The Struggle for LGBT Workers’ Rights Ireland

Orla Egan

Laurie Steele Cork 1981

Up until the 1990s the rights of LGBT workers were not protected under Irish legislation.  LGBT people frequently experienced prejudice and discrimination in their workplaces.  Protecting the rights of LGBT workers and campaigning for legislative changes became a priority of the Irish LGBT organisations that began to emerge in the 1970s and 1980s.  Cork LGBT activists played a central role in the campaign for LGTB workers’ rights and bringing about changes in the legislation.

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One of the workshops at the National Gay Conference in Cork in 1981 was on Gays and the Trade Union Movement. A number of motions were passed supporting the fight for equal employment rights for lesbians and gay men and calling for Trade Unions to support lesbian and gay rights.  The Cork Gay Collective was to act as an information centre for all individuals working on issues of gay rights at work.

ICTU General Conference Cork City Hall 1981

Following the conference, members of the Cork Gay Collective lobbied and leafleted at the Irish Congress of Trade Union annual conference in Cork City Hall in 1981 urging them to support LGBT workers’ rights.

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In 1982 Kieran Rose of Cork Gay Collective proposed a motion, seconded by Tricia Treacy, in support of gay rights at the Cork Branch of the LGPSU Trade Union (Local Government and Public Service Union).  The motion was passed at the Cork Branch meeting and subsequently at the LGPSU Annual Delegates Meeting.  The motion stated that the Union would call on the Irish Congress of Trade Unions to support repeal of the laws criminalising homosexuality and the amendment of employment legislation to prevent discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.  In 1982 the Irish Congress of Trade Unions (ICTU) passed a motion in support of gay rights.

Support from trade union allies was important in progressing these motions.  One such example is Cork trade union activist and President of the Cork Branch of LGPSU, Tom Bogue, who was a strong supporter of LGBT workers rights.

The Cork Bus Drivers Trade Union also provided support for LGBT colleagues and activists.  Cork trade unionist and left-wing activist Michael O Sullivan recalls the support he and his colleagues provided during Cork Pride marches in the early 1980s – in full uniform the bus drivers positioned themselves along the route of the march and shouted out support to the LGBT people marching.

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In 1984 Kieran Rose produced a leaflet, Claiming an Identity, Gays at Work, on behalf of the Cork Branch of LGPSU.  The leaflet noted that while the unions had passed motions in support of gay rights, that there had been little practical progress in the implementation of these policies and that the situation of lesbian and gay men in Ireland remained appalling.  The leaflet outlined the discrimination experienced by lesbians and gay men and called on the unions to renew their support for lesbian and gay workers.

In 1985 gay activists met with Sylvia Meehan, the Head of the Irish Employment Equality Agency.  Sylvia Meehan became a strong supporter of LGBT rights in the workplace.  Commenting on the importance of this support Kieran Rose said that “supporting our demands, readily and unequivocally, was such a  breakthrough for our campaign, and was such a brave decision by her.”   In 1986 the Employment Equality Agency called for the inclusion of sexual orientation in Irish equality legislation.

Cork LGBT activists kept the pressure on trade unions to act to support LGBT workers rights and campaign for legislative change.  In 1986 Donal Sheehan, Cork Gay Collective and Quay Co-op member, published an article on Discrimination Against Sexual Orientation in the Distributive Worker Newsletter (Official Organ of the Irish Distributive and Administrative Trade Union). The article addresses discrimination faced by LGBT people in the workplace and the role that trade unions can play in protecting LGBT workers’ rights.

Irish Trade Unions did respond to this lobbying to support the rights of LGBT workers and campaign for legislative changes.  For example in 1986 the General Secretary of IDATU (Irish Distributive and Administrative Trade Union) wrote to the Minister of Labour requesting a change in the Employment Equality Act to include discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.  The Minister responded to say that he asked the Labour Department to consider incorporating such a provision.

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In 1987 ICTU published a very strong policy entitled “Lesbian and Gay Rights in the Workplace: Guidelines for Negotiators.”  This document outlines the issues faced by lesbian and gay workers and the actions that unions can and should take to counteract discrimination against lesbian and gay workers.

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In June 1988, the Irish Council for Civil Liberties (ICCL) established a Working Party to explore the civil liberties policy in relation to lesbian and gay rights. In 1990 the ICCL produced its report on Equality for Lesbians and Gay Men.  The report explored the prejudice experienced by lesbians and gay men in Irish society and legislation, and made the case for equality and law reform. It also provided a model for an Equality (Anti-Discrimination) Bill.

