Gay activist, historian and politician Belfast
Dudgeon v the United Kingdom
‘As long as I can help, I will continue telling my story in this city because there is always going to be stuff to fight against.” Jeffrey Dudgeon
Jeffrey “Jeff” Dudgeon is a Northern Irish politician, historian and gay political activist. He grew up in a middle class area of east Belfast. After finishing his degree at Trinity College Dublin, and spending a year in London, he returned to Belfast.
Life for a gay man in 1970s Belfast was a life of isolation. Partial decriminalisation of homosexual acts in England and Wales had not happened in Northern Ireland. The Gay Liberation Society (GLS) at Queen’s University Students Union brought gay men together. Dudgeon was one of a number of angry, young, out and proud activists. The group set up the Northern Ireland Gay Rights Association (NIGRA). They also started a helpline ‘Cara Friend’ that met an urgent need.
The group wanted to change the law criminalising sexual acts between men in private. Men faced life imprisonment in Belfast for something that was legal in Birmingham. Legal attempts in Northern Ireland and London failed. In 1975 they went to the European Commission for Human Rights. Dudgeon was a shipping clerk at the time. He took the case because he had the political background, contacts and skills. His complaint used Article 8 of the European Convention of Human Rights – the right to respect private and family life. Legal advice suggested they would win. However, the case would take six years.
The organising of NIGRA came to the attention of the police. In 1976 twenty six men including Dudgeon were arrested. There had been round ups before. Dudgeon’s diaries and letters were seized. Along with the other men he was questioned about his sexual activities for many hours. The investigation into their activities went on for over a year. The attorney general in London stopped the process. That was unusual.
After the arrests some members moved to England. For those who stayed, the arrests made them more determined to change the law.. Fundraising events were held throughout the UK and Ireland. Help also came from some lawyers and journalists and the poet John Hewitt, but no politicians helped. No political party in Northern Ireland supported them.
As leader of NIGRA, Dudgeon had a high profile. He experienced much anger from those opposed to law reform. Ian Paisley’s ‘Save Ulster From Sodomy’ campaign was launched as a direct response to NIGRA. Dudgeon has described the opposition he and others faced as ‘incredible, colossal, total’.
The complaint about the law in Northern Ireland was finally heard at the ECHR in April 1981. The court ruled the law contravened the European Convention on Human Rights. This forced the British Government to decriminalise homosexual acts in Northern Ireland. Legislation in 1982 brought the law on male homosexuality in Northern Ireland into line with that in Scotland (since 1980) and in England and Wales (since 1967).
Since then Dudgeon has continued the fight for LGBT+ rights. He was an Ulster Unionist Party councillor for Belfast City Council from 2014 to 2019. Peter Tatchell has said, ‘Jeff has a long and distinguished record of gay rights activism. He’s a true pioneer who deserves great respect’.