I grew up in a rural town in Ireland at a time when consensual sex between adult men was a criminal offence. As a teenager I heard Senator David Norris on RTÉ radio, talking about winning his case at the European Court of Human Rights, which had ruled that Ireland’s legislation was contrary to the Convention. This was the first time I connected to the idea of the country I lived in being part of Europe in a way that could have an impact on my life. I wasn’t old enough to vote in the 1973 referendum to join what would become the European Union, and 15 years later, when Norris won his case, Ireland still felt like an outlying island at the edge of Europe. We were more psychologically and culturally connected to America, our nearest neighbour on the west coast, than to any real sense of being European.
It took half a decade for Ireland to implement the ECHR’s judgement, a sign of resistance to the imprint of EU laws on the Catholic values of the country at the time, and during those years I wondered about whether our membership of the Union really meant anything at all. If the European court made a judgement which could seriously impact my life for the better and Ireland didn’t implement it, what was the point in being part of the EU at all?
Ireland has changed vastly since then. I grew up to become an activist and editor of Ireland’s LGBTQ+ publication, GCN, which played an essential role in the decade leading up to the referendum on same-sex marriage in 2015. Yet during that time my understanding of the EU’s impact on LGBTQ+ rights and lives was limited. The developments I witnessed seemed to be happening more in the context of our detachment from the dominance of the Church on Irish society than within the greater ecosystem of European politics.
Yet some of the biggest wins for the LGBTQ+ community in Ireland were rooted in EU legislation, particularly Dr Lydia Foy’s 20-year battle to have her birth certificate reflect her gender identity, which she eventually won when it was found that Ireland was again contravening the European Convention on Human Rights in denying her this right.
Four years ago, I moved to Brussels to become Director of Communications for Europe’s largest LGBTQ+ umbrella organisation, ILGA-Europe, which advocates on behalf of its members towards the EU institutions. Since then we have witnessed the rise of LGBTQ+ scapegoating as a wedge issue in the election of leaders in member states, and as a result a frightening rise of increasingly violent hate crime against LGBTQ+ people across Europe. We’ve also seen backtracking on legislation put in place to protect LGBTQ+ people in countries that signed up to the laws and values of the EU when they became members, with all the benefits that came with that membership. We’ve seen fierce resistance to the implementation of European Court rulings to protect the children of LGBTQ+ parents and ensure the free movement of same-sex spouses in the EU.
Ireland, which prides itself on its inclusive legislation and referenda wins for social justice, is not immune to the times we live in. We are watching the rise of the right there too, as evidenced by anti-immigration protests, a growth in the instrumentalisation of anti-trans rhetoric, and attacks against LGBTQ+ people across the country.
Never have I understood more the importance of the role of EU leaders in shaping, and retaining a Europe that respects the human rights of all its citizens. LGBTQ+ rights cannot be understood in isolation. When the human rights of one group are attacked and eroded, it’s a slippery slope for everyone.
I’ve also come to understand that for the Union to retain power and cohesion, its leaders must stand up, both vocally and actively, for the ‘EU values’ they espouse, and they must take their lead from civil society. There must be real, measurable consequences for member states that go against or refuse to implement EU legislation, and there must be a cohesive effort between every member state that holds democracy dear to uphold and legislate for the human rights of all. In the current climate, not every official wants to put their head above the parapet, but if our leaders don’t have the courage of their convictions, a European Union with human rights at its core is under threat.
In 1988, when David Norris won his case at the ECHR, in a tiny town on Europe’s most western seaboard, a life was changed for the better. Within five years I would no longer be a criminal in my own country because of who I loved. This is the power of the European Union as I have come to understand it so many years later. The power to change its citizens lives for the better. At a time when the safety, freedom, and equality of LGBTQ+ Europeans are being put under threat by anti-democratic forces, this is the power the European Union not only needs to retain, but to exercise.