ShoutOut to my teenage self is a series of letters from inspiring figures in the LGBT community and allies to themselves as teenagers. Our third contributor is Prof. Ivana Bacik.
Senator Ivana Bacik is one of Ireland's most prominent LGBT allies. She is a barrister and Reid Professor of Criminal Law and Criminology at Trinity College Dublin. First elected as a Senator for Dublin University in 2007, she was re-elected in 2011 and 2016, and currently leads the Labour group in Seanad Eireann.
As a teenage girl in secondary school in the 1980s you would be amazed at how much positive change has come about in Ireland over the decades since. One of the biggest changes has been greater equality for women and for LGBT people. In the 1980s, secondary school students would not have been very aware about LGBT issues, and indeed the term ‘LGBT’ was not generally used. Homosexuality was still a criminal offence (it was only decriminalised in 1993 in Ireland). Only when I started at university, in Trinity College Dublin in 1985, did I begin to learn about Gay rights. We had a very active Gay Soc on campus, as well as a Women’s Group, and we used to run joint campaigns on sexual liberation and on lots of other issues – student fees were rising annually, unemployment was very high (18%), and most of us expected to have to emigrate when we left college, so a lot of our campaigns were on economic issues. But Trinity staff and students also led the way on social campaigns around decriminalisation of homosexuality, women’s rights and contraception. David Norris was lecturing in the English Department, Mary Robinson in the Law School; we knew our lecturers were on our side in these progressive social campaigns. We even had an (illegal) condom machine in the Students’ Union shop; although it kept getting vandalised by those who disagreed with it!
In general, the atmosphere in Trinity was very socially and sexually liberated – much more so than in any secondary school, or even any other college, in the deeply conservative Ireland of the time. But we were still greatly affected by the social and religious conservatism around us. As President of Trinity Students’ Union in 1989, I and my fellow officers were taken to court and threatened with prison because of our advocacy on reproductive rights. I am very proud that we students took a stand in support of our beliefs despite the threat of legal sanctions.
Of course, Ireland has changed so much since then, with decriminalisation of homosexuality after David Norris’ brave court case in the 1980s, the legalisation of contraception and divorce in the 1990s, the wonderful marriage equality referendum success in 2015 and greater economic prosperity, that’s it now hard to understand the incredible difference that the liberated Trinity College atmosphere made to all of us lucky enough to be in college then.
As a young woman and a feminist, my natural inclination was to support my friends and comrades in Gay Soc with their campaigns and actions. Since that time, I have always endeavoured to be a strong LBGT ally. In fact, after leaving college and qualifying as a barrister, I represented Katherine Zappone and Ann Louise Gilligan in their courageous High Court case seeking the right to marry – a case which paved the way for the referendum some years later. These campaigns take time, but we have now won many of them and I hope we will win more.
So my message to you is, keep up the fight, keep campaigning– don’t give up – things will get better! Finally, as an LGBT ally you must always speak up and advocate for those who are discriminated against, bullied or given a hard time because of their sexuality. An injury to one is an injury to all. We are all together in the fight for an Equal Ireland.