Irish Scholar Sounds Off

Photo by Carina Mask.

The morning after being honored as a global LGBT leader, Senator David Norris of Ireland was back creating controversy.

Boasting of breaking Ireland’s Victorian era laws on sexuality and calling former United Kingdom Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher a “bitch,” Norris held court for nearly two hours Sunday afternoon in Wilton Manors in front of a crowd of about two dozen. 

Norris, described as the father of the Irish LGBT rights movement, received the Harvey Milk Foundation’s Lilla Watson Global Leadership Award Saturday night at the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino in Hollywood. The next morning, Norris, 73, sat on a panel discussion at Pride Center offering reflection on a lifetime of work.

“When I first started off there was no such thing as gay rights,” Norris said. “We didn’t even know the word ‘gay.’”

Norris said gays were described as homosexuals, akin to a “rare butterfly,” he added. During his career, Norris fought to repeal laws criminalizing same-sex conduct. The Irish Gay Rights Movement, Norris said, started with 10 “fairies” and one question mark at Trinity College in Dublin. The group would recruit new members through “record hops” once a month.

“We had the best disco in Ireland,” Norris recalled. “It was fantastic.”

SFGN publisher Norm Kent moderated Sunday afternoon’s panel which included Stuart Milk, co-founder of the Harvey Milk Foundation and Robert Boo, Pride Center Chief Executive Officer.  Norris, Kent said, gives new meaning to the phrase, “he who can laugh at himself will never cease to be amused.”

Milk updated the audience about on-going battles in Europe with regard to anti-gay propaganda laws. Hungary, Milk said, continues to be a major human rights violator with Russia’s influence creeping into Lithuania. Moscow, Milk said, has launched an investigation into alleged tortures and killings of gay men in Chechnya.  

“At the end of the day there’s this out in the EU (European Union) called cultural authenticity,” Milk said. “Most people don’t know that the propaganda law that everyone is so upset about with Russia – that you can’t have LGBT propaganda and can’t have young people see images – that has been in the law in Lithuania for over a decade. And Lithuania is a member of the European Union. They do it through cultural authenticity. This is their out clause.”

Ireland, Milk said, is shining star in Europe in that the country has not seen a rise of a far-right nationalistic movement. Other countries such as Denmark, Milk said, have not been so lucky.

Protections and anti-discrimination ordinances for LGBT people are designated by the Council of Europe through the European Court of Human Rights, Norris said. Ireland has community centers for LGBT to organize in Dublin and Belfast to the north, but a space in Cork seems to have “fizzled out.”

“Community centers were damaged by the development of a commercial gay scene,” Norris said.

In the old days, Norris said, gays organized around bars, clubs and discotheques. In addition to lecturing at Trinity College Dublin, Norris worked five nights a week at the discotheque, doing work “the government should’ve done.”

Norris described his political activity as independent. He identified this way in order to “critique government legislation in a way that members of a political party cannot and will not do.”

During the most recent session of Ireland’s Seanad, Norris opposed a bill criminalizing the purchase of sex. Norris said he fails to see the logic in a transaction where a woman can sell herself, but a man cannot buy. Norris said he has never used a prostitute, but has spoken to them and understands their feelings.

The World Health Organization, Norris said, backed his opposition to the bill.

“It’s a piece of utter middle class hypocrisy,” Norris said. “The people who are promoting it are disgruntled radical lesbians and ex-nuns. Enacting a law like that will not end prostitution. If you could be convinced that it would end prostitution then there might be some argument for it, but it’s only going to drive it underground where it’s more of a health risk.”

Milk said the issue of prostitution is controversial in America, but not so much in Europe.

“We have a very puritan country in America,” Milk said.

During the discussion, Milk revealed Milan Rozsa, a Hungarian LGBT activist killed in November 2014, had been a sex worker. Rozsa, reportedly, stepped in front of train in Budapest. 

Previously, he had led marches on the Russian embassy and traveled with Milk to the White House where he met former U.S. President Barack Obama.

Every year the Milk Foundation presents an award honoring Rozsa’s memory at Diversity Honors. This year’s award went to Isaiah Henderson, a survivor of last summer’s Pulse Nightclub Massacre. 

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