In 1988 GLEN (Gay and Lesbian Equality Network) was established, with Kieran Rose as a one of the founding members.  Campaigning and lobbying for legislative change and equality for LGBT people was a central part of GLEN’s remit.

In 1990 the Irish Labour Party proposed an equality bill which included protection on the grounds of sexual orientation but it was defeated in the Dáil (Irish Parliament).

In 1993 Cork based lesbian Donna McAnallen was dismissed from her job as a lifeguard and fitness instructor in the Brookfield Leisure Centre in Cork, following allegations that she had been seen kissing her girlfriend in the changing rooms.  In June 1993 Donna took a case to the Labour Court alleging that her dismissal constituted a contravention of the 1977 Employment Equality Act.  The Labour Court judgement, delivered in 1994, found that she had been treated in an unfair and arbitrary manner but that this unfair treatment was not covered under the existing 1977 Employment Equality Act.  This case strengthened the campaign to amend this legislation to include protection on the grounds of sexual orientation.

In 1993, following decades of campaigning, homosexuality was decriminalised in Ireland with the passing of the Criminal Law (Sexual Offences) Bill.

Also in 1993, following campaigning by GLEN and LGBT activists, the Unfair Dismissal Act was amended to include protection on the grounds of sexual orientation.

In 1995 the Combat Poverty Agency published a report on Poverty, Lesbians and Gay Men: the Economic and Social Effects of Discrimination.  The report was based on research carried out by Nexus research group and GLEN (Gay and Lesbian Equality Network) and highlighted the impact of ongoing discrimination.

In 1998 sexual orientation was included as one of the protected grounds under the 1998 Employment Equality Act.  Protection on the grounds of gender was also included.  This change would not have happened without the years of active campaigning by LGBT activists for legislative protection for LGBT workers.  The new legislation was an important step forward but it was not perfect.  It included a clause which allowed for religious run institutions (e.g. schools and hospitals) to discriminate on the basis of religious ethos.  (This clause was subsequently removed following campaigning by LGBT groups and allies).

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In 1999 the Irish Equality Authority established an Advisory Committee on Lesbian, Gay and Bisexual Issues (the focus was on the sexual orientation ground in the legislation; transgender rights were seen to be included under the gender ground).  The Irish Equality Authority published its report Implementing Equality for Lesbians, Gays and Bisexuals in 2002. This report provided an agenda for action in addressing gay, lesbian and bisexual disadvantage in such areas as education, training, employment, services, health, support networks and community development. The report acknowledged the hostility, prejudice and systemic exclusions that are all too often the experience of lesbian, gay and bisexual people and made recommendations for change.

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TENI (Transgender Equality Network of Ireland) was initially set up in Cork in 2004 and then re-established in Dublin in 2006. TENI supports the trans community in Ireland and is dedicated to ending transphobia, including stigma, discrimination and inequality and continues in the struggle for social, political and legal recognition of trans people in Ireland.  This includes supports for the employment rights of trans people.

TENI provided support to Louise Hannon when she took a case against her former employer, First Direct Logistics, to the Equality Tribunal in 2011.  Louise Hannon claimed that the company had discriminated against her under the gender and disability grounds in the legislation.  She had transitioned while employed in the company.  Her employers accepted that she dress as a woman while in the office but insisted that she assume a male identity while meeting clients. The tribunal found that requesting Hannon to switch between male and female roles when she had chosen to be a female, was discriminatory.

In current employment equality legislation in Ireland discrimination against lesbians, gay men and bisexual people is prohibited under the sexual orientation ground and discrimination against transgender people is prohibited under the gender ground.

DRI Community Archive Scheme

The Cork LGBT Archive has won the inaugural DRI Community Archive Scheme! The Award gives the Cork LGBT Archive free associated membership of the DRI for a year.

The Digital Repository of Ireland (DRI) is the national digital repository for Ireland’s humanities, social sciences, and cultural heritage data.  The DRI launched the Community Archives Membership Scheme to support community organisations to be able to become members of the DRI. “As a largely public-funded repository we believe it is important to make long-term preservation of digital materials open to a wide range of organisations, including those operating on a non-funded, voluntary basis. To the end, we launched a Community Archives Membership Scheme.”

