The climate of hatred and shame which these people were made to live in, with raids on gay discos and on the homes of suspected offenders, and treatment with brutality and force by the state, is something that no reasonable person can defend. To target someone in this way, regardless of whether one believes that their acts are moral or not, is a stain on the pages of the history books of these islands.
Last week, the government of the Australian Capital Territory erased all historical convictions for those offences associated with gay sex. It follows the Australian states of Victoria and New South Wales, and the United Kingdom, in allowing individuals convicted of charges such as these to appeal to have these convictions removed from the record. In the case of the Australian Capital Territory, homosexuality was illegal until 1976, and the implications of a conviction on access to justice and employment remained in place until the convictions were erased.
In this sense, it is clear why there would be tangible benefits to erasing the convictions for those still living, but it is important not to consider it in these merely mercenary terms. The pardon should be an admission that what was done to people with these policies was absolutely incorrect, and a disgraceful way to treat citizens. It is unclear why these policies, intended to atone for past wrongs, would exclude those whose lives ended with these convictions still attached to their names.
The British government’s pardoning of World War Two codebreaker Alan Turing in 2013, for a conviction of gross indecency, was a peculiar way to thank him, and a perverse way to apologise. Chemical castration, amid climate of fear and intimidation which led to his tragic suicide by cyanide poisoning, are not something that can be considered an isolated incident, unique to Turing. The achievements of Turing, now depicted in the film “The Imitation Game”, are such that it is fully understandable that a modern, more enlightened British public, would want to celebrate them.
To single Turing out for a posthumous reprieve suggests that the state only values those historical gay figures who are exceptional.
However, to single Turing out for a posthumous reprieve suggests, as discussed by Ally Fogg of the Guardian at the time of the pardon, that the state only values those historical gay figures who are exceptional, be they war heroes, or other “national treasures”. The pardon had followed a formal apology by Gordon Brown for Turing’s treatment a few years earlier, and indicates the positive power of historical revisionism for the pursuit of truth. As Fogg argues, all people convicted for having the audacity to express love deserve a pardon. In acknowledging that what was done to Turing was wrong, the British government neglects those other people.
Stain on our history
All gay people in both Ireland and Britain deserve not merely a pardon but a formal apology. The climate of hatred and shame which these people were made to live in, with raids on gay discos and on the homes of suspected offenders, and treatment with brutality and force by the state, is something that no reasonable person can defend. To target someone in this way, regardless of whether one believes that their acts are moral or not, is a stain on the pages of the history books of these islands. In recent years, the role of the government in legislating for morality has been questioned repeatedly, with the suffering encouraged by this legislation clearly evident.
Successive parliaments and governments of this country have permitted people to live in this climate, and the full weight of this suffering can’t be truly measured. In the year of the referendum on marriage equality, Taoiseach Enda Kenny assures us that he will be an active participant in the campaign, and the introduction of a gender recognition bill shows a more mature approach to LGBT issues by this government.
It is important to remember that the taoiseach has been a TD for nearly four decades. His election in 1975 came a full generation before the decriminalisation of homosexuality in Ireland. Though Kenny is not uniquely guilty for this, it is important to consider the importance of his active and sincere participation in this campaign, and to hold him to his word. The announcement by Minister for Health Leo Varadkar on the weekend that he is a gay man, merely serve to indicate that this Oireachtas is different from the others, with Varadkar the fourth TD to come out since 2011.
Though some may question what practical benefits such an apology, separate from a pardon, would have, it is an incredibly important step for Ireland to take in this year in particular. If Ireland is truly to introduce full equality, then an acknowledgment of past wrongs is completely necessary. In recent years, formal apologies have been issued to those women who were made to endure the slave labour of the Magdalene Laundries, and those World War Two veterans who had deserted the Irish army to enlist across the Irish Sea, for the treatment they faced on their return. My view as a gay person is that, for young and old LGBT people, the vision of the head of Irish government reading out a formal apology in the Dáil, accompanied by a vote of the Dáil in affirming the sentiment, would carry significant weight which would certainly be worth the fuss.
The recent flurry of violence against gay people in Dublin’s streets is a significant cause for concern, and a formal statement by the government that these laws were unjust would give clarity to the government’s message. Mine is the first generation of gay people in Ireland to be born after the decriminalisation of homosexuality. It is important, when campaigning for equality in all areas of the law, to remember the struggles faced by others, and such an event would be a symbolic step toward equality in Ireland.
Illustration: Mubashir Sultan