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Norris, David (b. 1944)  
 
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The building that housed the Hirschfeld Centre was seriously damaged in a fire of suspicious origin (for which no one was ever charged) in 1987. After extensive fundraising and restoration efforts, it eventually reopened and now again serves as a glbtq community center.

Norris v. State

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A priority for Norris was ending legal discrimination against gay men, and so, with several friends, he established a foundation to overturn Ireland's laws on homosexuality. Taking the lead, Norris resolved to bring a case against the state. He called upon barrister Mary Robinson, his former Trinity classmate, to represent him.

Reluctant at first in the face of such a daunting challenge, Robinson was won over by a letter in which Norris vividly described the pain and isolation that he had felt as a young gay man growing up in the repressive social climate of Ireland. Moved to tears, Robinson agreed to take on the case. The legal battle would stretch on for years and propel both Norris and Robinson onto the national and world stage.

Under statutes dating from 1861 and 1885 homosexuality per se was not illegal, but sexual activity between men was. In Norris v. State, Norris and Robinson argued that the laws violated the privacy rights of gay men.

The suit, filed in 1978, was not heard in court until 1980. Witnesses from several countries--the president of the American Psychiatric Association among them--testified on Norris's behalf. The state called no witnesses, and although the judge, Justice McWilliam, conceded that the negative stereotypes of gay people lacked any basis in fact and that a "surprisingly" large number of Irish citizens were gay and therefore suffering from them, he ruled against Norris on the grounds that the constitution held that marriage and the family were the foundation of Irish society and that the prevailing Christian morality opposed same-sex sexual relations.

Over two years passed before the appeal was heard, and another six months before the Supreme Court ruled 3 to 2 to reject it. Chief Justice O'Higgins stated that Christian teaching condemned homosexuality and that the Constitution should uphold that belief. Dissenting Justices Henchy and McCarthy found the argument of the individual's right to privacy persuasive and also pointed out that the European Court of Human Rights had already ruled against the 1861 and 1885 laws in a case from Northern Ireland.

Appeal to Council of Europe

The case then moved to the Council of Europe. The European Commission on Human Rights ruled the case admissible in 1985 and heard it the following year. In May 1987 the Commission returned a preliminary judgment that Irish law was in breach of the European Human Rights Convention for failing to safeguard individual privacy.

The state of Ireland chose to reject this finding, propelling the case into the European Court of Human Rights, where the matter was heard in April 1988. The following October the court ruled in Norris's favor, finding that Irish law violated Article 8 of the Convention of Human Rights and calling upon Ireland to undertake legal reform in this area.

Senator

As his case had meandered at a frustratingly slow pace through the various courts Norris not only continued his teaching at Trinity and his activism on behalf of glbtq rights and architectural preservation, but also entered the realm of electoral politics. After several unsuccessful campaigns he won election to the Irish Senate in 1987, becoming the first openly gay member of that body.

As a senator, Norris has tackled a number of issues including social welfare programs, protection of Ireland's minorities, urban transportation, and historic preservation, as well as abuses of human rights around the globe, particularly in Timor and Tibet. In 1990 he commented, "I believe I have an obligation to speak of behalf of other people who cannot. It would be utterly wrong and very boring if I only spoke out on gay issues."

Nevertheless, implementing the reforms demanded by the European Court of Human Rights was a high priority for Norris--and an extremely difficult task, for the legislature was in no hurry to deal with the issue. Only after pressure from the Council of Europe did Ireland announce in May 1992 that legislation to decriminalize sodomy would be put forward.

No such action occurred, however, and so the following November the Council of Europe imposed a six-month deadline for the achievement of the reforms mandated by the court.

Norris remained in the lead of the fight. One of his actions--profoundly moving for its simple humanity--was to arrange a meeting between Minister of Justice Maire Geoghegan-Quinn and another important political figure who had a gay son so that they could talk "as one mother to another."

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