late 1970s until the early 1980s. (Norris’s case was initiated in 1977, and the Supreme Court’s ruling against him, by a margin of three-to-two, was handed down in 1983.)
At the time of the Supreme Court ruling, the now Senator was a lecturer in Trinity College, Dublin, in his thirties, and was also involved in the National Gay Federation and the Campaign for Homosexual Law Reform – having previously been the chairman of the Irish Gay Rights Movement. (Background.)
The leading judgement was by the Chief Justice of the time, the Honourable Mr. Justice Thomas Francis O’Higgins, and included this nugget:
In the course of the trial of this action in the High Court, reference was made to the Wolfenden Report, to the Kinsey Survey on homosexual behaviour conducted in the United States and to a similar survey conducted in Sweden. No such survey has been conducted in Ireland, but the trial judge on the evidence he heard, was prepared to conclude that there is probably a large number of people in this country with homosexual tendencies. Of these, however, only a small number are exclusively homosexual in the sense that their orientation is congenital and irreversible. It is this small group (of those with homosexual tendencies) who must look to the others for the kind of relationship, stable or promiscuous, which they seek and desire. It follows that the efforts and activities of the congenital must tend towards involving the homosexually orientated in more and more deviant sexual acts to such an extent that such involvement may become habitual. [...] These are some of the consequences which, experience has indicated, tend to follow on a lifestyle which is exclusively homosexual.
Oh, and that’s just a sampler, folks: if you thought Brenda Power can get you riled, just read that judgement by some of Ireland’s finest legal minds at the time..! Even the well-intentioned Justice Henchy – who, although in the minority with judge McCarthy, was of the opinion that the appeal by Norris should be allowed – had some fairly questionable things to say about the gays.
Thankfully, David and the rest of us eventually (in 1988) had the benefit of the enlightenment of Strasbourg, when the European Court of Human Rights issued its ruling which led to the decriminalisation in Ireland of homosexual acts between men (in 1993).
In addition to making legal history, and helping to change the lives of thousands of Irish people for the better, his activism, scholarship and interests range from political developments in Israel and in Iran, to the preservation of Georgian Dublin, to the running of Guantánamo Bay, to his knowledge of things Biblical, to attending rock concerts. (At least, I presume that last one is true: I saw him on Saturday toddling across Gardiner Street in the direction of the U2 concert at Croke Park. And very dapper he looked, too!)
Senator Norris, we salute you!
Senator Norris hosts “Sunday with Norris” every Sunday morning on Newstalk 106-108FM
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