As the winner of the first DRI Community Archive Scheme, Cork LGBT Archive will be granted a year’s free associate membership for the year 2019. The DRI will provide training and support to enable the inclusion of items and collections from the Cork LGBT Archive in the Digital Repository of Ireland. This will ensure greater visibility for Cork LGBT history and the long-term digital preservation of this history.

Clare Lanigan, Education and Outreach Manager at DRI, commented:

“We received several excellent applications, and it was difficult to select one winner. Our judging panel considered the Cork LGBT Archive to be a collection of considerable social relevance, not only for LGBT community activism but also for other social change movements and Irish history in general. The panel also agreed that the archive gives a glimpse into the range of dynamic activism throughout Ireland. We appreciate the work that has already gone into Cork LGBT archive, and note that it is ready for ingestion, with regard to well-prepared metadata and licences.”

Orla Egan of Cork LGBT Archives said: 

“The Cork LGBT Archive is delighted to have been selected as the winner of the first DRI Community Archives Scheme!  This is an important acknowledgment of the importance of preserving Irish LGBT history and heritage and of including lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender history in the Digital Repository of Ireland.   It is important that the DRI’s collections reflect the diversity of Irish society and that the DRI helps to preserve and display previously hidden histories and heritage. 

Inclusion in the Digital Repository of Ireland is very important for small unfunded community archives, like the Cork LGBT Archive, who do not have the resources to develop our own complex digital preservation processes.  The DRI has the resources and expertise to develop comprehensive preservation policies and practices. For community archives, like the Cork LGBT Archive, this provides the best option for ensuring the long-term digital preservation of our collections.

We are looking forward to working with the team in the DRI and to seeing Cork’s history of LGBT community activism included in the Digital Repository of Ireland.”

See Gay Community News article here

Queer Republic of Cork

Queer Republic of Cork, Cork’s Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Communities 1970s-1990s was published in December 2016 by Onstream Publishers, with the support of the Cork City Council’s Heritage Publication Grant.  The book, written by Orla Egan, is available to buy online.

Orla Egan and her son Jacob. Photo Dominic Walsh

Queer Republic of Cork charts the development of the Cork LGBT Community from the 1970s to 1990s.  Cork has a long history of LGBT activism and community formation, but this has been a hidden and unacknowledged history.  Queer Republic of Cork aims to redress this invisibility and to begin to tell the story of the development of this vibrant and active community.

In 2015 the Irish people voted in favour of Marriage Equality for same-sex couples and the Irish Government enacted the Gender Recognition Act, two important steps towards equality for LGBT people in Ireland.   Queer Republic of Cork also aims to expand our understanding of how these changes came about; the developments in 2015 built on decades of activism by LGBT people all over Ireland, decades of fighting prejudice and discrimination and demanding respect and equality for LGBT people.

Queer Republic of Cork links to the work of the Cork LGBT Archive, which aims to preserve, digitise, share and display information in relation to the history of the LGBT communities in Cork, Ireland.

In August 2016 a Queer Republic of Cork Exhibition was held as part of Heritage Week.  This exhibition features posters, photographs, leaflets and other items from the Cork LGBT Archive and took people on a journey through the development of the Cork LGBT community from the 1970s-1990s.

In 2016 the Cork LGBT Archive received funding from the Heritage Council to enable the proper storage of the collection and from the Cork City Council Heritage Publication Grant.  These two grants were significant, not just financially, but also symbolically, as they indicated an acceptance and acknowledgment of Irish LGBT History as an important part of Irish Heritage.

Roz Crowley, Publisher and Orla Egan, Author, at launch of Queer Republic of Cork book. Photo Dominic Walsh

The book was launched in the Quay Co-op on 15 December 2016.  Speaking at the launch Niamh Twomey, Heritage Officer with Cork City Council, commented:  “I think that this book Queer Republic of Cork is an excellent example of a book that fulfils all of the Cork City Council Publication Heritage Grant Scheme. It is of great cultural heritage significance and covers an area of Irish society which has been hidden and unacknowledged for a long time. The time period it covers 1970 to 1990s were important time for LGBT activism and community formation and this book enables all of us in our society to access and engage with this previously hidden aspect of cultural heritage.” 

Jacob Egan-Morley, son of Author Orla Egan, at book launch. Photo Dominic Walsh

The Cork Evening Echo ran a two page article by Ellie O Byrne, on the book on 27 December.

Evening Echo 27 Dec 2016

Evening Echo 27 Dec 2016