Building the Future:The Second International Gay Youth Congress, 1985

By Daniel Gallen

The National Gay Federation had been at the forefront of the struggle for Irish gay liberation in the 1970s and ‘80s, but gay and lesbian youths’ voices were largely absent from the activism of this era. Some within the NGF were concerned with the welfare of these young people, many of whom may be among the most vulnerable. Out of this, the NGF’s youth organisation was officially established in late 1979. The group became involved with other international organisations, one of which was the newly established International Gay Youth Congress, whose first meeting had been held in Amsterdam in 1984. The NGF quickly volunteered to host the second Congress which would be held the following year, and whose theme would be Building a Future: A Task for Gay Youth Groups.

But building the Congress was a task for the NGF, and one which met its fair share of obstacles. The European Youth Foundation had provided them with a grant of FF66,000, but domestic sources of funding were not so forthcoming. The organising committee for the Congress noted that they would not be in receipt of funding from any Irish youth organisations or the government. Despite this, the Congress elected to cover the costs of boarding, travel and food as well as providing a subsidy for delegates. Irish or Northern Irish attendees would get IR£20; those from the UK, IR£40; and everyone else, IR£70. This would mainly be covered by the EYF grant, and also registration fees (IR£15 for delegates and IR£25 for observers). Securing accommodation was also a concern. Homosexuality between men was still a criminal offence in Ireland and gay and lesbian identities were heavily stigmatised. Many hotels and hostels would not commit to accommodating up to a hundred gay youths from all over the world, and the one venue the NGF did find – the Glencree Reconciliation Centre in Co. Wicklow – did not follow through with the booking. The interim report of the Congress mentions this, and states:

[The Centre] was actually booked (provisionally) and the Organising Committee was assured that everything would be o.k. When it transpired, some time later, that over 50 young gay people were coming to Ireland the booking was dropped. In fact the Congress Committee was told that it has [sic.] never made a booking in the first place!”

While certainly an inconvenience, the NGF would overcome this by turning to the very community it had spent the last half-decade constructing in Dublin and called for their help. Registration forms were circulated asking those who could to provide accommodation for up to 50 international gay youths. This initiative seems to have been a success as the delegates, in their own Congress registration forms, were informed that “accommodation will be provided in the private houses of gay people, as near as possible to the conference venue.” With preparation complete, the event was ready to go ahead, and it opened in the NGF’s own headquarters and community centre, the Hirschfield Centre, on July 7th,1985.

The Congress attracted delegates from all over the world. Gay and lesbian youths from Ireland, the UK, the Netherlands, Scandinavia and even the US and Canada came to Dublin for the event. The activities in which the delegates participated can broadly be divided into two categories: workshops and social events. There were eight workshops over the course of the week, each of which lasted for roughly two hours. Despite being a youth event, these workshops did not shy away from dealing with difficult and often controversial topics, dealing with issues such as age of consent; the impact of AIDS on young people, and specifically lesbians; and interaction between gay and straight people. These discussions provide a fascinating look into the concerns of this community at the time. Regarding age of consent legislation, the delegates ultimately thought that abolishing a definitive age limit to sexual activity in favour of stronger child protection laws – a position that remains controversial to this day – while the discussions on the relationship between gays and non-gays tried to ascertain what role (if any) heterosexual allies had in gay youth groups. Other workshops looked at the purpose and limitations of gay youth organisations themselves, deciding that one of the key roles of such organisations was providing a place of refuge for marginalised gay youth. The social events ranged from tours of Dublin and the surrounding area, to nights out in traditional Irish pubs and even a screening of The Rocky Horror Picture Show.

The Congress seems to have been a success despite the aforementioned hurdles it encountered. Despite its legal status, the Irish contingent of the preparatory committee assured their peers that they expected no difficulties with local authorities during the event. The committee criticised the lack of an official government representative, with the Congress’ interim report revealing that the Lord Mayor of Dublin and George Birmingham TD, then-Minister of State for Youth Affairs, were invited to attend the opening, but both declined. Birmingham specifically cited the “restrictions on homosexual conduct” as one of the reasons for not attending. The media reaction was also recounted by the report and while they lament that what did come was “slow and cautious”, it seems to have been mostly positive with some of the delegates even being interviewed for RTÉ Radio 1.

The Second International Gay Youth Congress was a landmark event for the NGF in 1985. For a country so widely envisioned as Catholic and conservative, where homosexual activity between men was still a criminal offence, to host a major international gay event – and one that specifically targeted youth, at that – was an impressive feat. Indeed, as McDonagh and Kerrigan point out, the ability for the NGF to host the Congress demonstrates “the resilience of the gay youth movement in Ireland”. Despite the numerous logistical hurdles in their way, the NGF and the Congress managed to hold a successful event that centred young gay and lesbian voices and promoted their agency in a society still intolerant of their existence.

Primary Sources
Irish Queer Archive (IQA), National Library of Ireland (NLI), MS 45,957/2, 2nd International Gay Youth Congress attendee registration form.
NLI, IQA, MS 45,957/2, Minutes from the IGYC “Age of Consent” workshop.
NLI, IQA, MS 45,957/2, Minutes from the IGYC “Interaction between gays and straights” workshop.
NLI, IQA, MS 45,957/2, Minutes from the IGYC “Purpose of a gay youth group” workshop.
NLI, IQA, MS 45,957/2, Minutes of the first preparatory meeting of the Congress, 01 June 1985.
NLI, IQA, MS 45,957/2, National Gay Federation host registration form.
NLI, IQA, MS 45,957/2, National Gay Federation press release on the 2nd International Gay Youth Congress, 23 June 1985.
NLI, IQA, MS 45,957/2, Second International Gay Youth Conference 1985 invitation from Gary Ashton, 29 May 1985.
NLI, IQA, MS 45,957/2, Second International Gay Youth Congress interim report for presentation to Copenhagen evaluation meeting.

Secondary Sources
McDonagh, Patrick & Kerrigan, Páraic, ‘“Cherishing All the Children of the Nation Equally”: Gay Youth Organisation and Activism in Ireland, in Marshall, Daniel (ed.) Queer Youth Histories (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2021).
McDonagh, Patrick, Gay and Lesbian Activism in the Republic of Ireland, 1973-93 (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2021).