A People's History of the European Court of Human Rights

By Michael D. Goldhaber | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 3
Gay in a Time of Troubles

A poet in Belfast in 1975 could be excused if he had nothing left to say about violence. John Hewitt would later be honored with that highest of Irish laurels, an eponymous pub. But on Thursday evening, July 3, he was searching for new material. He dropped in at the Belfast Students' Union on the Queens University campus. It was the first open meeting of the Committee for Homosexual Law Reform in Northern Ireland.

Ulster was the last place in Britain, and one of the few in Europe, where gay sex remained illegal. Not just illegal, but punishable by life in prison. “Whosoever shall be convicted of the abominable crime of buggery,” said the 1861 law on the books, “shall be liable to be kept in penal servitude for life.” Hewitt found inspiration in the blithe students and the workers “with rough-rasped workshop voices” who refused to live under this threat. “They were,” he wrote, “lads linking with us against our laggard law which leaves them unpermitted, out of step.”

The meeting's minutes show that the lads drew up a wide agenda for action: posters, pickets, letters to the editor. And, almost as an afterthought, “Explore the possibility of approaching the European Court of Human Rights at Strasbourg.” This was the first written mention of a lawsuit that would help establish the court in the public imagination, and, ultimately, legalize gay sex in much of the world.

The poet took notice of a “fat lad whose jokes gave light and air.” That would be Richard Kennedy. Richard was a twenty-three-year-old working-class rebel from South Belfast, the product of a mixed marriage. “My ma's Catholic, my da's Protestant, and I'm socialist,” he liked to say.

Across the table sat the group's chairman, Jeff Dudgeon, age twentynine, whose name would forever be linked with the group's landmark lawsuit. Jeff's friends called him Bunny, because of his buck teeth; he impressed the poet as serious and friendly. Jeff was the ideas man.

-33-

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